Just in time for Halloween, we’d like to take a moment to pay tribute to one of the most productive writers of the horror genre, whose bleak (and a little frightening) viewpoint almost single-handedly defined the American gothic horror story. Given that he managed to amass an enormous library of work in a short amount of time, despite a lifetime of sorrow and setback, it is only fitting that we honor Edgar Allan Poe.
It’s hard to imagine a life bleaker than that of Edgar Allan Poe. His father abandoned him at the age of one. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was two. He fell out with his adopted father (who never actually adopted him). His first love died prematurely. He married his cousin when he was 26 and she was 13, and she died after only 11 years of marriage.
All through his short life (he himself died at 40), he was plagued by poverty, alcoholism, depression, and a possible case of temporal lobe epilepsy, among other ailments. He left the University of Virginia, the U.S. Army, and West Point under less-than-ideal conditions, mostly having to do with money.
The end of Poe’s life was suitably mysterious: he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore in someone else’s clothes, before dying of unknown causes four days later. His death has been attributed to causes as varied as a beating, epilepsy, alcoholism, heart disease, hypoglycemia, diabetes, rabies, carbon monoxide poisoning, and even murder.
Despite all of these handicaps, Poe produced a brilliant body of work that remains as widely-read today as in his peak of the 1830s and 1840s. He was influential in developing and refining both the horror and science-fiction genres, as well as inventing the detective story genre with his The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
So how did he do it? In part, he was able to use his own obsessions and preoccupations as fodder for his stories. Dr. Mark Canada credits Poe’s creativity to his ability to use ‘reverie,’ meaning “relaxation, meditation, hypnosis, fantasy, daydreaming, sensory deprivation, or some similar state,” to tap into the creative parts of the right hemisphere of his brain, which “is a source of visual, musical, and emotional imagery and indeed plays an important role in creativity.”
According to Canada, Poe achieved this reverie mainly through two techniques: hypnagogia (also known as lucid dreaming, “a state between waking and sleep, in which a person is subject to striking sensations”) and taking to the outdoors. In an 1844 letter to James Russell Lowell, Poe wrote: “I am excessively slothful, and wonderfully industrious—by fits. There are epochs when any kind of mental exercise is torture, and when nothing yields me pleasure but solitary communion with the ‘mountains & the woods’ … I have thus rambled and dreamed away whole months, and awake, at last, to a sort of mania for composition. Then I scribble all day, and read all night, so long as the disease endures.”
That may not be the healthiest road to productivity, but there’s no denying Poe’s nearly supernatural output. What, then, can we learn from Poe about harnessing our own creativity?
We typically call this lucid dreaming, but “hypnagogia” sounds much cooler, don’t you think? It’s been used by personalities as varied as Aristotle, Isaac Newton, Beethoven, and Salvador Dali to solve problems and apply the creativity of the unconscious dreamscape to the “real” world.
Got a problem you want to solve, or trying to think in new and creative ways? Immediately before going to sleep, make lists of the things you want to deal with or simply the ideas that come to you. Thomas Edison would take catnaps while holding a steel ball. When he fell asleep enough that he dropped the ball, the sound of its landing would wake him up and he would write down the ideas that had come to him. More recently, a growing body of scientific evidence is linking sleep and dreams to the power of creativity.
Get in touch with nature
Getting out into nature and away from the everyday pressures of life can clear the mind and help you focus on the things you need to. Getting outside has multiple benefits, from boosting memory and increasing brain function to improving overall mental health. Jot down the ideas that come to you while outside (or record an audio note as you walk), and while you may not feel Poe’s “mania for composition,” you can use those ideas as fuel to spark your own great ideas.
Write what you know
Poe’s obsessions and life events show up over and over in his work. His stories and poems are packed with references to disease, premature death, lost love, and alcohol, among others. Grim subjects, but there’s a positive lesson here for all of us: you can leverage the things that most occupy your own mind, making use of your unique expertise or even turning distractions into opportunities. Capture all the ideas in your head, big or small. Organize and examine them, and see how they impact each other.
Poe’s enduring legacy
While Edgar Allan Poe may be best known for gruesome tales of horror, death, and misery, his legacy—to those who can see past the gothic aspects of his work—is of inspiration and creativity to be admired and emulated. By examining the techniques he used to tap into that creativity, we can aim to bring a little of Poe’s genius into our own personal and professional lives.