Can you name all the trees, flowers and birds around you? According to legend, the great novelist Vladimir Nabokov once met a Cornell University who asked Nabokov for writing advice. The writing student received this curt reply:
Nabokov looks up from his reading he points to a tree outside his office window. ‘What kind of tree is that?’ he asks the student. ‘What?’ ‘What is the name of that tree?’ asks Nabokov. ‘The one outside my window.’ ‘I don’t know,’says the student. ‘You’ll never be a writer.’ says Nabokov.”
Debut novelist Brian Kimberling published Snapper this week, a novel drawn from his own experience as a bird researcher. His book is filled with careful and unexpected descriptions of nature, so we caught up with Kimberling for some nature writing advice…
Q: What do you think about that Nabokov story? Is it good advice for writers?
A: The Nabokov Tree Test — Viewing Cornell through Google Earth and Google Image Search I am unable to identify any of the trees. Although I can make some educated guesses, I can’t get close enough to confirm.
It is entirely possible that by Nabokov’s standards, I will never be a writer. It is also possible that he was a deeply unreasonable man. For a definitive answer on this I’d want to know the distance from his office window to the tree in question, and the time of day and the time of year, and whether there are exotic specimens with identifying metal plaques scattered around campus which the student passed every day and should have noticed, and so on.
I think it’s fair to question Nabokov’s ability to identify other things, like cars, weapons, and fashion accessories. Sometimes even he had to look things up.
Q: Do you have any advice for writers looking to learn more about the trees, birds and nature around them? How did your experience as a bird researcher help your writing?
A: My advice is to take a lot of long walks. You can look up the names of trees and rocks and birds, but you can’t counterfeit the feeling of familiarity — whether you know those names or not. My ideal nature writer is Robert Louis Stevenson, especially in Travels with a Donkey through the Cevennes.
He didn’t flee to the woods in reaction to industrialisation or urban conditions or anything else, like so many other writers, so he didn’t compare disparate things self-righteously. He just got happily lost now and then, and wrote about it.
That’s a much harder trick to master now. People are out there trying to sell you hiking boots that look like SUVs for your feet and titanium walking sticks and binoculars that incorporate space shuttle technology. You may not be fleeing late capitalism but it’s definitely stalking you. To the extent that you can just get out and be childlike and curious like RLS, that, I think, is what you should do. Writing about it comes naturally later.
My experience as a bird researcher involved a lot of waiting for birds to forget I was there. So I did a lot of reading.
That, as always, is the most salient advice for anybody who wants to write anything.
Editor’s Note: You can read the Nabokov story at the Washington Post’s paid archive.