Here's how to get a writer's body in seven days (the familiar story goes). Spend hours hunched over a keyboard in low light, exercising nothing but your eyelids and your finger muscles. Subsist on coffee, cigarettes, and the occasional croissant. Drink no water; whiskey's better. Look up at your heroes on the wall: sickly, malnourished, funny-looking people who died of lupus and liver failure on the hot trail of the truth. If you don't look just like them, you're not working hard enough. Sacrifice your body for your art.
When I spoke to Mohsin Hamid, author of Moth Smoke, about a favorite passage from literature, he chose a line by Haruki Murakami that stands in stark contrast to the narrative of the sedentary, decaying writer. Murakami, who transformed himself from nicotine-stained wastrel to marathoning meganovelist, urges writers to prepare for novels like contestants gearing up for the Hunger Games. By uncovering links between physical rigor and creative health, Hamid stays well in both life and work.
Mohsin Hamid's work has been translated into more than 30 languages. His new novel, released today by Riverhead Books, is How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia—a fictional guide to cashing in on east-Asian development written entirely in the instructive second person. (Chapter titles include "Get an Education [However Inadequate]," "Befriending a Bureaucrat," "Be Prepared to Use Violence," and "Have an Exit Plan.") Hamid's novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, and his stories appear in The New Yorker, Granta, and The Paris Review.
Mohsin Hamid: When I moved back to Lahore a few years ago, I left my writer friends behind. I had cousins in Lahore, a couple dozen of them, and tight childhood buddies, and aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces. But no writers I was really close to, not at first. No one I could meet for a drink to talk shop. For that, I still needed to visit my former hometowns of New York and London, which didn't happen more than a couple times a year.
I was happy to be away from the noise of publishing: the book launches, the award ceremonies, the cycle of who got reviewed how this week. But I missed the camaraderie. Novel writing is solitary work. In Lahore it became a solitary profession too.
So I started reading novelists to hang out with them. Not their novels, which of course I'd always read, but their memoirs, their essays on their writing, their interviews. I dug out old classics like A Moveable Feast. I asked my neighborhood bookshop to order up Marquez on Marquez, Calvino on Calvino, the multiple volumes of the Paris Review Interviews. Ah, the Paris Review Interviews: orgiastic to a writer who's been on his own awhile, let me tell you.
It was in Volume 4 that I came across one with Haruki Murakami, a writer I'd long admired. And halfway into that interview, I found this quote, which I wound up rereading so often that I copied it out and taped it to my printer:
"writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity."
I liked this. Not that I thought it was true. But I liked it. Yes, Tolstoy did his share of war-fighting, and Hemingway was a tough guy. But I'm not sure Nabokov could bench his weight. And I had the sense Virginia Woolf couldn't either (although her biographical details were sketchy in my mind; maybe Bloomsbury was the Octagon of its era).
Nonetheless, like much else that comes from Murakami, that quote only seems easily dismissed while managing somehow to stick with you. There's a fine line between "you've got to be kidding" and genius, and Murakami walks it all the time. Or runs it, as it turns out. Because I next bought his memoir-cum-musings-on-writing, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and learned the man runs like a fiend. He runs miles a day, every day. And then sometimes he swims. He's done ultra-marathons, triathlons. He doesn't just talk the talk. He splashes-runs-pedals the hell out of the walk.
Now, at the time I encountered the Murakami quote, I was stuck. My third novel was going nowhere. Maybe it was being a new father. Maybe it was the spate of terrorist bombings hitting Lahore. Maybe it was the heat—and the cold, because although Lahore is mostly warm, the short winters can get pretty cold and natural gas shortages plus poor insulation mean you're cold indoors, constantly. But probably it was none of those things. My first two novels took seven years each, and I throw out draft after draft. Being stuck comes as naturally to me as running comes to Murakami.
I needed to get unstuck. And, nearing the age of 40, I'd already used up many of the usual tricks writers before me had employed to shake things up when they were in a rut: travel chemically, break your heart, change continents, get married, have a child, quit your job, etc. I was desperate. So I started to walk. Every morning. First thing, as soon as I got up, which as a dad now meant 6 or 7 a.m. I walked for half an hour. Then I walked for an hour. Then I walked for 90 minutes. My wife was amused. Goodbye Hamid, hello Hamster—that sort of thing.
I'd already used up many of the usual tricks writers before me had employed when they were in a rut: travel chemically, change continents, get married, quit your job. I was desperate. So I started to walk.
(As an aside, a cousin of mine in Karachi, an anti-intellectual, hard-partying, gun-carrying, off-weekends-in-his-jeep-hunting kind of guy took up reading around this time. His wife would wake to find him with the nightlight on, engrossed in a novel. "It's weird," she told him, "but I like it." She called it his midlife crisis.)
Murakami's quote is about writing long novels. I write short novels. So it made sense that while he has to run to get fit enough to do what he has to do, I could manage with just walking. And, the significant speed difference notwithstanding, a daily five-mile walk turned out to be exactly what I needed. My head cleared. My energy soared. My neck pains diminished. Sometimes I texted myself ideas, sentences, entire paragraphs as I walked. Other times I just floated along, arms at my sides, stewing and filtering and looking.
Walking unlocked me. It's like LSD. Or a library. It does things to you. I finished my novel in only two more years (for a total of six), walking every day. And I don't plan on stopping. If the choice is between extended periods of abject writing failure and prescription orthotics, I know which side my man Murakami and I are on.
I'm now gearing up to launch into novel four. Murakami's quote is still taped to my printer. It's been joined by a cluster of others: senior writers I haven't met, helping out a frequently struggling younger colleague in Lahore.
They collectively surround, I've just noticed, an old piece of paper. It's a to-do list I've been ignoring, and should really take care of.
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