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.
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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.

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