Editor’s Note: If you ever stepped foot into my classroom when I was a high school English teacher then you know I love Edgar Allan Poe. Every October I would have my students dive into his poetry and prose and even complete a creative project inspired by his works. Thanks to that project, my classroom was filled with paintings, collages, board games and more that were all about Poe. So, when Tess Patalano of Reedsy contacted me about writing a guest post for the See Jane Write blog on the writing lessons we can learn from Poe, of course, I said yes. So, today, on October 7, the anniversary of Poe’s mysterious and untimely death, we present “What Edgar Allan Poe Can Teach Us About Writing.”
Guest Post by Tess Patalano of Reedsy,
Edgar Allan Poe was an enigmatic writer and personality: a master of the macabre and a noted originator of both the detective and horror genres with many anthologies even crediting him as the founder of the short story. His work spanned themes of death, love, hope, and despair, to name a few. But what can his writings teach us about the process of writing itself? Hidden within his poems and stories are kernels of wisdom that any writer can benefit from. Here are a few.
Quiet Your Inner Critic
Unfortunately, most writers struggle with self-doubt — it can plague us at almost every step of the writing process. “I stand amid the roar of a surf-tormented shore,” Poe writes in “A Dream Within A Dream.” And it’s safe to say that when writers stare at a blank screen or the beginnings of a not-so-picturesque draft, we can relate. It’s a hurdle that may even stop us from accomplishing our writing goals. But, as Poe also wrote in “Mesmeric Revelation,” “Never to suffer would never to have been blessed.” And he has a point. Our inner critic is there to help us see areas we may need to improve, but it also must remain in check.
Now, how does Poe help us quiet our inner critic? In “The Cask of Amontillado,” a man named Montresor decides to seek revenge against a man named Fortunato, who has insulted him. He meets a drunken Fortunato at a carnival, lures him into his home’s catacombs, and buries Fortunato alive. Basically, the reader doesn’t know exactly what Fortunato did to upset Montresor, but Montresor uses his subjective experience to declare himself judge, jury, and executioner on the matter. He comes across as a rather unreliable narrator.
Our inner critic often turns us into unreliable narrators when it comes to our writing — judging so harshly that it stifles our words — and can even cause us to get buried in a catacomb of incomplete drafts. What if Montresor had countered negative thoughts of Fortunato with evidence of his positive behaviors? Or decided to go for a walk to combat his critical thoughts before they spiraled out of control? He might have taken a more rational and less emotional approach to his dealings with Fortunato, as we should do with our own writing. So, let’s all learn from Montresor’s mistake and be gentle with the writing we might deem as our “Fortunato.”
We can also learn something from the intoxicated Fortunato himself: stay drunk on your writing! Imbibe in it, let it flow, and worry about the editing later.
Fake it ’Til You Make It
In 1884, Poe published a story in the New York newspaper, the Sun, detailing a successful trip a fictional man, Monck Mason, took crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a gas balloon. The story was completely borne of Poe’s imagination, but he coined it as true. It caused quite a stir with the public — the article was pulled two days later, but its impact was lasting. Although it’s not advisable to write something that isn’t factual and to pass it off as such, (in fact, it could even land you a lawsuit!), we can learn a valuable lesson from “The Balloon Hoax.”
Poe shows us that “imposter syndrome” shouldn’t stop us from exploring new topics or trying out a new writing trick. We shouldn’t halt our writing progress because we don’t think we are an authority. Keep writing until it becomes “real.” Although that balloon trip around the Atlantic didn’t really happen, Poe convinced an audience that it did, and it wouldn’t hurt to convince ourselves of our credibility as well.
Vary Writing Style and Technique
Sometimes, as writers, we get stuck in our ways. But in order to develop our craft, we must sprinkle on the spice of life: variety. Poe gives us a pretty straightforward example of this with his titular character, the Raven. The Raven shows up in an unnamed narrator’s window, repeating the phrase “Nevermore” — presumably the only phrase it knows. The narrator attempts over and over to make sense of what the Raven says and, despite his coercions, is met with the same response: “Nevermore.”
As writers, we need to revamp our personal “Nevermores” — our usual styles and techniques — in order to see progress with our writing and open up new ways of thinking. If you’re writing for a blog, take a break and try a short story writing prompt. If you’ve been honing in on your novel and feel stuck, do a quick exercise in free writing. Even Poe himself wrote across genres, penning short stories, plays, essays, faux journalism (as mentioned above), poetry, and a novel.
As the cliché goes, continuing to do the same thing with the hope of a different result is the definition of insanity — and the narrator of “The Raven” can confirm this. It’s equally important to keep your writing exciting and not lead readers into repetitious madness. If you keep using a particular word, open that thesaurus and explore other options. The Raven may keep popping in your window, but you have the ability to teach it another word, phrase, or trick — or two!
Kill Your Darlings
If any writer is familiar with themes of death and murder, it’s Poe. Whether burying a character in a catacomb or dealing with the death of his parents and young wife, Poe was no stranger to longing and losing — in his work as well as in his life. As writers, we also need to be accustomed to saying goodbye, oftentimes to the writing we love.
When you produce those lines that feel masterfully constructed and beautifully worded, you might be tempted to put them in a glass jar to stare at forever. Unfortunately, not all of those gems contribute to the larger work. So, what do you do? Something that Edgar Allan Poe did to the wife in the short story “The Black Cat” — and ended up doing to most of his characters in “The Masque of the Red Death”: kill your darlings.
This most often refers to removing an irrelevant or otherwise distracting passage, but it may also be your title, an element of your blog post, or even an entire character if you’re writing a story or book. Luckily, though, there is a possibility of an afterlife for your “killed” pieces: you can easily save anything cut to reuse later!
So, there you have it: lessons that Edgar Allan Poe, perhaps unwittingly, has imparted on his fellow writers about writing. Poe’s writing has withstood the test of time, and if you heed these lessons, you will be on your way to creating a writing lifestyle that does the same.
Tess Patalano is a writer at Reedsy, a marketplace giving authors and publishers access to talented professionals. Her poetry chapbook, What Happened, was published by Dancing Girl Press.