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According to possibly (but let’s hope not) apocryphal story, the great Vladimir Nabokov—born this week in 1899—once gave the following advice to a writing student:

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.

Is that rule absolutely true? Of course not. The average writer has their head in the clouds most days; and Nabokov, let’s not forget, was preternaturally attuned to detail in ways that most of us would find painful.

But maybe writing should be treated with this level of attention. Every building you pass in a day, every flip of a passer-by’s hair, every faraway sound, should be jotted down in your mental notebook, to be called upon whenever needed. It’s like being a spy, just less dangerous. Usually.