Two Steps to Genius Status

In which Poe teaches you to cover your tracks

You know who worked insanely hard at his stuff, writing and rewriting his poems and stories over years, sometimes decades, and then denied that he’d ever rewritten them—claiming instead that he planned them out down to the tiniest detail and wrote them in just one sitting?

You got it. Edgar Allan Poe.

On the one hand, this is a typical mix of capital-r Romantic bullshit, ego, wish fulfillment, sarcasm, and PR. Coleridge wrote and rewrote his stuff, too, and played down his drafting process in order to cultivate the aura of his own genius. So did other Romantics. Edgar Allan Poe didn’t invent this kind of personal myth-making. He just elevated it to new heights.

As most fans know, in 1846, following the publication of “The Raven,” Poe published an essay called “The Philosophy of Composition” in which he boasted that he’d written “The Raven” according to an ultra-precise formula—first determining the length of the poem, then the effect he wanted to create, what tone would create that effect, the topic most suited to that tone, and so on, in general claiming that he had proceeded along a strict path of reason and logic to arrive at every element. No drafts, no crossed-out lines. No missteps.

Most other writers, he said, produce their work by totally haphazard means involving:

  • “elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought”

  • “true purposes seized only at the last moment”

  • “cautious selections and rejections”

  • as well as “painful erasures and interpolations.”

Except that’s pretty much how Poe composed his works, too, no matter what else he claimed. Even his mystery stories—the ones he said he wrote backward, proceeding from the solution to the plot—seem to have, in fact, followed a formula of draft and revision.

Think of “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” his 1842 story in which he transposed a real American criminal case, changing the setting from New York to Paris and thinly fictionalizing the real-life story of Manhattan “cigar girl” Mary Rogers, whose body was found floating in the Hudson the year before. Poe always claimed that he had in fact solved the case—done a better job than the bumbling police and the overheated press—simply by following the clues until he arrived at the solution of the crime.

Except that’s not how it worked at all. After Poe’s initial story was published, it became clear Mary Rogers hadn’t been murdered by a sailor, as Poe had alleged in his version. All evidence, in fact, pointed to a botched abortion. When “The Mystery of Marie Roget” was published again three years later, Poe changed the story’s ending to make it seem he’d known the real cause of her death all along. 

Who can blame him? We all wish we had a better formula than the one we’re stuck with, invariably some blend of hideous half-starts and retries.

Who wants to stumble around in the dark, learning everything too late to get the best out of it, proceeding to a final draft by means of horrifyingly bad iterations that only get less bad very, very slowly, through painstaking efforts and many more hours than one would ever, ever wish? One reason why Poe loved his detective stories and why the rest of us love them too is that we all want to be Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin: Cleverer than everyone around us, armed with a superior method as well as superior mental ability, floating effortlessly above the fray until coolly arriving at Truth.

If only. There is our wish for what making art would be like in a better world, and there’s what it really is like.

I had reason to remember this recently when a publishing friend got in touch, asking to see my Poe book proposal, and before emailing it to her, I FOOLISHLY and STUPIDLY clicked it open only to be HORRIFIED at the OH MY GOD HOW DUMB phrasing and the historical inaccuracies and weird, self-aggrandizing claims (speaking of ill-mixed cocktails!). At that moment, I actually wished that I would stroke out just so the horrible truth would be erased from my brain. 

I came away shaken, my calm gone to shit, my confidence shattered. I had written that stuff, and it was awwwwwwfulllllll.

The worst thing? I spent three years on that proposal. The damn .Docx was still smeared with my sweat and blood and grubby fingerprints—years of coffee rings and rejections soaked right into it.

Perhaps I am destroying my best shot at plausible deniability here, but one day, if anyone asks if writing the proposal was hard, I am not going to let loose with the unglamorous truth. No. I am going to laugh breezily, and sip lingeringly, languorously from my martini (in this fantasy I am drinking a martini, a thing I have never done in my life). Then I’m going to whisper huskily: “Piece of cake.” 

That is, I am going to take a page out of Poe’s playbook and cover my tracks. And I would suggest you do the same, too. We might boil it down to a formula like so:

  1. Sweat blood over your work (whatever your work happens to be). Spend years attempting to perfect it, wrestling with it, putting it away and taking it out again and retooling it and and and

  2. Deny that this was your process. Claim the whole thing was easy so as to feed the myth of your own genius.

Sounds appealing, no? And easy. At least step #2…

Speaking of my Poe book, it’s now up for preorder on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Target.com, and wherever other works of staggering, got-it-all-in-one-take genius are sold.

I really don’t love asking people to preorder, but the thing is that preorders are incredibly important. If you don’t get X number of preorders, Amazon may not favor you in its search algorithm—which could doom your sales once the book is published. Other retailers also closely watch preorders to gauge your book’s appeal, which can affect whether those retailers decide to stock the book.

With that said, here’s the preorder link. And here’s my baby—an impartial critic if ever there was one—saying that this book is a very delicious book: “Highly recommend. Tastes great!”

As always, thanks for reading, and all best,

Cat