Publish date:

How to Think and Write like Nabokov

Learning how Russian novelist Nabokov thought might improve the way you write. Practice thinking in images to uncover the hidden details in your story.

Vladimir Nabokov spoke three languages: Russian, English, and French.


He thought in none of them.

Or at least that’s what he liked others to believe. In Strong Opinions, a collection of his interviews, articles, and editorials, Nabokov tells readers that he does not think in words, but images – a statement supported by his imaginative fiction. He believed that other people thought the same way.

 —Abigail Walters

“I don’t believe that people think in languages…” he says.

After reading more about Nabokov’s image obsession in Leland de la Durantaye’s article, “How to Think in Images, or Vladimir Nabokov’s Art of the Image,” from John Bertram and Yuri Leving’s new book Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl, I pondered Nabokov’s belief for a while, and asked myself if I agreed.

No, I decided. Because those thoughts I had, well, they were in English.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that Nabokov thought in imagery, but my brain’s go-to is verbal thinking. It takes concentration and forethought for me to conjure images and daydreams like the ones that lived so comfortably in Nabokov’s mind.

I do admire Nabokov’s writing, however, so I decided to practice. In an effort to think like him, I instructed the words between my ears to slide out for a while and photographs and short films to slide in. Then, I started to write.

After a few journal entries, I decided that this concentration and forethought is well worth the effort. When I took the time to picture a scene before I wrote it, normally elusive details came easily. I saw a tattered Time magazine laying haphazardly on a coffee table, so I included it in my story’s setting. I smelled a forgotten, day-old cup of milk, and consequently, so did my characters.

If you’re in a bit of a writing rut or just want to flex your writing muscles, I suggest taking some time to practice thinking like Nabokov (if you don’t already). Forget about plot and character development for a while, and just picture an image, any image. Write like a maniac to capture it. Write about the violet flower petal’s gentle droop or the rickety staircase’s sharp, abrupt turns. Write about the roar of the coffee grinder or the burnt-toast scent that lingers around the toaster. Use your words to recreate whatever you see. Put those details on the paper or screen in front of you, and then, as Nabokov instructs:

“Caress the detail, the divine detail.”

For more on Nabokov’s writing and his most celebrated and controversial novel, Lolita, check out the new book Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.

From Our Readers

Which Writer or Work Made You Think About Point of View in a Different Way and Why?: From Our Readers (Comment for a Chance at Publication)

This post announces our latest From Our Readers question: Which writer or work made you think about point of view in a different way and why? Comment for a chance at publication in a future issue of Writer's Digest.

4 Tips on Research for Writing Novels and Stories Beyond Getting the Facts Right

4 Tips on Research for Writing Novels and Stories Beyond Getting the Facts Right

The kind of research you do can make or break your story's authenticity. Author Blake Sanz offers 4 tips on research for your novels and stories beyond getting the facts right.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Annual Writing Competition Early-Bird Deadline, Seven WDU Courses, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce the Annual Writing Competition early-bird deadline, seven WDU courses starting this week, and more!

3 Big Tips for Writing a Children’s Picture Book Like a Pro

3 Big Tips for Writing a Children’s Picture Book Like a Pro

Small but mighty, picture books help raise children into lifelong readers. Children's book author Diana Murray offers 3 big tips for writing a picture book like a pro.

5 Things I Learned About Writing From Watching Soap Operas

5 Things I Learned About Writing From Watching Soap Operas

Lessons in writing can come from various forms of art or entertainment. Author Alverne Ball shares 5 things he learned about writing from watching soap operas.

From Script

Writing from an Intimate Point of View and Adding Essential Elements to Solidify Your Screenplay (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, TV writer Kate Sargeant shares a first-hand look on her new digital series that was a life-changing experience. Plus an interview with filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve, a new installment from ‘Ask the Coach’ and more!

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Collecting Advice but Never Writing

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Collecting Advice (but Never Writing)

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so this series helps identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's mistake is to collect writing advice at the expense of actually writing.

The Benefits of a Book Coach for Writers

The Benefits of Having a Book Coach for Writers

What is a book coach? How could they help authors? Award-winning author and writing instructor Mark Spencer answers these questions and more in this post about the benefits of having a book coach for writers.

Clare Chambers: On Starting Fresh and Switching Gears

Clare Chambers: On Starting Fresh and Switching Gears

Award-winning author Clare Chambers discusses the fear and excitement of switching genre gears in her new historical fiction novel, Small Pleasures.