Haruki Murakami has an advice column, and you can find some great English translations here. The website itself is filled with charming pictures of Murakami himself attending to a host of upright animals. So many of the responses are avuncular and yet harsh and misleading. Death is met with nihilism and the desire for deep-fried oysters. Have a broken heart, Murakami wonders “Who cares?”
And then there is this gem:
Murakami-san, hello. Being that I’m a graduate student, I need to write a lot: reports, presentation speeches, emails to professors, etc. I’m not that great in writing, but if I don’t, I won’t be able to graduate. I struggle with it every day. How will this get easier? If you have any composition 101 techniques, can you let me know?
—Sakurai, female, 23 years old, graduate student
Writing is similar to trying to seduce a woman. A lot has to do with practice, but mostly it’s innate. Anyway, good luck.
At first, I can’t help but think that this is the absolute worst advice to give to a writer. Well, actually, first I laughed, but then I thought how that grad student, who probably has as tenuous a hold on her emotions and sense of self as any other grad student, could be devastated by such an answer. “A lot has to do with practice.” Yes, we can grow, our effort can lead to greater craft. Ah, you can feel her nagging imposter syndrome fading. “But it’s mostly innate.” Four words destroy everything. Thanks Murakami-san.
Is writing mostly innate? Does this mean any writing or does it specifically relate to creative writing? What about those novelists who wrote down by hand the craft of others that they admired? What about feedback and reader analysis and practice…? Yes reading and writing is “self-rhythmed,” as Janet Emig put it, but can’t rhythm be developed?
My pedagogy is all about growth and hope for our potential. I want there to be more voices expressing themselves. But I can’t completely deny the innate aspects of writing. I can write daily, but my words will never “fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermillion” in the hearts of others. We can never be Murakami. And he and his cat know it.
But there’s more: “Writing is similar to trying to seduce a woman.” This seems to be the most deflating at first. Linking the words trying and seduce hints not so subtly at a third word: failure. But I wonder if there is something below the humor. When you love someone, you pursue that person. Your joy is in that person, not in whether you’re good at the pursuit. To focus on the pursuit itself is to lose sight of the person. Don’t try to seduce. Seduce! Don’t try to write. Write! Instead of asking how to become a better writer, keep writing. Anything less is to lose sight of the beloved.
And then there’s the final snarky line: “Anyway, good luck.” Here too there may be something more. Though an offhanded sarcasm, this line doesn’t tell Sakurai to give up on grad school. So even if writing is daunting. Even if you dread what your committee thinks of your thesis. Even if you have nights when you wonder how you got in. You’re not alone. Good luck.
Thank you Murakami-san
But the cat’s still judging you. That hasn’t changed.