Pull Your Writer Soul Out of Self-Doubting Darkness With a Few Words from Poe
November 2, 2017
Has pondering your midnight prose left you feeling dreary? Don’t let it get you weak and weary! Even Edgar Allen Poe, the penman of such literary wonders as “The Raven” and “The Telltale Heart,” had problems with self-doubt.
Writing creatively somehow manages to bring a depressing critic out of your psyche. This critic paints shadows on your confidence and can leave you feeling like your creative talent is deader than the lost Lenore. But if you, like me, love writing with a love that is more than love, Mr. Poe has some pretty brilliant advice for you.
“The Fury of a Demon Instantly Possessed Me. I Knew Myself No Longer.”
—”The Black Cat”
Self-doubt is a scary demon. It lurks in the creative writer’s subconscious just waiting to jump out and spew insults about your work. But where does this monster come from? Why is it so ugly and persistent? The answer is simple. It’s perfectly normal for a creative person to doubt their own abilities. You just have to recognize self-doubt as a skewed perspective. Then limit those feelings so they don’t take over and prevent you from reaching your full potential.
As cliche as it may be, creative writers tend to be a little more neurotic than the general population. But this neurosis doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In some cases, your own self-doubt actually pushes you to do better, to be better than you ever expected you could be. That obsessing you do over every word and sentence, that sometimes irrational anxiety after a submission, and even that occasional bout of self-loathing after a rejection are all human emotions, and emotions are a food to fuel your own creativity. It’s in these moments that a wealth of new ideas are often birthed.
“There Is No Beauty Without . . . Some Strangeness . . . ”
When Poe penned some of his works in the 1800s, people dubbed them more than a little strange. In fact, some readers of the Southern Literary Messenger where “Berenice” was first published complained to the editor that the short story was too violent and grotesque. Poe was even accused of creating works that were just “too poetic” to a point that his poems were considered almost vulgar. Nevertheless, Poe created a name for himself, and many people then, and still today, consider these works beautiful in part because of their uniqueness.
Beauty in creative works comes from standing apart from existing works. Just because your writing is different, it doesn’t mean that your work is not admirable. Your voice and technique may be different; they’re supposed to be. Don’t let self-doubt get the best of you.
How well would Poe be remembered if his work had been the same as the others of his time?
“Believe Nothing You Hear, and Only One Half That You See”
— “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”
Poe might have meant the outside world when writing these words, but the same applies to your inner voice and your eyes. Bring some beta readers on board when you finish a written work. You actually need those outside opinions to guide you to a complete and polished piece. Other readers will catch things that you simply cannot see because your work is too close or familiar to you.
For this same reason, you should always hire an editor before you release your work publicly—whether it is before you self-publish or before you send off a manuscript for consideration by a formal publisher. You can’t always trust your own judgement to self-edit, especially with longer pieces.
“The Boundaries Which Divide Life From Death Are at Best Shadowy and Vague. Who Shall Say Where the One Ends, and Where the Other Begins?”
—“The Premature Burial”
Your motivation to finish your half-written work just up and died halfway through. You can’t even stand to look at your work. But don’t toss it! It may be useful later. This happens to all the best writers. You start out excited about an idea, but then somewhere along the way, you lose track of your story goals.
Several years ago, I sat down in my usual pantser fashion, thrilled to start writing a novel-length story I had been building up for months in my mind. Roughly eight chapters in, the thrill was gone—like dead gone. I was tired of the storyline, I was tired of the characters, and I couldn’t find it in me to finish.
I tucked this unfinished piece away on a flash drive that I labeled “the graveyard.” Earlier this year, I pulled out that same piece and found new potential. After revamping the once-dead bones into a short story, I’m rather pleased with the piece and plan to submit it to a few anthology collections.
Instead of scrapping your idea altogether, temporarily bury the work in a shallow grave so you can retrieve it later. You never know when something you once thought dead will find new life in a different form. Poe may have been talking literally with this statement, but the same applies figuratively to your written pieces.
“And Have I Not Told You That What You Mistake for Madness Is But Over-Acuteness of the Sense?”
—“The Tell-Tale Heart”
Readers garner different ideas from a story, poem, or piece, and the best work allows varied interpretation to happen freely. So trying too hard for pinpointed focus can actually hurt your writing, not help it. Besides, nailing down every detail is enough to drive you mad and leave you feeling frustrated.
You don’t have to create a scene, thought, or character with such precision and detail that it hinders readers from drawing their own conclusions—you actually want a little leeway there. This goes along with the “show don’t tell” rule of creative writing. You want to show the reader what they can see, not tell them what they must see.
To put this into perspective, we’ll use a tidbit from “The Raven” in Poe’s natural form of showing versus what it would look like if Poe just told us instead.
“And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.”
But what if he wrote:
“The purple silk curtains moved back and forth.
It made me excited and scared.”
Think about this example. In the first, you can deduce your own ideas as to how the curtains moved and exactly how the narrator feels. On the other hand, the second example gives you no choice but to see precisely what’s happening in a specific way.
By using descriptive language and words with multiple meanings, Poe shows us what is happening without pinpointed focus, leaving us some room for interpretation.
“Take Thy Beak From Out My Heart, And Take Thy Form From Off My Door!”
Believe it or not, Poe was known to be somewhat narcissistic and highly dramatic. He once wrote in a letter to family “I do believe God gave me a spark of genius, but He quenched it in misery.” He also struggled with severe anxiety and depression. While Poe’s life met an abrupt end and some of his most notorious works were never properly recognized while he was alive, this literary great left behind incredible bits of wisdom that are a treasure trove for future generations of creative writers.
Even though that judgmental critic may stay firmly seated above your chamber (or office) door while you write, that doesn’t mean your creative talent is “nevermore.” Get over the self-doubt. Find your way out of the shadow on the floor and allow your written words to flow with a little help from Poe.