Why Edgar Allan Poe Is the Best Writing Teacher for Our Own Hysterical Moment

Why Poe is the best writing teacher for our own hysterical moment

Poe in Pandemic Times

This past August, two weeks before my first book came out, our childcare fell through, with immediate effect. For the first week, I cadged time off from my full-time job and attempted to meet freelance deadlines—hahaha—while tending to my one-year-old son. The second week was a long-scheduled “vacation,” with my entire family staying in a beach rental to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I ached to see everyone, and I felt too guilty to skip it, even as I remained terrified we’d all get Delta. The beach house wasn’t childproofed; no, it had been expressly designed to cause injury. Every 10 seconds my son tried to swan dive off a balcony, while the tendons in my neck cranked tighter and tighter and tighter until I could barely turn my head. Then, on the car ride home, the symptoms started. It was not Covid. It was only a bad cold, and still I wanted to lay down in the driveway and stay there, unmoving. 

Those were two hard weeks. The last two-ish years have been hard. The pandemic created new stresses; if your life felt even slightly on-the-brink before, it probably feels a little bit closer to the brink now. Twitter buzzes with jokes about nervous breakdowns and “The Great Resignation.” Sometimes my group chat goes quiet for a few days, and it turns out my friends were having mini versions of just such breakdowns, and sometimes—like back in August—I’m the one going quiet.

The pandemic created new stresses; if your life felt even slightly on-the-brink before, it probably feels a little bit closer to the brink now.

This is where Edgar Allan Poe becomes relevant, especially for us writers. Few creative careers that have risen to such heights have also been conducted under so much stress— financial stress, professional stress, familial stress, psychosexual stress—and it shows in his work. Think of Poe’s typical short-story structure: A single narrator caught in some terrible situation, frantically jotting down the horrifying details of his dilemma as his situation only grows worse. This was both a reflection of Poe’s own situation, and an incredibly effective strategy for holding a reader’s attention. It’s why his stories still grip us almost 200 years after their writing, simple as they may seem, at first.

The story of why Poe wrote them is gripping, too. If he had had his druthers, Poe would’ve have been a trust-funder like his hero Byron, scrawling Romantic poetry in between adventures, and maybe, on occasion, turning his attention to some arcane academic question. But his reality was utterly different. In fact, it was positively swollen with suffering. An orphan by the age of 3, he was adopted by a wealthy family—then, in his late teens, cast out and disowned. From then on, Poe never had any money at all, while his beloved wife eventually contracted the same disease, tuberculosis, that had killed his biological parents. Unable to bear the strain of her illness, he became, by his own account, “insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” Between his dire poverty and constant experience of real-life horror, it’s no great wonder that Poe leaned into writing commercial horror. More specifically, the “Blackwood’s” style of sensationalist short fiction, which many American publications were willing to pay for.

Blackwood’s was a popular Scottish magazine in the early decades of the 19th century, influential on both sides of the Atlantic, and the stories it published, as described in Michael Allen’s Poe and the British Magazine Tradition, were “usually structured around a protagonist in some strange, horrific, or morbid situation which is progressively exploited for effect.” Think of Poe’s early story, “MS. Found in a Bottle,” or a more mature work such as “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Each follows the basic model: Someone is telling you about an awful experience, and in such detail that it’s almost as if it’s happening to you, too. In “MS. Found in a Bottle,” a man survives a terrible storm at sea only to find himself thrown onto another, more mysterious vessel, apparently crewed by ghosts. Then that ship is sucked into a whirlpool and goes down, all hope vanishing with it. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator commits the perfect murder, yet goes mad with guilt and confesses to the crime anyway, blowing his best-laid plans.

Had Poe used the Blackwood’s model in a one-note way, however, we might not be reading him now. Instead, his stories loop back on themselves, their hysteria often amounting to satire and meta-commentary. In an 1835 letter, he rather self-consciously described these works as “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful colored into the horrible …. the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.” 

And while scholars tend to focus on the nouns in this description, obsessing about what Poe may have meant by “ludicrous” and “grotesque,” what jumps out at me as a working writer myself—and maybe to you?—are Poe’s references to the movement and development in the stories, the heightening and coloring, of how exactly he’s elevating the dilemmas into metaphors, working in the satire and grander commentary. Because how does a writer both master and transcend a commercial genre, which in our time might equate to romance novels, fantasy epics, how-to nonfiction, or personal essays? That’s my burning question. Maybe yours, too. Wouldn’t we all like to be read, get paid, and eat our satire-cake too?

Wouldn’t we all like to be read, get paid, and eat our satire-cake too?

To that end, what if we adopted some of Poe’s techniques to rivet our own readers? Single narrators. Horrific or morbid situations. A tone that pivots from hysteria to satire. I mean, after the couple of Covid years we’ve all just had, who among us does not have these materials ready to hand?

Fortunately, Poe left us explicit, if also satirical, instructions on using his model. “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” first published in 1838, is a facetious essay apparently written by a ridiculous woman who’s being taught how to write this type of fiction by a pompous professor. So, how should such an article/story go? The good doctor says the steps are easy enough to follow:

  • Get yourself into a scrape or misadventure (or take drugs and record your sensations).
  • Next, consider your tone. Be sure to write in a “diffusional and interjectional” style, “all in a whirl.” Short sentences help.
  • Bring in metaphysics where you can, to give your tale that little soupçon of elevation.
  • Finally, show evidence of extensive general reading. Quote somebody, or something, preferably in a dead or Germanic language.

Once again Poe’s tone here is self-conscious, self-mocking, ambivalent about his own productions, even as he insists that Blackwood’s fiction should be “our model upon all themes.” And that’s because the stuff sells, he explains. Yes, I have started to say he. I realize you could argue that I’m confusing Poe and the characters in his facetious “How to Write a Blackwood Article” essay, but I swear it’s like he’s breaking the fourth wall, turning and grinning at the camera when he advises: “Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure and make note of your sensations—they will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet.”

Considering how recently the “first-person industrial complex” dominated the internet, this advice doesn’t seem all that out of date, either. It even strikes me as hopeful. Maybe these tough, tedious experiences we’re all having might be worth something to us someday. Maybe we can figure out how to burlesque our pandemic times, and even better, satirize popular genres while we’re at it. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my own favorite pandemic reading has been personal newsletters, particularly from mother-writers like Katie Leitch and Evie Ebert. The formula is similar: Dire or at least semi-dire situations. Single narrators. Jokes both explicit and implicit.)

Maybe these tough, tedious experiences we’re all having might be worth something to us someday.

As I write this, my house is half dark, a storm blowing up outside as if to provide some missing gothic motif, and downstairs, my kid is waking up from his nap. A rainy evening indoors stretches out before me, offering plenty of time to worry about whether this essay is any good or not, whether I’ve said what I wanted to say or not—but no more time to work on it. Jetzt haben wir den Salat. Still, if it turns out to be vulgar or pretentious, I guess I can always pretend that I intended it to be. Should you ever find yourself in a similar position, be sure and make note of your sensations—they will be worth to you, well, whatever editors are paying now.

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