Making the most of your nervous breakdown

How your own bouts of grief-induced galaxy brain could lead to glory, as they did for Poe

Hey friends, welcome to a special, unscheduled edition of Poe Can Save Your Life. I’m getting in touch because today is the anniversary of the sheer strangest and most fascinating stunt that Poe ever pulled. Which, this being Poe, is really saying something.

The year was 1848. Poe had lost his beloved wife only one year prior and, grief-stricken in the wake of her death, he’d become obsessed with a new set of ideas. In fact, he’d developed his very own grand unifying theory of the physical, metaphysical, mathematical, material, and spiritual universe.

Finally, on February 3rd, Poe gave a lecture in which he shared this theory… and essentially attempted, in three hours, to explain our whole galaxy.

In the long years since Poe delivered those remarks, scholars and fans have wrestled endlessly over Poe’s precise meaning, with some arguing that Poe predicted the Big Bang Theory, and others advancing a view of Poe as a half-cracked charlatan—no better than a babbling kook in a tinfoil hat.

So—had Poe gone crazy? Or was he decades ahead of his time? Perhaps most importantly, how can you and I make the most of our own nervous breakdowns?

Here’s the piece I wrote about all this for The Millions, just published today. Hope you’ll check it out.

All best,

Cat

How to become a bestselling writer (or bestselling anything else)

Planning your big breakthrough with Poe’s actual, not-ironic, two-step formula for making art that lasts

Today is the 212th anniversary of Poe’s birth. And for the occasion, I thought I’d write an edition of this newsletter for the people who are, perhaps, closer to the starting line than the finish line—the baby writers, baby artists, baby creatives. Edgar Allan Poe had to start somewhere, too. In fact, he was once in the exact same position that you may find yourself in right now.

You want to do something creative—maybe that’s writing a novel, maybe it’s hand-making bold and innovative Christmas ornaments, maybe it’s producing a documentary. Doesn’t matter. It could be anything. In order for your work to enter general circulation, to begin to toddle around on its own and gain its own life in the world, you have to solve (or at least manage for) two classic problems:

  • Finding a market for your work

  • Reaching that market, which is even harder

These are business problems, sure, but they’re also artistic problems, and ones that have been with us for a very, very long time. Before Poe was a marquee name with millions of fans, he was just another struggling would-be-published writer who couldn’t get his emails returned and, as a result, lay awake all night asking the ceiling: “How come everyone I went to college with is already out there making buckets of money and having their second baby when I can’t even get one lousy essay in the NYT?!”

From the time he was about 18 to the time he was 24, 25, Poe was writing poems and essentially doing the modern equivalent of self-publishing because, then as now, there is not much of a commercial market for poetry. Even when he could find a press willing to put out his work, Poe either had to pay for the printing himself, or the press wanted him to guarantee any losses it might incur in bringing out his book.

When, in his mid-20s, Poe finally switched to writing super goth short stories, he did so out of financial necessity. He’d begun to despair of ever finding any market for his poetry, and so he turned his attention to what the market was willing to pay for—tales about posthumous dental extractions. Or old wives coming back from the dead only to murder new wives. Or undead horses emerging from the tapestry to enact terrible revenge. That sort of thing.

This was not his dream, not really. And he was extremely worried and self-conscious about how the people he admired, and high-brow types generally, might find his stories to be crass and dumb. He’d just run out of options. He needed cash and, even more than that, he was tired of toiling in obscurity. He wanted to be noticed. To break out. To find an audience and get some GD recognition at last. (Maybe that sounds familiar?)

So Poe switched genres. Switched topics. Even switched styles, at least to an extent.

From now on, he told one of his editors, he would write pieces about “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.”

That is, horses and murder and posthumous dental extractions. Exaggerated situations stretched to and then past their breaking point.

Maybe such pieces were in bad taste, he acknowledged. But you know what? Screw bad taste. He was going big or going home. “To be appreciated you must be read, and these things are invariably sought after with avidity,” Poe said.

Brazen sellout? Yes. Spectacular success over time? Also yes. Today, two-ish centuries later, we can see how Poe’s desperate-yet-calculated switch worked out for him. We’re all still reading those stories, aren’t we?

And it could be the case that, as with Poe, your own biggest opportunity lies in rolling snooty concerns—plus the original, untainted, uncommercial version of your creative dream—up in a carpet and then tossing that carpet off a bridge, pausing only to hear the big SPLASH before you slink away. What might your own brazen sellout look like, friend? What color is your brazen sellout?

Step one: Start with a commercial genre. Then elevate it.

In Poe’s case, he took the gothic short story, a form he’d grown up reading, and he improved upon it so that his stories weren’t just scary predicaments but metaphors as well as comments on the genre, even comments on themselves. It’s a major reason his stuff feels so modern. If a story is functioning on the literal and metaphorical level—a plane of universal human feeling, one that every generation is, in due time, bound to discover for itself—then that story is going to remain open to new, contemporary interpretations.

To call this sort of thing “meta” or “satire” would be a little reductive, and besides, it seems to work best when an artist has a respect for the popular form, rather than scorn for it. You might aim more for Poe’s target, which he said was—both consciously and unconsciously—“half banter, half satire.”

As an example, what if somebody wrote a typical MFA-program-type short story about furtive people having not very important or pressing problems, and made it a diatribe against this kind of story? While we’re on this topic, wouldn’t it be (more) fun if Sally Rooney wrote a novel that’s a winking comment on the Sally Rooney-kind-of novel? Also, what if some horror auteur came out with a wildly popular movie about the fictional news business, the larger fantasy-industrial complex, and how tens of millions of Americans live in a bizarre alternate reality while their punches land in this reality? Could it, would it save us all? Oh God, please. Paging Jordan Peele. Somebody get Zach Snyder out to lunch.

It could be that all these ideas have been done. We’re just spitballing. In any case…

Boiling it down to a formula for your own brazen sellout and bestselling whatever, you might approach it this way:

  1. Take a popular form you like, maybe one that you grew up on

  2. Produce an apparently straightforward but subtly deeper and metaphorical take on that thing

It’s hard to do, but it can work. Most importantly, it can function as a shortcut to those big problems mentioned at the beginning, i.e. finding a market for your work and then reaching that market. If you’re working in a popular genre, then the market is already there. Likewise, suddenly, reaching that market becomes much more straightforward, too.

This kind of thinking isn’t on trend, I realize. It’s not cool to be earnest/desperate, or to be openly ambitious. Plus, “big idea books” are passé, supposedly, while I notice more and more personal essays concluding that there’s no lesson to be learned whatsoever from the experience the writer has just spent 1,200 words telling you about. And it’s true, not everything is a metaphor. Not every experience makes for a “life lesson,” far from it. At the same time, Poe’s example suggests that figuring out who your market is and why they should care can lead to breakthroughs. Even to lasting success.

The funniest thing about the reception to Poe’s work is how high-brow types still tend to think that because his work is both read and beloved by children at the same time it has the depth and power to keep academics busy means that it must be stupid, must be lowbrow. Its massively broad appeal is treated as a mark against it. As though Poe wasn’t pretty much in on the joke all along.

With any luck, this will be true of your creative work, too. In the best-case scenario, snooty types will dismiss it precisely because it’s such a brilliant success.

A good link

Here’s Stephen King on writing the first line of your next thing, and it’s good advice and good analysis no matter what kind of first line you’re writing: a headline for an ad, the very first sentence of your script or your bildungsroman.  

As always, if you’re enjoying this newsletter, would you share? Or, if you’re seeing this for the first time, would you subscribe?

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All best, and happy Poe’s birthday,

Cat

The Power of Poe-sitive Thinking

Plus, no hard feelings if you're just not feeling it this week

Hey there, everyone. Initially, I thought I’d refrain from sending anything this week because, well, if your experience has been anything like mine, then one overriding question you have right now is: How come nothing just stopped between last Wednesday and today? How come work still expects me to do my job? How come the baby still wants a bottle, doesn’t he watch CNN?? What a jerk!

I hope that, in spite of everything, you’re feeling all right, coping somehow.

If you are in the mood to read anything that isn’t Twitter, the introduction to Poe for Your Problems is below and, in part, it’s about how we can find hope and inspiration even amidst absurdly depressing circumstances.

(P.S. This week’s good link is just this, a helpful little tone-setting sound effect.)

All best,

Cat

The Power of Poe-sitive Thinking

If comedy is tragedy plus time, then Edgar Allan Poe’s life reads like a punchline—just one long, sad trombone.

Here’s the short, over-simple version: Everyone got sick and everyone died, starting with both Poe’s parents before he turned three. A wealthy family adopted him, but only in an informal sense. He lived with them, but he never really belonged, and about the time he reached eighteen, Poe found himself penniless and disowned, forced to craft his masterpieces in cold, dirty rented rooms.

Later, his beloved wife Virginia contracted the same disease that had killed his biological parents, and he became, at last—by his own account—“insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” Every hand that fed him, he chomped. Every bridge he could burn, he torched. Finally, in October of 1849, Poe collapsed in the street outside a tavern, and his career of provocation and trouble-making ground to a halt. In a literal gutter. Yet what followed was even worse.

Poe’s greatest frenemy, Rufus W. Griswold, wrote the obituary. Publishing his insults under a pseudonym, Griswold told the world that Poe was a cynical, depraved drunk, with no friends, who had only ever used his talent for spite. 

The twist? That hit job of an obit turned out to be pretty good PR. Not only did Poe’s colleagues and (in fact numerous) friends sprint to his defense, the notoriety that the obit helped create caused a scandal-loving public to seek out his work as never before. You could say that, in the end, Poe’s feuds, mistakes, and missteps worked out for him. Or you could say they weren’t mistakes or missteps at all—instead a series of brilliant career moves and an astoundingly effective system for success. Anyone can get to the top doing all the right things. To make it doing all the wrong things? Now that takes genius.

Today, nearly two hundred years since his death, millions of people across the globe know and love Poe. He’s recognized as one of the most brilliant, original, and influential writers of all time. His poetry and short stories have been translated into every major language and adapted for every new technology, from radio broadcasts to web series to memes. The film and TV adaptations alone—not to mention the references everywhere from The Simpsons to South Park to Jordan Peele’s Us—are so numerous it would take ten pages to list them all. He has an awfully long IMDB profile for someone born in 1809.

Poe’s fans have included high-brow elites like Vladimir Nabokov and Alfred Hitchcock, and he’s enjoyed off-the-charts pop success, too. Baltimore named its NFL team the Ravens. Lou Reed, Joan Baez, and Stevie Nicks have all either recorded songs about Poe or put his words to music. The Beatles stuck him in the top row, eighth from the left, on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In 2001, Britney Spears kicked off her “Dream Within a Dream” tour, while the actress Evan Rachel Wood has the final two lines of that poem inked in black across her upper back. As we speak, Sylvester Stallone is trying to produce a Poe biopic. (Hey Sly, maybe combine it with Rambo 6?)

And if you should feel like raising a toast—well, in 2015, Maryland’s RavenBeer rolled out Annabel Lee White, “a wheat beer angels envy,” and in 2018, a Philadelphia distillery launched a whiskey called Fortunato’s Fate. Who wouldn’t want to achieve such high-proof prominence? We should all be so lucky.

Yet somehow the notoriety lingers. Despite Poe’s unparalleled, worldwide renown, we continue to conceive of him as a ne’er-do-well—just some hopeless, almost Chaplin-esque loser—when the question we should be asking is, What’s his secret? In a better world, Poe would be considered a self-help guru on par with Oprah or Deepak Chopra, the 4-Hour Workweek guy, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Dr. Laura Schlesinger. As it is, we celebrate the work but sadly underrate the man.

Except we’re not making a mistake about just one man. We’re making a mistake about renegades, rebels, and outcasts more generally. We’re also making a very big mistake in being so certain that we know which creative, professional, and even existential strategies work—and which ones are dead ends. Success on Poe’s scale doesn’t just happen. It isn’t solely a matter of genius, either. It requires a unique vision, and more than that, the fortitude, the determination, the narcissism, and the megalomania, to hew to that vision no matter what anyone else says.

It is true Poe’s life was a dumpster fire. That’s precisely the point. He dealt with horrendous circumstances. He had amply justifiable mental-health issues as well as an impossible personality, and he lived in an absurdly depressing era full of racism, sexism, classism, injustice, misfortune, poverty, disease, and death. You and I live in such an era, too. In a screwed-up world, why not look to the most screwed-up writer of all time for advice on navigating the daily dumpster fires of our own lives? Who better to inspire us as we struggle through our own absurdly depressing time?

Personally, I love nothing more than when a misanthropic supposed “loser” is later wildly, spectacularly vindicated. It is like hearing that your own life—no matter this foreclosure you’re facing, or the musty Uber you’re driving right now—might also end in the best-case scenario. And no one could be more qualified than Poe when it comes to teaching us how to fight through our suffering, how to keep hustling in the face of despair, and how to apologize for getting too drunk (all while ordering another round for the house, “on me!”). In short, how to take the nightsoil we’ve been handed and spin it into gold, like he did.

So—just how did Poe fail, flail, flub, and flounder his way into the history books? What perverse formula for success can he offer you, and how might you approach your problems a little differently, following his example? That’s what you’ll find in these pages. Let’s seize the day. Or, since we’re talking Poe here, seize the night. Carpe noctem.

Reading Edgar Allan Poe and parsing his life for instruction might at first seem like a ridiculous exercise, like going fishing in the pool at the Y, or digging for treasure with one of those Allen wrenches you get free from Ikea. And I’ll admit this book started as a dark joke—though I’m convinced that’s a strength and not a weakness, very much in keeping with Poe’s own morbid sense of humor.

A couple of years ago, I was telling a friend how reading Poe’s work and the numerous biographies about his life had had the strange effect of helping me cope with the worst depressive episode I’ve ever experienced, reassuring me that life is worth living at a moment when I was on the verge of ordering a Peloton, and giving me new energy for my creative work. Giving me, of all things, hope.

“That sounds like a book,” my friend said, lifting his glass.

“Oh yeah,” I deadpanned. “I’m going to write a book about reading Poe for self-help and call it How to Say Nevermore to Your Problems.” Which turned out to be just the working title.

The point is, Poe can change your life, too. You want to achieve your childhood dreams? You want to humiliate those who’ve doubted you with your meteoric rise to the top of whatever? All you need is a new perspective—call it Poe-sitive thinking—and that all-important antihero to guide you on your way, helping you discover how to triumph not only in spite of but because of your alleged shortcomings. This is where Poe comes in, and how he can illuminate a new path for you as surely as a black-light in a sleazy motel room.

Forget everything you’ve ever assumed about Edgar Allan Poe. Far from being solely a sad story, Poe’s own life turns out to be an inspirational tale for black sheep everywhere, so epic and timeless it damn near rises to the level of myth. He might have kicked it seventeen decades ago, but he’s never been more relevant. In fact, his life experience reads like a Millennial and Gen Z laundry list. Just for starters, Poe:

  1. Came of age amidst a dire recession

  2. Had to drop out of college with mounting debts (150 years before Sallie Mae even existed)

  3. Got hired, fired, and laid off from a series of journalism jobs at a time of, ahem, profound change in the industry

  4. Was forced to freelance in a burgeoning gig “economy”

  5. Could barely afford to buy himself a couch, much less a house

  6. Had no health insurance (couldn’t get that dental crown he needed)

  7. And lived in an America so extremely divided that even the dimmest observers could catch the whiff of impending civil war.

But this book isn’t just for young people, or for dedicated Poe fans. This book is for all the hopeless freaks and misfits out there—like you, like me—whose adult lives aren’t working out quite as we hoped—which we’re looking to turn around, somehow. Its whole purpose is to help you find new energy and inspiration so you can follow through on your deepest ambitions despite, well, everything. Your inbox full of rejection letters? Your ex and that restraining order? Forget about ’em. Nevermore, problems!

Let’s face it: You’ve already tried everything else, except the wrong way. 

The Poe way.

Like Poe himself, Poe-sitive thinking is about not just recognizing the dark side of life, but maniacally focusing on it; embracing your overwhelming sense of doom; clinging to your grief; and refusing to give up your most basic resentments. In short, not getting over anything, ever, but using all your darkest emotions in novel and creative ways to make a name for yourself and carve out your own unique, notorious place in the world. Let’s take a look:

If you’re heartbroken, lonely, lost, depressed, broke, anxious, underemployed or unemployed, and especially if you’ve recently blown up your life somehow, then congratulations, you’ve come to the right place. Poe messed up his life again and again, too, only to become more and more successful, and more broadly and intensely beloved. This book will offer you a step-by-step Poe-gram for emulating the man and gleaning all the most important “Poe tips” from his most turbulent life. And because each lesson builds toward the next (complete with exercises, charts, and checklists), I suggest reading it from beginning to end rather than skipping around. In the meantime, if you ever get stuck, simply ask yourself: What would Poe do?

All the quotes that you’ll find in the following chapters come from Poe himself, drawn from his letters, essays, poems, and stories, and all the lessons come from his life. As you’ll see, far from being out of date, Poe’s rueful, often cynical life-philosophy has stood the test of time. Take it from a man who is far more famous today than he ever was in his own lifetime—and who most definitely got the last laugh.

Now you can, too.

Why you should aim for 100 humiliations a year

Plus, Poe’s #1 most sarcastic tip for making great art

Back in 2016, the literary site Lithub published an essay, “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year,” which ricocheted across the internet on its way to viral heaven.

The basic idea was this: Writers should try to collect 100 rejection letters each year. You might be a beginner or an old hand. No matter. Seek to pile up the rejections—because in the process, you’ll probably get a few acceptances.

This is, essentially, direct-response marketing for writers, and I don’t say that as an insult. People who work in email marketing or write Google ads for a living know that success—and often, large amounts of money—can come from conversion rates as low as 1% or 2%. In other words, if 100 people receive your email or glimpse your ad, then one or two buy your product? That’s winning, not failing. And the same goes for those of us wanting to become more successful writers, producers, ballerinas, Subway “sandwich artists,” you name it.

A 1% to 2% conversion rate on freelance pitches isn’t awful. It’s a start. Ditto a 1% to 2% conversion rate on your auditions or job applications. Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t think creatives seeking opportunity can really write the equivalent of one sales letter and use it in every scenario, for every opportunity. Our work, unfortunately, tends to require more refined tactics.

As a friend who’s written for Vogue and the New York Times told me, “When I started freelancing, I found the magazines I wanted to be published in and then came up with ideas that would fit their interests. The 100 rejections idea seems to advocate sending blast emails to great numbers of websites or journals. That doesn't sound like an efficient use of time or energy—more like a drain on the recipients.” 

All true, but there’s an even bigger problem with this advice to seek rejection.

What if you’re not yet in a position to seek rejection? What if you’re not ready to submit your work because you haven’t completed that work? What if you’re still banging away at your very first script, very first comedy routine, or very first essay?

Maybe you’re still in the research stage with your project—whatever your project is—and you’re not sure what the final version will look like. Maybe you’re still fumbling around in the dark with a vague idea, patting the walls in a vain effort to flip the metaphorical light switch, all while smashing your shins against the metaphorical coffee table.

I’d argue that this is where humiliation comes in, changing your life in an excruciating yet necessary way.

When I think of the most humiliating moments of my life—the ones I can admit to publicly, anyway—they are as follows:

  1. The time I mispronounced the word “cosplay” as “co-splay” in front of the first and only celebrity I ever interviewed, revealing that I am not connected enough in real life/am so very online that I’d never heard the word said out loud

  2. A time I was called on to speak in a work meeting about whether to recommend buying stock in a cosmetics-store chain, a meeting in which I was the only woman, and yet instead of saying anything smart, I driveled about what a massive breakthrough gel nail polish is (this was 2012, ok?) until I realized how stupid everything I was saying was and just cut myself off, mid-sentence, like “suddenly you only have to get a manicure every two weeks—” [silence]

    Doesn’t sound so bad, you say? Who doesn’t want to gab about nail polish innovations, right?! No. It was so bad my boss’s boss came and gave me a talk about public speaking.

  3. The time I went to see a world-renowned Poe scholar, and during our lunch, after I took out a pen and pad to take notes, I got ink all over me but didn’t know this until the waitress came over and whispered that “there’s something smeared all over your face” and “you might want to go to the bathroom.” Then, to cap it all off, as soon as I left the table I figured out that the scholar’s face had been telegraphing me the truth in a wincing-with-vicarious-embarrassment sort of way for at least five minutes before the waitress said a g.d. thing

It was so awful. All of it, all of the moments, especially that last one. Yet, as it turns out, the ink spill wasn’t even the most embarrassing part of the lunch. Oh no. Hahahahaha. If only.

What was far more embarrassing was how bad my questions were, and how little I really knew about Poe. The scholar was polite, was gracious, but in the course of our conversation it could not help but emerge that:

Though I was working on a book about Poe by this time, I wasn’t aware that the French had beaten me to “my” big idea—that Poe wasn’t a loser but an existential hero—by something like 150 years. Also, I didn’t really understand the arguments of this scholar’s book on Poe… which was what I had come to talk to him about.

What’s better: to have ink on your face or egg on your face? I don’t know, but I can say it feels pretty terrible to have both at the same time. And while I would never assume you’re as big an idiot as I am, I do expect you also know what it feels like to be humiliated and that, like me, you have a folder on your mental desktop labeled something like:

TIMES I HAVE SCREWED UP HORRIBLY (DO NOT OPEN)

Getting a form rejection may teach you nothing. But humiliation and its awful, whacking, flaming pain? It’s very clearly an evolutionary mechanism that functions to make you slightly wiser. I’m not “grateful” for humiliation, though I recognize its usefulness—the learning process just crashing down on your head like a dutch oven. For instance, though the memory of that lunch still has the power to make me stop in my tracks and cringe, everything the scholar told me ended up going into the book. And now I can tell you that “cosplay” is pronounced “cauzplay” and you shouldn’t jaw about nail polish in work meetings no matter how fascinating it objectively is. Important life lessons.

Your humiliation folder is also, I bet, packed with crucial learning experiences. And so, just maybe, instead of seeking to pile up rejections, you should try to fill the folder up even more. If humiliation can be a step on the way to growth, then it follows we should seek it out, or at least do our best to stop avoiding it. What if you looked to get humiliated 100 times this year? Maybe it’d lead to the breakthrough you need.

I hate that it’s true, and I expect you do too, but doing anything that’s hard is also humiliating, just fundamentally so. Personal growth is embarrassing in general. It involves realizing the extent of your ignorance and, as often, revealing the extent of your ignorance, which is, let’s face it, far worse.

But the humiliation is the way. If you’re trying to figure out a project or change your life in any way, you have to smear the ink—or the green beans—all over yourself. Right now, my 5-month-old son is learning to eat solid food, which means that most mornings, he’s got Gerber puree oozing up from his little baby fists with some more crunched up in his eyebrows.

Poe told us to expect this, too. When, near the end of his career, he laid out a formula for making great art, he said:

If any ambitious man have a fancy to revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment, the opportunity is his own—the road to immortal renown lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple— a few plain words—“My Heart Laid Bare.”

There’s just one catch, Poe said: “this little book must be true to its title.” And that is why “no man ever will dare write it.”

“No man could write it, even if he dared,” Poe concluded. “The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.”

It’s like a recipe where you mix flour, butter, sugar, and eggs, and then at the end, your cake goes off like a grenade.

God, I love this. Advice on creative pursuit has never mattered more to me, or made as much sense.

I love the way Poe puts his arm around you before he delivers the punchline, and even more than that, I love how honest he is. Making great art is simple, he says. And your attempt to make it will be basically just a semi-cryptic, open-ended catastrophe, and not least because of the self-revelation that’s necessarily involved.  

So many scholars, biographers and ordinary Poe fans have speculated about why Poe implied that laying your heart bare is a doomed venture. As an example, the scholar Jerome McGann once floated the idea that, “Thinking of Poe the man, we might surmise that he couldn’t face the full truth of his lies, his follies, his plagiarisms, his hypocrisies, all in all, the sum of his failures, which were legion.”

Except I think that’s precisely what qualified Poe to make the statement to begin with. (Who else is in a position to give it to us straight but people who’ve screwed up? I don’t know about you, but I kind of don’t trust anyone who isn’t regularly almost completely overwhelmed by their self-defeating impulses.)

According to me, what Poe meant was: Even knowing our own limitations and the universe’s, we yearn to accomplish more than we ever have before. And that means saying hello, please come in not just to rejection but to disaster.

His thought could seem like a downer—and god knows it was not intended as an inspirational quote. It’s something worth much more, a bracing ethos. You think to yourself: the paper will shrivel and burn, so how can I work faster? How can I kick through the door, even knowing what I know, even being who I am, where I am, right now? It’ll be a disaster, sure, and you’ll keep trying anyway.

A good link

If you’ve never heard Sky Ferreira’s song, “Everything is Embarrassing,” it’s an apt listen. A few years ago she gave an interview in which she admitted that she blew all her record-deal money on a bunch of fancy wah pedals, trying and failing to mimic Peter Frampton’s sound. Then, not long after that, she got busted for drugs, with her mugshot splashed in The Daily Mail. All of which makes her, like Poe, qualified to talk about embarrassment.  

Here’s that 100 rejections piece, too.

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This is Poe Can Save Your Life, an email newsletter dedicated to helping you reach your Poe-tential despite all the ways that life sucks and is mostly awful. It’s free, it’ll always be free, and I’ll never spam you. Subscribe now and I’ll come to your inbox once a week with dark, surprising, Poe-inspired self-help.

Wishing you a happy new year and a lot of humiliation (unless that sounds wrong?),

Cat

How to get a book deal when you're not famous

Or, how Edgar Allan Poe helped me get a book deal and could help you, too.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to my old L.A. writers group via Zoom, and it came up how damn near impossible it is these days to get a book deal.

A book deal, in this case, to mean a traditional, “Big Four,” New-York-publisher-with-an-office-on-6th-Avenue kind of book deal. Most people know that it’s easy to self-publish a book on Wattpad or Kindle. But to convince an outfit like Simon & Schuster or Little, Brown to publish your novel or work of nonfiction? That’s like trying to win American Idol, and I don’t think that show is even on the air anymore—making it all the harder to win.

So I thought I would share, here, a little-discussed hack that helped me get a traditional book deal in the fall of 2019. Not a deal that made me rich or anything, but still: my childhood dream, stamped like a parking validation! What a thrill, especially before I realized how much work would be involved.

First things first, though. Why is it so hard to get a deal?

A better way to phrase this question might be, why is it so hard for an ordinary, non-famous person to get a book deal? Because famous people have no trouble. If you’re a Kardashian or a comic with a Netflix special or even a momfluencer with 500,000 Instagram followers all breathlessly awaiting your next inspirational quote, then it’s not that hard.

For the rest of us, those without massive platforms or perhaps any platform to speak of, it’s extremely, extremely hard, because the publishing industry thinks it can’t afford to take a chance. The big houses, these days, are more in the business of running proven winners than fresh horses. It’s such a tough business environment for them that they’re simply not willing to put money and effort into books they’re not sure will sell. And sell a lot. As in, at least 10,000 copies and, preferably, much more than that.

This means that there’s effectively almost no chance that you—ordinary, aspiring, non-famous writer you—can sell your book.

Of course, exceptions to the rule exist. And the usual entrenched advantages—having gone to the right school (an Ivy or Iowa), having elite connections, and/or having some big, noteworthy job—matter, too. One way or another, brilliant new writers emerge every year. In general, however, an ordinary person trying to get a traditional book deal is much like an ordinary person buying a lottery ticket and hoping against hope. It could happen. You could pocket the $200 million. And hell, I’m probably underestimating the odds a tiny bit. But make no mistake, they are long.

Back in 2019, when I sold a nonfiction book proposal, I didn’t set out to game the system. What happened was, after a dozen years of writing novels and trying to find an agent who might want to represent me, I fell into a horrible depression. Then, for the first time since I was a kid, I started reading Edgar Allan Poe. For about a month straight, I just lay around reading Poe and crying, mostly in my bathtub, because I was in a dark place and also because, all of a sudden, the metaphorical nature of Poe’s short stories had become clear to me. Holy shit, I thought. He was talking about depression and despair the whole time.

The ships captained by ghosts, the yawning whirlpools, the whistling scythes? All that stuff was just window dressing. Poe was talking about two things at once. On the surface, shipwreck or, say, torture by the Spanish Inquisition. Below, awful existential pain, the same kind that was plaguing me.

I started digging through the numerous biographies about his life, and though Poe’s life was indisputably a dumpster fire, just incredibly sad to read about, doing so had the strange effect of cheering me up. Look at everything he lived through, I thought; he still got his work done. He still managed to keep going despite, well, everything. And he’d even cracked some pretty good jokes all while. I loved reading Poe’s letters in which he bitched—endlessly, bitterly complained—about his day jobs.

Poe was funnier than he ever got credit for, I thought. No one knows how funny he is.

Soon enough, a realization hit me: I was the only person ever, in history, to really understand Edgar Allan Poe.

Obviously, that was a delusion. But it’s a common one. Since Poe’s death in 1849, hundreds of books and thousands of articles have all been written by people suffering from this delusion. Poe just has that effect on people. He’s such a complex figure that, once you Hoover up enough facts and you’re finally able to bring him into focus in your mind, you start to think you’re the only person who truly gets him.

I was having a drink with a historian friend one night and I told him about all this: how Poe was cheering me up, how I’d come to see him as a kind of flawed-yet-fascinating existential hero. Plus a few words about my being the first and only Poe Understander in history.

“That sounds like a book,” my friend said, lifting his glass.

“Oh yeah,” I deadpanned. “I’m going to write a book about reading Poe for self-help and call it How to Say Nevermore to Your Problems.” Which turned out to be just the working title.

Over the next year, I roughed out a book proposal. (A book proposal is essentially a 10,000-word sales pitch for publishers that details what a nonfiction book will look like and who might buy it. This is how most nonfiction books get sold. You write the proposal first, not the book itself.)

Next, I sent query letters to agents, hoping someone would want to represent me and my Poe idea. This time around, I got offers. And while it took another eighteen months to find a publisher for the book, and I had to rewrite my proposal from top to bottom three different times, my book proposal eventually went to auction, with Running Press, a subsidiary of Hachette, bidding the most and winning.

So what changed?

I still wasn’t—obviously, still am not—famous, and wouldn’t want to be. Who would? Most adults agree that, while some money might be welcome, the other aspects of fame seem horrible, essentially life-ruining, right? Meanwhile, I continue to suck at Twitter and have few followers. I still don’t have any large platform to speak of. I publish freelance articles sometimes, but that’s nowhere near enough of a public presence. At least in my experience, it’s not even table stakes.

But none of this mattered much anymore because I was writing about someone who has a massive platform. Poe has four million Facebook fans. He may’ve died 171 years ago, but he’s so well known, beloved and influential today that not only is there an entire academic discipline known as Poe Studies, but people get tattoos of his face. People cosplay as Poe at Comic Con.

Most importantly, you can put numbers to Poe’s audience: the 4 million Facebook fans; the 63,000 people following the Poe topic on Quora; the 22,000 fans on the official Poe Wattpad page; the 3,500 folks following the Poe subreddit. In other words, you can “prove” the appeal.

The book-deal hack I stumbled across unwittingly

You don’t have to be famous to get a book deal if you write about someone who IS famous.

Or maybe you write about a famous phenomenon. Maybe you write a nonfiction book about side-hustles or Cross Fit or crosswords or coding or knitting or whatever, so that it matters less how many fans YOU have, and instead a publisher will look to how many fans there are of your TOPIC.

You do still need some experience as a writer. That’s when your previously published work comes in handy, and all your relevant work experience and life experience starts to matter.

This hack applies especially to nonfiction, of course, but I could see it being relevant for fiction writers, too. Maybe you write a short story collection about Princess Diana, and how she faked her own death to escape the press and now works in a legal pot shop on Santa Monica Boulevard. Or you write a historical novel about Biggie in the ‘90s, or, I don’t know, you write a musical about Alexander Hamilton.

Any of these gambits would allow you to make the claim that there’s already huge public interest in your subject. Then you basically just point to that interest and say, “there’s the audience for my book.” Instead of going on about your own platform, you can detail the platform that your subject, your topic, already has. My own 10,000-word book proposal basically boiled down to: I’m a Poe fan who buys books about Poe. I think other Poe fans will buy this book about Poe.

Now, maybe this hack has occurred to you already. Maybe it didn’t take you the last dozen years to puzzle out. What’s that saying, “learn slowly, then you’ll know? That’s my process. I hope your process is quicker and more fun, and less naive and absurd. In any case, if you want to write a book, you could do worse than beginning with the famous thing, famous person, that you’re obsessed with. Surely you’re obsessed with something?

A good link

If you’ve got a subject or topic already in mind, then as a next step, maybe check out the following link. It’s only a random LinkedIn post, yet it contains some of the best writing advice I’ve ever come across. And the advice also applies to marketing and pretty much every other creative endeavor. Here it is: “The Secret to Coming Up with Ideas People Can Get Excited About.”

P.S. I don’t know the guy, or much about what else he publishes. I just like this post.

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