Lessons on Writing from Vladimir Nabokov


Art is not simple, or sincere. 

Great art, according to famed writer Vladimir Nabokov, is "fantastically deceitful and complex." And as evidenced by his many works of fiction, poetry, and literary criticism, Nabokov put this belief to work with magical prose, insightful narration, and intricate plots. But why such complexity? Because "a book, no matter what it is - a work of fiction or a work of science - appeals first of all to the mind." 

Source:  Brain Pickings

As for the writer, Nabokov argues that he or she can only be a storyteller, teacher, or enchanter - with a major writer encompassing all three. Of course, of these three options, Nabokov considers the enchanter to be the most important, for while a storyteller merely entertains and a teacher focuses on morality, it is the enchanter who demonstrates great style, imagery, and patterns in their works that not only entrance the mind, but also send tingles down the spine. Undoubtedly, Nabokov saw himself as just such an enchanter, with Lolita being his grand tour de force. Yet, how did Nabokov melt story, lesson, and magic into one spellbinding novel after another? What was his process? The answer is shockingly simple: 

Index cards. In a shoebox. 

There he collected "bits of straw and fluff" which would eventually be numbered and organized to form an entire novel. "Every card is rewritten many times," he said. "About three cards make one typewritten page, and when finally I feel that the conceived picture has been copied by me as faithfully as possible - a few vacant lots always remain, alas - then I dictate the novel to my wife who types it out in triplicate." Keep in mind, this process was never completed in any linear fashion. "I do not begin my novel at the beginning, I do not reach chapter three before I reach chapter four, I do not go dutifully from one page to the next, in consecutive order; no, I pick out a bit here and a bit there, till I have filled all the gaps on paper." 

In 1964, during an interview with Playboy,
he shared a batch of rejected index cards from his novel Pale Fire 

Source:  Open Culture

Source: Open Culture

“Selene, the moon. Selenginsk, an old town in Siberia: moon-rocket town”…“Berry: the black knob on the bill of the mute swan”…“Dropworm: a small caterpillar hanging on a thread”…“In The New Bon Ton Magazine, volume five, 1820, page 312, prostitutes are termed ‘girls of the town’”…“Youth dreams: forgot pants; old man dreams: forgot dentures”…“Student explains that when reading a novel he likes to skip passages ‘so as to get his own idea about the book and not be influenced by the author’”…“Naprapathy: the ugliest word in the language.”

“And after rain, on beaded wires, one bird, two birds, three birds, and none. Muddy tires, sun”…“Time without consciousness—lower animal world; time with consciousness—man; consciousness without time—some still higher state”…“We think not in words but in shadows of words. James Joyce’s mistake in those otherwise marvelous mental soliloquies of his consists in that he gives too much verbal body to words”…“Parody of politeness: That inimitable ‘Please’—‘Please send me your beautiful—’ which firms idiotically address to themselves in printed forms meant for people ordering their product.”

“Naive, nonstop, peep-peep twitter in dismal crates late, late at night, on a desolate frost-bedimmed station platform”…“The tabloid headline ‘Torso Killer May Beat Chair’ might be translated: ‘Celui qui tue un buste peut bien battre une chaise’”…“Newspaper vendor, handing me a magazine with my story: ‘I see you made the slicks.’”

“Snow falling, young father out with tiny child, nose like a pink cherry. Why does a parent immediately say something to his or her child if a stranger smiles at the latter? ‘Sure,’ said the father to the infant’s interrogatory gurgle, which had been going on for some time, and would have been left to go on in the quiet falling snow, had I not smiled in passing”…“Intercolumniation: dark-blue sky between two white columns.”

“‘I,’ says Death, ‘am even in Arcadia’—legend on a shepherd’s tomb”…“Marat collected butterflies”…“From the aesthetic point of view, the tapeworm is certainly an undesirable boarder. The gravid segments frequently crawl out of a person’s anal canal, sometimes in chains, and have been reported a source of social embarrassment.”

From these humble beginnings, Nabokov could construct a masterpiece. 

"The pages are still blank," he said. "But there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." 

Eager to feel the same way about your writing? Maybe give this process a go. One hundred ruled index cards can be purchased for a buck or two at any office supply shop (shoebox not included). You might not create the next Lolita, but you never know what inspiration may follow. As Nabokov said, "Nobody will ever discover how clearly a bird visualizes, or if it visualizes at all, the future nest and the eggs in it." So, feel free to take this advice and make it your own. 

Happy writing, 
Amber + John