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.