Saturday, March 21, 2009

Mentor of the Month: Edgar Allan Poe: Author as Rock Star?

A new letter of Poe's has emerged. It was written to his editors and is a record of Poe apologizing for drinking to excess. This is just another part of Poe's 'legend'. An alcoholic, freaky kinda guy who wrote macabre poetry and short stories.

In many ways, Poe's persona adds to the reading of his work. You can imagine him sitting down in whiskey-induced (perhaps absinthe induced) haze and creating these dark places. He, of course, always wore black. He visited cemeteries everyday to see his long lost loves, who have died tragically young. But, if we take Poe away from his writing, do we still have the same body of work? Does "The Raven" have nearly the power if we don't know that Poe lost a love early on?

The debate about separating a writer from their work has been around for a while, partly because of the 'rock star' status given to early writers like Byron (think Beatles-level popularity) and Poe (think of more cultish bands).

In this month's issue of Poets and Writers there is an article asking (and I'm paraphrasing because I don't have the magazine with me at the moment) "Where have the bad (as in misbehaving) writers gone?" It's written by an MFA grad who says that her experience with writers, they've been a buckle-down, stick your hands on the typewriter-types. The drunks of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Poe, etc. and the wild child Wildes aren't at the schools teaching their work. It's nose-to-the-grindstone.

Now, my question, is this a good thing?
To me, not so much.

There has to be a balance. Poe definitely wrote some articles on writing that would make your hair stand on end thinking that you would never be able to do it. The articles read like mathematical treatises. So, you definitely have to have a work ethic. You also have to have something else:

I think, in a small way, to write interesting things, you have to be fairly interesting yourself. I think you have to be tormented by certain demons (I am not confessing mine at this moment). Poe=alcoholism and the loss of a young love. He wrote wonderful work about it. It was a well that did not run dry for him.

Put the beer bottles down, guys. You don't have to be an alcoholic or a womanizer or a druggie to be interesting. Note the mega-bestselling standouts:
J.K. Rowling, a regular ol' student of language.
Stephanie Meyer? Graduated w/English degree from Brigham Young.

But I bet you know these authors' stories. J.K. Rowling: welfare mother who walked to coffee shops and wrote while her daughter slept in the pram (stroller, for us Americans). Stephanie Meyer: Mormon whose inspiration came in a dream. Rowling's personal story is classic Cinderella, rags to riches. Meyer's is the envy of every writer on earth and stretches back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein inspiration. (Interesting how Rowling's Harry goes from zero to hero...and that Meyer's story is about misunderstood 'monsters'.)

Their stories are strong to start with, but I think the reading experience is enriched by knowing more about where they came from.

5 comments:

  1. Some quick comments on Poe. First, regarding his alcoholism: he tried to stay sober, the longest stretch being 18 months (though Poe claimed he went as long as 4 years without a drink, that claim is unsubstantiated). He certainly did not drink absinthe, nor is there any record that he drank whiskey (wine seemed to be his cup of tea - when he wasn't drinking coffee, of course). Notably, he never drank while writing. As for his wearing all black, he was just following the style of a true Southern gentleman. Poe's persona being enmeshed with his writing dates back to 1850, when his sworn enemy led people to believe they were one and the same. People are still being duped by this man's lies over a century and a half later. Don't be fooled too!

    That aside, this is an interesting post! I, for one, believe that the artist can be separated from his art, though that separation won't always be cut cleanly.

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  2. Thanks Rob, I was just commenting on the 'image' people get when thinking about Poe...and I was joking about the absinthe but thank you for clarifying! It is important to get the facts straight.

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  3. I think people can sometimes put too much stock into the idea that you've got to be troubled to write. It's almost an excuse to be moody and crazy because that's a stereotype of what it takes to "be creative."

    In reality, it seems to be more of a catch-22. A writer's writing becomes well-known, so we dig into their personal life and find the scandals & melodramas, which makes the writer more interesting, which makes their writing more interesting, on and on ad infinitum. Each builds off the other.

    But, when you get right down to it, how many of us have actually lead perfect lives? We all have our own crazy things to build a "writerly" image from. Like you say, all authors have their own stories.

    And there are far more drunks who don't become famous for their writing than those who do :)

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  4. Rats, Ali got there first. That's what I get for not logging on on Sunday.

    I heard something on NPR about a year ago (think there's something about it on my blog) about the mental illnes/creativity connection. There seems to be something there. However, as the demon pointed out, you have to look at how many of X go on to become Y not how many of Y started out as X.

    And I don't see any real crazies in out merry little band. Well, except for _____ and _____ , but I think they're harmless. Mostly.

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  5. I agree with the above two posters as well. I'd like to believe that perfectly normal, happy, well-adjusted people can also make good writers!

    And no worries about the Poe myths. I'm just doing my sworn duty as protector of Poe - up, up, and away!

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