Saturday, August 13, 2011

Speak, Memory

One of my favorite authors is Vladimir Nabokov. His Lolita remains in my top ten fave books of all time. It's about a truly horrific man, a child molester. But starting with his name, Humbert Humbert, the protagonist/narrator presents himself as a captive of his own abusive proclivities in a most engaging, humorous, and literary stylistic way. It's a testament to Nabokov's skill to pull this off, not exactly creating sympathy for the monster but allowing the reader to enter his headspace at all.

Anyway, I'm currently reading his incomplete final novel, The Original of Laura: Dying is Fun. It's less a novel draft than a look at his writing "process." The process of writing seems to be of perennial interest to aspiring writers. At every writing event I attend someone invariably asks the guest authors about it, as though following the proper process will guarantee literary success. Do you outline? Do you use one of the novel-writing computer applications? Do you have a daily word quota or work for a set number of hours? I love these questions because they are so easy to answer. Also because I, too, am curious about how other authors work. And I've always been curious about Nabokov's method because he was famous for writing his first drafts on 3 x 5 index cards. Moreover, he would shuffle the cards to change the order of the narration. A neat and difficult trick.

And now I can see the cards themselves in holograph. The book (pictured above; click to enlarge) by Knopf reproduces the 132 cards Nabokov was working on when he died. In fact, they are printed on card stock--both sides of the cards--making a very thick book. The preface says the cards are perforated so that you can tear them out and shuffle them yourself, but the edition I checked out from the library have the dashed line guides but no perforation. (Perhaps they printed a special library edition.) Why Nabokov wrote this way makes no sense to me. You can get only a paragraph or two on each card. And there must be other ways to shuffle scenes.

I get a lot of grief from fellow writers when they learn that I write my first few drafts in longhand. I've been told that that's why I write so slowly. Of course that's absurd. I write so slow because I think so slow. Duh. Over the years I've tried to come up with reasonable sounding arguments why writing in longhand is superior to using a word processor. The strongest of which, IMO, is that drafting on a word processor tends to "lock in" the text prematurely. The art of writing is in the rewriting, and the whole point of word processing is to free the author from rewriting. You can massage text with a word processor, auto-correct (purported) typos, and cut and paste whole strings of text, but that isn't rewriting. I don't know any author who keystrokes their entire books from scratch for each draft (as some authors did in the days of typewriters).

My argument may sound unconvincing, but that's OK. Now I can simply point to Nabokov and say that he not only wrote in longhand but he wrote on index cards.

I say "purported" typos above because auto-correct tools are maddeningly conventional, and I know Nabokov would have hated them. (He died in 1977, a year after the first software-based word processor, Electric Pencil, was released.) You can't play with words when your computer keeps changing them back to accepted usage. In the first paragraph of this post, I wrote "fave books," and this word processor changed it to "face books." One processor I used kept changing "windows" to "Windows™." Need I say more? I can just see Nabokov keystroking "Humbert Humbert" and his computer deleting the redundancy. (And, yes, I know you can turn the auto features off.)

I never knew the circumstances of Nabokov's death. In the preface to this book, his son, Dmitri, wrote about it. Nabokov was chasing butterflies, his lifelong passion, on a steep slope in Davos in 1975, when he fell and wasn't able to get up by himself. Dmitri identifies this event as the beginning of a series of illnesses that ended with congestive bronchitis and three final gasps in 1977. While I dare not dispute his son's reckoning, the timeline conflicts with my own memory. In 1974 (not 1975) I read a newspaper article about Nabokov's ill health. In those days I worked as an orderly at Bartlett Memorial Hospital in Juneau, AK. It was the graveyard shift in the intensive care unit, and mortality was on my mind. I was afraid my face author (oops, fave author) would shuffle off before I could express my appreciation. So I dashed off my first fan letter (in longhand) thanking him for so many hours of reading enjoyment.

One last observation about the index cards. I notice that when he crosses out a word or phrase, he obliterates it, making it impossible to know what it had been. I guess when a word is wrong, it deserves capital punishment with no chance of parole.


Hunter said...

I totally get your longhand justification -- my handwriting sucks far too much to get much done that way, but I do often write first drafts on a manual typewriter, and I've heard second-hand advice from one pro writer to print up a hard copy of a word-processed first draft and then delete the file in order to force a full rewrite.

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Igor TR said...

" It's a testament to Nabokov's skill to pull this off, not exactly creating sympathy for the monster but allowing the reader to enter his headspace at all"
Another fine example of it - Lushin's defence by Nabokov