Some days I need extra inspiration, and one of my favorites voices to turn to is Vladimir Nabokov. Born into an aristocratic Russian family and fluent in three languages, Nabokov emigrated to the ivory towers of American academia, and retired to the hills of Switzerland. Although I enjoy using him as an example for my writing students who are learning English as a second (or third) language, I cannot overlook the privilege from which he came, and which flavors his attitude and philosophy on writing. But his words resonate.
Here are a few instances when I look to Nabokov for help:
1. When I have a glimpse of an idea: Ever have that tiny shock of excitement over a character or concept or conflict but have trouble working up the courage to start writing?
The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.
I find it comforting that Nabokov had this same feeling of panic mixed with excitement. The words will come. I can calm down and refocus:
To begin with, let us take the following motto…Literature is Love. Now we can continue.
Right. I love writing. I love reading. That is the essence of why I sit and pull out my hair with writing in the first place. But I do need to come up with a structure upon which to hang my ideas. So, what’s next?
The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.
Suddenly, writing seems like a delightful way to try some things I might never try in real life.
2. After I’ve started writing and the words just aren’t flowing: Sometimes, I’m trying too hard and I have to remind myself not to force it:
A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish–but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.
Other times, I’m not trying hard enough and not pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. Nabokov has a glib observation:
Genius is an African who dreams up snow.
Another potential problem in this stage is thinking too much about the whims of an imaginary potential reader. Nabokov can soothe here too, with his reminder:
Readers are not sheep, and not every pen tempts them.
Similarly, not every piece of writerly advice is going to work for everyone, so spending too much time reading about writing is not productive.
3. After finishing a draft: When the first draft is written and parts of it shine with potential and the rest is somewhat less glimmering, salvaging the decent parts often seems impossible. It is helpful to remember that every quality written piece requires extensive revision before going out into the world.
My vocabulary dwells deep in my mind and needs paper to wriggle out into the physical zone. Spontaneous eloquence seems to me a miracle. I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published.
I, too, need to give my craft time and multiple passes. But how to start? In this phase, I like to imagine Nabokov’s voice as Humbert Humbert’s creepy whisper in my ear:
Caress the detail, the divine detail.
If that doesn’t work, I switch back to the more practical:
Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.
With reminders like these, I am inspired to pump up the descriptions in my work.
4. After finishing many drafts: Revision is never-ending, and often the amount of work left to be done looms over me like a rock in a Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon. Nabokov holds steady in his reminder to dig in and to trust my own ear:
Only one letter divides the comic from the cosmic.
When I feel like my skills aren’t up to the task on my desk, I think about this one:
A writer shall have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.
5. I’m finished!: When a piece has been completed, sent out into the world and I am left behind to wait, Nabokov helps me remember that this is a good time to read for inspiration, which means casting aside the junk-food books and digging my teeth into something meatier.
Literature, real literature, must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain–the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken into bits, pulled apart, squashed–then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flavor will be appreciated and its true worth and the broken and crunched parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.
I cannot be a good writer if I am not a good reader.
6. The reviews are in: When the waiting is over and feedback arrives, the cold and harsh reality of the outside world’s opinion hits. If the whole piece bombs:
A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual.
And to keep my head in check when things do go well:
I shall be dumped where the weed decays, and the rest is rust and stardust.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
Quotes are from Vladimir Nabokov’s works: Strong Opinions; Speak, Memory: An autobiography revisited; Lolita; Ada, or Ardor: A family chronicle; Lectures on Russian Literature; Laughter in the Dark; Lectures on Literature; Bend Sinister; Mary