Advice from the crypt

Edgar Allan Poe speaks to writers about preplanning your work, knowing the ending, concentrating on a single effect, and showing discipline and character
By B.K. Stevens | Published: September 20, 2012


Illustration by Gary Markstein

Illustration by Gary Markstein

Today we remember Edgar Allan Poe as one of the earliest authors (some would say the creator) of both detective stories and horror stories, and as the writer of some of the most haunting poems in the language. We may be less familiar with his nonfiction works, including his articles and essays on the art of writing.

To supplement the sporadic, often meager payments he received for his tales and poems, Poe published as often as he could in magazines and newspapers. He wrote on a wide range of subjects, from the nature of the soul to his proposal to change the country’s name to Appalachia. Among his favorite topics were the process of writing and the characteristics of great literature. Perhaps his words will provoke us to re-examine some of our own assumptions and approaches.

• Think with your pen. What should writers do when they’re teased by intriguing but elusive ideas, by hints of thoughts that seem too vague to be expressed in words? Poe’s advice is simple: They should pick up their pens (or, he might add today, power up their laptops). Poe dismisses the argument that any ideas are so deep or subtle that they’re “beyond the compass of words.”

“For my own part,” he said in an 1846 article in Graham’s Magazine, “I have never had a thought which I could not set down in words, with even more distinctness than that with which I conceived it.” The “mere act” of writing, Poe believed, helps writers make their ideas not only clearer but more logical. To use his phrase, the process of writing contributes to “the logicalization of thought.”

Whenever he felt dissatisfied with a vague “conception of the brain,” Poe said, “I resort forthwith to the pen, for the purpose of obtaining, through its aid, the necessary form, consequence and precision.”

Today’s advocates of freewriting would probably agree with Poe on this point. Sometimes, the best way to re-solve a dilemma—whether it’s a writing dilemma or a thinking dilemma—is simply to start writing.

• Begin at the end. It would be misleading, however, to suggest that Poe thought writers should never plan. In his best-known critical essay, Poe argued that extensive planning should precede actual writing. “The Philosophy of Composition,” published in 1846, describes the process of writing “The Raven.” Many scholars doubt that Poe’s description here is completely straightforward. Is it true, as Poe claimed, that intuition contributed nothing to the creation of this poem, that “the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem”? Did Poe really choose “nevermore” as his refrain even before deciding the poem would center on a man yearning for his dead love?

But even if Poe’s account of his creative process is exaggerated or downright distorted, the essay contains some stimulating ideas. For example, Poe argued that before beginning to write, authors need to know exactly how their works will end. Only with the ending “constantly in view,” he said, can an author “give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.”

When working on “The Raven,” Poe said, he made careful decisions about matters such as length and versification before actually writing a single word. When he finally did “put pen to paper,” it was to write the lines that would ultimately form the 16th stanza in the poem, the lines in which the speaker asks whether he will ever be reunited with his beloved. “Here then the poem may be said to have its beginning,” Poe said, “at the end, where all works of art should begin.”

Was he telling the truth about the creation of his most famous poem? Should novelists complete their final chapters and only then begin writing their opening scenes? Perhaps not—but perhaps many of us could write more steadily and effectively if we planned our works through to the finish, if we had a clear idea of where we want to end up before we get absorbed in trying to compose that perfect opening sentence.

• Keep it short, and keep it focused. Both poems and prose works, Poe believed, are more likely to have a powerful effect if they’re short enough to be read in one sitting. In an 1842 review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, Poe wrote that a poem should take no longer than one hour to read; for prose tales, reading time could be stretched to two hours at most. Only by keeping their works within these limits, Poe said, could writers achieve “unity of effect or impression.”

The writer should begin by deciding upon “a certain unique or single effect” he or she wants to achieve and should then make sure every element in the work contributes to this effect: “In the whole composition,” Poe said, “there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” If the writer keeps this work short enough to be read in one sitting, “the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control. There are no external or extrinsic influences resulting from weariness     or interruption.”

If a work is too long to be read in one sitting, however, the writer loses this power. Once the reader puts a work down, Poe said, the mood is broken, and “worldly interests” intervene to “modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book.” A novel, Poe said, could never have the “unblemished, because undisturbed” impact of a well-crafted short tale.

Poe’s opinions are unlikely to make modern authors stop writing novels; and while most modern poets keep their poems well within Poe’s time limit, many readers would challenge his criticisms of longer poems. Poe’s words, however, may help us make the most of the ad-vantages shorter forms offer. For example, instead of seeing the short story as just a scaled-back novel, we can see it as a genre with its own distinct strengths. If we follow Poe’s advice about focusing on unity of effect, can we give our short stories a concentrated, powerful impact that novelists would envy?

• Cultivate “the constructive ability.” If you haven’t yet written a great work, lack of ability may not be the problem. Anyone who can truly appreciate a work of genius, Poe said, is probably capable of producing one. In an 1845 article in Godey’s Lady’s Book, Poe maintains that people “of genius are far more abundant than is supposed.” The problem is that most of these people lack “constructive ability.” This ability consists partly of “the faculty of analysis,” which allows artists to figure out how to achieve the effects they wish to produce.

But the real problem for most people of genius is that constructive ability “depends also upon properties strictly moral—for example, upon patience, upon concentrativeness, upon self-dependence and contempt for all opinion which is opinion and no more —in especial, upon energy and industry.”

In other words, success in writing and in other arts requires discipline, confidence and strength of character. It’s hard not to think of Poe’s own struggles with alcoholism, depression and other problems as we read this article. Do his words reflect his frustration with personal troubles that kept him from reaching what he saw as his full potential as a writer? In this case, Poe’s example may be as instructive as his ideas.

In many ways, Poe’s life seems deeply tragic. Gifted and ambitious, he was nonetheless defeated, time and again, by circumstances and by his own weaknesses—and, some would say, by friends who didn’t stand by him as much as they could have, and by a reading public not ready to fully appreciate his highly original, often startling works.

His death at age 40 seems a sad but almost fitting conclusion to a life blighted by misfortune and misguided choices. What more might Poe have accomplished if he’d had more years, if he’d been able to channel his talents more effectively?

Regrets about Poe’s life, however, shouldn’t overshadow recognition of his achievements. In a remarkably short time, Poe proved himself a true innovator in both poetry and fiction, leaving his readers many memorable works. To his fellow writers, Poe also left occasionally mystifying but consistently intriguing advice about writing. And his life also gives us evidence of how powerful the drive to write can be, of how it can persist and sometimes triumph even amid turmoil.

B.K. Stevens, a longtime college professor who has a Ph.D. in English, has published 30 stories in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Her satirical e-novella, One Shot, was published by Un-treed Reads.

  • privatelives

    Such a good article. I have always liked Poe, but now I feel I understand him better and respect him more. What a genius he was. What great advice he gave us writers about “constructive ability.” Thanks, B. K.

    • Alicia

      That’s a classic piece on Poe. Glad you enjoyed it and learned from it. Thanks for reading…