Vladimir Nabakov On What Makes A Great Writer

I’ve read the works of great writers like Homer, McCarthy, Hemingway, Marukami, Faulker, O’Connor, Joyce and many others, including Nabakov himself, and have wondered what exactly is it that gives me this feeling or the understanding that these words were written by a great writer.

Was it the voice or narration used by the author, or how a setting was described in such detailed that you might imagine it to be a part of your own memory, or a conversation so truthfully written that you pick up on the subtle information that wasn’t said, or how the main character was unpacked, slowly revealing his flaws and desires as he attempts to overcome himself, or how the moral lessons were beautifully etched throughout the story.

Perhaps its the confrontation of difficult topics like pedophilia as Nabakov did in his famed novel Lolita or that massacre of innocent people in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and yet, the word beautiful can be used to describe both novels. That must be the mark of a great writer.

In order to truly understand what makes a great writer, it is a good idea to ask a great writer. Nabakov, in the book, Lectures on Literature, gives three aspects, which combined, results in a major writer.

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines this three-storyteller, teacher, enchanter-but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.

The storyteller is the entertainer. He tells a story for simple excitement, emotional participation and to travel to a unique region.

A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer.

As the name suggests, a teacher is someone who gives you knowledge through writing. This can be deep moral education or knowledge about simple facts.

The enchanter is a level above both the storyteller and the teacher.

Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.

As I look back and remember the great pieces of fiction and non-fiction I have read, I can see the three elements at work. Even the simplest plotted stories or stories that seem to have no plot are entertaining and I find myself connecting to the story at an emotional level. Each story has a lesson or knowledge that can be derived from it. Above all, the works I find to be great have the features of enchantment which have left me with an itch to study the writing, to see how the particular style was integrated or how an image was constructed or how the story was interwoven.

As Nabakov puts it, it is in the spine that you feel the great writers touch.

The three facets of the great writer-magic, story, lesson-are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic, a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual, we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards an~ watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.

Poem: A Summer’s Day

As kids, you look forward to the summer,

you know it will be filled with play and laughter,

recklessly using time with friends,

dreaming of all the things you will do, while you’re stuck in classrooms,

sugary drinks, first kiss, melting ice creams, first love, cooling by the swimming pools, new sights, new sounds, new feelings, new touches, new tastes, new life,

enter the season with hopes and promises,

of what you will do and who you will be afterward,

but you wake up one day and the summer is gone,

a flash of lightning,

did you see that?

what you had looked forward to is now in the past,

another summer is gone and that’s a summer less,

have to wait a whole year to feel that again,

you’ll be older,

you may be a different person by then,

a multitude of experiences await you between two summers,

the next summer will flash by too because you looked forward to it,

everything you look forward to quickly recedes in the past,

life,

like a summer’s day,

life,

comes and goes quickly,

if you keep looking forward,

what you fondly wait for becomes what you fondly remember,

make use of what you have,

life is the present,

for perhaps your last summer approaches,

perhaps its already come and gone.

Montaigne On How To Judge Someone’s Actions

In his Essays, Montaigne writes on the topic of action and how to judge other people’s actions. For Montaigne, it comes down to two things which are related to one another: What was in that person’s control and what was not.

So, for example, if someone owes you money and they promised to pay you by a certain date and that date comes and goes and yet, you have not received your payment. The natural reaction would be to get angry, to get aggressive in order to get back what is rightly yours because you feel cheated. However, Montaigne would advise you to take a deep breath and step back from the situation and think the following:

We cannot be held to promises beyond our power or our means. That is why – since actions and performances are not wholly in our power and since nothing is really in our power but our will – it is on the will that all the rules and duties of Man are based and established.

What Montaigne advises is to judge whether or not that individual intended to honor the payment by the specified date. If the answer is yes but external situations got in the way of that individual and his intention then what use is it to get angry, to get aggressive, to demand and hurt this individual who is incapable of acting beyond his means.

If you judge the individual to be a cheat and that they had no intention of paying you back then yes, you have the right to all those emotions but at the same time, you must look at yourself. Take ownership of the situation and ask yourself why did you lend the money? What were your intentions? How did you get cheated? Why didn’t you see this lie coming?

Furthermore, sticking with the example of lending money, let’s say that you lent a person money without putting a strict date of when the payment is to be repaid. This individual then benefits from your loan and is capable of paying you the money and yet, keeps it for himself for a long period of time, perhaps even till his deathbed and on that day, he returns the favor and gives you your money.

In this case, the person would consider himself even with you. You gave him money and then he paid it back. Equal transaction.

However, Montaigne would argue that this individual has committed a wrong. The reason being that he had the means of paying you back but did not intend to do so until he could no longer benefit from your loan. The intention being the key when judging another person’s actions. So, although you have been paid what you owe, you still may have a gripe with this person because you could have put that money to good use or at least, alleviate some financial burdens. While, in the other scenario, the person intended to pay you back but had no means to do so, which means harboring a grudge with this individual would be useless.

One of the core philosophy of Stoicism is understanding what you can control and what you cannot. Montaigne was a student of Stoic philosophy and you can see its influence throughout his essays. Particularly, on this topic of correctly judging another person’s actions.

So, before you judge someone’s actions just think of the intentions, their will, what was in their control and what was not. This will make it easier for you to properly react to the situation at hand and to keep your emotions in check.

Easy Way To Corrupt A Man

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis involves two characters. A low-level demon named Wormwood and a higher positioned demon named Screwtape. The book starts with Wormwood, who been given his first assignment to corrupt a man and of course, it being his first time, he seeks the aid of someone who has been doing the job for many years. This is where Wormwood’s uncle, Screwtape comes in. The book is a series of letters that go back and forth in which the uncle guides his nephew on how to bring a man closer to hell or at least take him further away from heaven.

The book starts off with a piece of advice that has stuck with me for a long time. Wormwood mentions to his uncle that he is having trouble trying to logically convince his human to understand that materialism is the best course of action. Here, like any good family member, Screwtape introduces a different perspective that would allow Wormwood to achieve success.

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father below. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can forsee the result? Even if a particular train of though can be twisted so as to end in our favor, you will find that out have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream.

Screwtape further adds an example for his nephew to learn from. He explains how for twenty years he had worked his human into a state that suited him but one day, he found the enemy (the good Angles) had almost undone the twenty years of work by formulating a train of thought that took the man away from Screwtapes desired position.

So, how did he overcome this obstacle?

I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line, for when I said, “In fact much too important to tackle at the end of the morning,” the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added “Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind,” he was already halfway to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won.

After that, it was just a matter of distracting the man with the ordinariness of life. The newsboy shouting, the bus honking, filtering in the thoughts of how being by yourself can result in peculiar ideas and opinions being formed and it’s best to just let them pass. Hence, the hero, the bad Angle, was able to save the man and pull him away from the grips of the good Angles. At least for now.

This short little passage teaches three things:

  1. Be cautious of immediate sense experiences or the ordinariness of life.
    • These urges may be stronger when you have to confront something uncomfortable for the mere fact that it is uncomfortable, there comes a desire to distract yourself from it, to stay comfortable. So, the next time you have to tackle an uncomfortable situation and you feel a sudden desire to eat first, ignore it.
  2. The bad can be undone
    • 20 years of work was almost undone by just one train of thought. This puts forth the notion that change can come forth immediately as long as there is a commitment to change.
  3. Procrastination is the work of the devil
    • This needs no explanation.

Poem: What’s Life

What’s life?

Endlessly rowing,

beneath you is the ocean water,

and above you, the sun,

at first, you struggled to row as the sun rose in front of you,

the blinding light that is yet to reach it’s potential, as the sun rises,

eventually, you learn to row as the sun reaches its zenith,

and just as you become comfortable in your understanding,

the light dims, descending, setting sun,

and yet, you must keep rowing,

in the waning light.

 

Most of the time you row by yourself,

in your little boat,

every now and then a companion comes along,

and you forget your solitude,

sometimes a few come together,

and forget the loneliness,

these people come and go,

leaving you all alone,

with only fading recollections of the good times,

the more you recall the more those times fade away from your thought,

rowing with memory,

all the while the sun keeps on moving,

and you row endlessly in this never-ending ocean with no land in sight.

 

The sun will set one day,

you won’t know if you were any closer to where you were going,

you don’t know if you rowed further away from where you needed to go,

perhaps there is no destination,

but you won’t know that either,

all you know is that you tried,

and kept on trying,

searching, rowing, finding, seeking,

till the darkness fell upon you,

and then there was nothing.

What It Means To Be A Pro

The amateur and professional labels are often used to describe an individual and his/her work. We usually attach the term amateur to someone who may be classified as a hobbyist in their given craft. Such as an individual who plays organized basketball at their local YMCA. While a pro would be someone who plays basketball for a living. And so, perhaps the difference between an amateur and a professional could be explained with a paycheque. Or maybe it is how one dresses compared to the other. Or, how much success one has had in their respective field. Maybe even the kind of people you spend time with can help explain who is an amateur and who is a professional.

However, all of these explanations are based on the external aspect of life, on extrinsic criteria. For Steven Pressfield, the difference between an amateur and a professional is internal. The difference lies in the habits. In his book, Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work, Pressfield stresses the importance of becoming a pro, as he says:

What ails you and me has nothing to do with being sick or being wrong. What ails us is that we are living our lives as amateurs. So, the solution is to turn pro.

Turning pro comes with a sacrifice. In order to become a professional, we must sacrifice comfort, along with the self we identify with because these things are associated with being an amateur.

An amateur clings to comfort, fearing the uncomfortable, the unknown and so, he/she never grows. And in the realm of comfort, the amateur constantly seeks instant gratification, unable to put off pleasure for some future gain. Hence, becoming an obstacle to themselves, stunting their own growth.

Another sign of an amateur is procrastination. Someone who has millions of ideas which they will start tomorrow and as they procrastinate, they daydream, thinking of the past or some hopeful future, waiting, wasting their precision time and not using their present.

The pro, on the other hand, is straightforward in his/her aim and is willing to act towards it.

Pro plans his day to accomplish his aim. Amateur wastes his day in distractions and drama.

However, just because you act like a pro for one day does not mean that you are a pro. This is related to Pressfield’s concept of Resistance. In short, each day is a battle against our inner resistance, which tells you to act and embrace the amateur in you and each day we must recommit to being a pro.

What does it mean to be a pro?

The following are some key qualities as pro possess:

A pro shows up every day.

If committed for the long haul.

Gives his complete focus to his work.

Acts in the face of fear.

Accepts no excuses.

Doesn’t complain about circumstances.

Dedicates himself to mastering technique.

Is courageous in confronting one’s own doubts and demons.

Is not distracted (amateur tweets, pro works)

Holds himself to a higher standard.

Able to defer gratification.

Doesn’t wait for inspiration.

Gets a psychological reward through his work.

The pro works on habits of order, regularity, discipline and constant strive for excellence.

It is through a conscious effort that one becomes a pro. The good news is that anyone can achieve this status because we have control over our attitudes and behaviors through which we can mold our habits. The bad news is that it requires one to be uncomfortable and to sacrifice that easy path that is associated with amateurism.

The choice is clear but it resides in you and whether or not you are willing to go through with it, every day.