Catching the Light
(Yale University Press, 2022)
Novelist as a Vocation
(Yale University Press, 2022)
In these two very different works on writing by two very different writers, there is much for fans and for writers alike. Neither text is a “how-to” manual but instead a series of short self-reflective pieces (Harjo calls them vignettes, Murakami calls them essays) on the writing life. There are, of course, riffs on other topics and personal anecdotes that make each text appealing to a broad audience. Both also address questions Harjo and Murakami have likely been asked many times: what does it mean to be a writer, how does one become one, and how does the process of writing actually work? Because the two are very different and because Harjo is writing about poetry and Murakami is writing about novels, there are vast divergences in their answers but there are also some surprising commonalities. I’ll start first with Harjo, move on to Murakami, and then come back to these threads of commonality.
Joy Harjo, member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and US Poet Laureate (2019–22), is one of our greatest living poets. Her list of honors includes two NEA and a Guggenheim fellowship, the Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation, and the 2022 Academy of American Poets Leadership Award. She’s published nine books of poetry, several plays, children’s books, and two award-winning memoirs (Crazy Brave and Poet Warrior). Her poetry is included on a plaque on LUCY, a NASA spacecraft launched in 2021. A longtime Native Rights activist and feminist, Harjo has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is also an accomplished musician with several albums including 2021’s I Pray for My Enemies. She loves jazz and plays the saxophone. And if that’s not enough, she’s also edited three essential Norton anthologies: Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native Women's Writings of North America, When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, and Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry. The last is a companion piece to her “Living Nations, Living Words” project that has a presence on the Library of Congress website (you really should check it out).
For Harjo, poetry is both a calling and a necessity for survival. Some fifty years ago, as an undergrad at the University of New Mexico, she was “coming to learn that words were ladders, with each rung leading between the darkest of hours to sunlight, from confusion to accomplishment, or in the opposite direction.” The fifty vignettes presented in Catching the Light represent a “treatise … something of a journey, about the why of writing poetry.” For Harjo writing is “about catching light in the dark. Poetry (and other forms of writing) can be useful as a tool for finding the way into or through the dark.” Poetry also serves as “a device with which to admire the complexity of the stories in which we have become entangled.” When we’re stuck in these entanglements, “sometimes the only way out is by voice, following the music into the impossible." Most of these fifty vignettes get right to the heart of the matter—as is Harjo’s way. We need writing to make sense of the world: “The traditional ways and rituals of all of Earth’s peoples are kept in containers of poetry, song, and story. It is how we know who we are, where we are coming from and who we are becoming.” For Harjo words are not just tools, “language is a living being” and cannot be tamed or repressed, “Every word marks an act of creation, an intent, and often not a studied intent.” Harjo “came to writing poetry” in search of a “language … beyond ordinary” and she found that language in poetry.
In 1963, the Cherokee artist Lloyd Kiva New started the IAIA, bringing together young Native artists to learn and build community. For Harjo, the IAIA became a starting place where she learned with other Native artists that “we realized that we had a hand in revising the story of who we are as Indigenous nations, who we were, and who we were becoming.” While at the IAIA, Harjo studied studio art, drama, and dance but not writing— that came later. Because her mother was a singer, Harjo first experienced poetry as “an oral event”—not just in traditional Native contexts but through the music of Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, and Patsy Cline. Writing, like other forms of art, has at its heart “a need to connect,” and for Harjo, this call for connection and for community is often linked with a call for social justice. As she developed as a poet, Harjo became aware of “language as a tool for justice, survival, beauty, and persistence.” For Native peoples who have experienced the historical trauma of genocide (both physical and cultural), “writing itself is an act of affirmation, even of sovereignty. We confirm that we are human beings, that we are alive and making and breathing culture.” For an Indigenous writer, to write is always a political act: “As scribes of our generation, we are called to remember what matters.”
As Harjo moves across time and place in these vignettes, she also moves between the public and the personal, always in relation to the political and her deep commitment to her people and her art. She writes of searching both “how poetry expressed itself in Mvskoke cultural traditions” and exploring how African poets worked to maintain “orality … despite being translated into the format of written language.” Combining her own journey with words for those who write, Harjo presents some judgements that some may find frustrating (I don’t), including, “You can teach the mechanics, the craft, the genres of poetry by referencing the ancestor texts of poetry or by studying the field according to theory, but you cannot make a poet. Poetry is not a career—it is a state of being. You become poetry or are in a state of becoming with poetry.” Poets, artists, storytellers are prophetic witnesses—they help us understand history, grief, and also love and life, “We are hungry for prophets, even as we are given to despair as we turn to forgetfulness.” Poetry (and writing) also help tell parallel and alternative histories, “To write is to make a mark in the world, to assert I am.” For Harjo, “Being a poet, a musician, or storyteller is not a career. It is a calling.”
Rather than a calling, for Haruki Murakami, being a novelist is a profession. In the foreword to Novelist as Vocation, he writes that he’s been able to, over thirty-five years, “write novels as a profession.” A fact that, “continues to amaze me. It really does. What I’ve wanted to talk about in this book is that very sense of amazement, about the strong desire … to hold onto the purity of that feeling of amazement.” Murakami is both self-deprecating and dismissive of his critics and the literary establishment. Although he cites his own amazement at his career, Murakami is a globally successful novelist who helped bring attention to both magical realism and Japanese literature by becoming successful in markets as disparate as the United States, China, and Russia. And although you wouldn’t know it from these essays, Murakami is also a political voice of reason and social justice. In “When I Became a Novelist,” he writes, “Words have power. Yet that power must be rooted in truth and justice. Words must never stand apart from those principles.”
Originally published in Japan in 2015 and translated into English in 2022, the first six essays in this collection were initially serialized in Monkey Business, the other five written “especially for this book.” And although they were just “something I wrote for my own sake,” Murakami would “be pleased if readers would take these as a comprehensive look (at the present time) of my views on writing novels.” The purpose of the essays is “to write, in the most concrete and practical way, about the path I’ve followed as a novelist, and the ideas and thoughts I’ve had in the process.” Largely, this is what the essays provide: a selective personal history along with details of his writing process. For Murakami, anyone can write a novel “if they put their mind to it” but they have to have “stamina” and “a special something.” Stamina can be derived from being “physically fit” and in order to be a novelist, “You need to become robust and physically strong. And make your body your ally.” Murakami runs an hour every day (see his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running if you’re interested). Of course, he fails to acknowledge the thousands who write and are differently-abled or simply don’t have the privilege to dedicate time to exercise and “focus solely on writing for five to six hours every single day.” As he detailed the rest of his daily activities, “I spend my afternoons napping, enjoying music, reading innocuous books … every day I spend about an hour outdoors exercising,” I kept wondering who does the laundry, the cleaning, and the cooking, and whether or not Murakami thinks those of us who can’t run every day (and some not at all) can be novelists.
Murakami also writes about writing first in English, “with all the limitations that it entailed,” as providing a breakthrough and the underpinning of his distinctive prose style “It also led me to the realization that I could express my thoughts and feelings with a limited set of words and grammatical structures, as long as I combined them effectively and linked them together in a skillful manner.” He rejects the idea of the suffering writer, “What’s the point of writing, anyway, if you’re not enjoying it?” Writing should “emerge in a spontaneous flow … as if the words were coming through my body instead of from my head.” Creativity is not about suffering but instead, “a rich, spontaneous joy lies at the root of all creative expression.” But there’s a lot of work to be done before that flow happens: “read tons of novels … To write a novel, you must first understand at a physical level how one is put together.” In “Making Time Your Ally,” Murakami details his process of editing his drafts. And it’s some great advice: “What’s crucial, in short, is the physical act of rewriting.” Further, “If you fail to let a novel sit for a certain length of time, the parts won’t adhere.”
In “A Completely Personal and Physical Occupation,” he gestures toward the idea of “calling” Harjo writes about, “[novelists] write because they have a personal desire to write. And it’s this strong inner motivation that drives them to write, and to endure all their own struggles as they do.” And while Murakami is writing more about the individual struggle “to stand up to that deep darkness” (that is at the core of the creative process) than Harjo’s call for community, there is a connection with the idea of story as essential for survival, “Stories can exist as metaphors for reality, and people need to internalize new stories (and new systems of metaphor) in order to cope with an unfolding new reality.” And while, he barely touches on collective trauma in this collection, the theme appears in his other writing (among others in Underground and After the Quake).
Harjo and Murakami are, of course, very different writers and come from very different places physically and culturally. They have commonalities in their depth of observation, the call to story as essential for humanity, and also in their deep associations with music. Murakami ran a successful jazz club in Tokyo and often references music in his work and interviews and writes about the connection between his writing and a deeper relationship with music, “From the beginning, therefore, my intention was to write as if I were playing an instrument. I still feel like that today. I sit tapping away at the keyboard searching for the right rhythm, the most suitable chords and tones. This is, and has always been, the most important element in my literature.” Harjo is a jazz musician and writes of an epiphanic experience seeing a film about Charlie Parker, “the music running through me as if each of the vignettes in music were tributaries from the origin story of my heart.” And while Harjo resists Murakami’s argument against suffering for art, stating “our art demands that we are challenged, never comfortable” just as Murakami highlights the need for stamina to stand up to the darkness, Harjo states that “Poetry (and other forms of writing) can be useful as a tool for finding the way into or through the dark.”