Punch In, Punch Out: the Profession and the Side Hustle

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Originality and Passion





So you want to write? Do you like words?

I finished reading Murakami’s book Novelist as a Vocation which was published in 2015 and translated to the English in 2022. As of the first printing he had 35 years writing books, so 42 years today. And, he is still going strong.

Many authors publish one or two novels; few write full-time. Fewer write for a life-time.



The Side Hustle

An international bestselling author with works translated into 50 languages, Murakami at one time had half the titles on the Russian bestseller list. Russia. Didn’t expect that? He talks about going abroad to write and the importance of translations. His side hustle is translation.

I never write unless I really want to, unless the desire to write is overwhelming. When I feel that desire, I sit down and set to work. When I don’t feel it, I usually turn to translating from English. Since translation is essentially a technical operation, I can pursue it on a daily basis, quite separate from my creative desire; yet at the same time it is a good way to hone my writing skills–were I not a translator, I’m sure I would have found another related pursuit. (On Originality, page 67)


The Profession

Don’t let his passage mislead you. The man is a serious writer, five hours in the chair daily until the first draft is done with a minimum four rewrites. He considers himself “first and foremost a writer of full-length novels” though he has written dozens of story collections, memoirs, essays. For aspiring writers, or writers of any sort, in the chapter Making Time Your Ally, On Writing a Novel, he goes into eye-opening detail on process.

When writing a novel, my rule is to produce roughly ten Japanese manuscript pages (the equivalent of sixteen hundred English words a day) every day. This works out to about two and a half pages on my computer, but I based my calculations on the odd system out of habit. On days where I want to write more, I still stop after ten pages; when I don’t feel like writing, I force myself to somehow fulfill my quota. Why do I do it this way? Because it is especially important to maintain a steady pace when tackling a big project. That can’t work if you write a lot one day and nothing the next. So I punch in, write my ten pages, and then punch out, as if I’m working on a time card. (Making Time Your Ally: On Writing a Novel, p. 95)

There’s so much to unpack in this chapter and this book, that my pages are underlined, highlighted, and tabbed. This kind of mental work to write novels, his routine, requires stamina and he runs an hour daily. Though he considers himself a novelist, I relish his nonfiction titles and you can learn about one of my favorites on running and writing in his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. with its 144,000+ Goodread ratings in his lesser genre.

Murakami writes that he feels the “same pleasure and excitement” he felt when he wrote his first novel and “to tell the truth, [he] never found writing painful,” a comment about the notion of the suffering writer. I particularly relished his 18 page chapter on originality which taps into his expansive knowledge about classical and jazz music. Here’s his conclusion.

Originality is hard to define in words, but it is possible to describe and reproduce the emotional state it evokes. I try to attain that emotional state each time I sit down to write my novels. That’s because it feels so wonderfully invigorating. It’s as if a new and different day is being born from the day that is today. (On Originality, p. 70)

If you want to write, it helps to like words, sentences, books. Murakami lives his passion and gives credence to the aphorsim: if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life. And his side-hustle taps into his love of words.


Question of the Day

As 2023 kicks off and we’ve pushed the reset button on our lives during the pandemic, just what is your passion?

What is wonderfully invigorating? What’s your side hustle, the related pusuit?



*Regular readers know why I write, and my belief that a powerful secret to good writing is discovery. My head was swimming when I finished this book. I do not write book reviews but I do write about books, share passages, my response to the work. I set out to write about originality and let the words as I typed guide me. Maybe in some tiny way, channeling the master storyteller, this letter diverged from my intention in the first paragraph.

The writing sage took me by the hand and told me what was important for me right now, why he writes full time and how he does so. And, his side hustle of translation for him is like my TreeHouseLetter is for me, my side-hustle, feeding a passion I’ve yet to fully tap into.

*My graduate thesis in writing drew on Murakami’s ideas in Absolutely on Music, Conversations With Seiji Ozawa. The master storyteller and the famous maestro discuss music and language, deeply personal explorations of their work.

Before he began writing novels, Murakami ran a jazz cafe. He said he lived his life in the reverse order of the traditional Japanese: he married, he got a job, went to college. Then he started to write. He does not have a writing community, irking much of the Japanese writing establishment and subjecting himself to scorn and criticism among the literati. He went abroad to write, seeking international readers. He did not care for school, was a mediocre student, but read more books than anyone. He has always listened to music, his collection of vinyl likely unparalleled in jazz and classical genres. And, not surprisingly, his books and writing explore music, his syntax and diction musical even in translation. This is likely because he has been particular and thoughtful in working with translators. One last bonus passage, in his own words, in translation.

More than anything else, music helped move this process forward. I wrote as if I were performing a piece of music. Jazz was my main inspiration. As you know, the most important apect of a jazz performance is rhythm. (So What Should I Write About? p. 83)

Jan 9, 2023


About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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