If your words touch only one, it’s enough.
February 1, 2016
IT’S THE NATURE of a writer to have grandiose hopes.
Writers may exploit talent, but they live on hope, and they grow their expectations with every story that pours with blood, guts, love, and delirium out of their computer.
However, I’m afraid that writers, through the years, have mostly died in ignorance.
They never know if their words – the first or the last – made any difference at all. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, came to the end of life believing he was a failure. And he was the writer of literary classics.
Sometimes great literature begins so small. Writers spend their lives with a bottle, hoping to catch lightning, and usually there is no lightning in the sky.
When the lightning struck near, Edgar Allan Poe, he grabbed it and held on.
In 1845, he wrote The Raven and sold the poem to Graham’s Magazine for nine dollars.
Nine lousy dollars.
Poe had been writing for years, but one little nine-dollar poem transformed him into a rock star throughout the literary world.
He toured the country and packed in large audiences everywhere he traveled.
He read his work aloud.
He kept writing.
He kept touring.
And Edgar Allan Poe became the first American author to make a living exclusively on his writing.
Poe always chose the right words.
He has been given credit for inventing the mystery genre, based largely on the exploits of Auguste C. Dupin in three stories: The Murder in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter. Dupin just happened to be fiction’s first real, live, genuine detectives.
In fact, Poe’s dedicated study of the criminal mind is known to have had a definite impact on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation of Sherlock Holmes.
Sir Arthur, perhaps, wrote the most detective stories.
Poe did it first.
Poe also chased his imagination into the realm of science, which allowed him to produce his only novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a tale of mutiny and cannibalism as it followed the adventures of a stowaway on a sailing vessel exploring the unknown regions of the Arctic.
Poe then turned out a short story for the New York Sun, which treated his work of fiction as a genuine, hot-off-the-press news story. Maybe the Sun didn’t know any better. The great hoax centered on a traveler who flew across the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon.
In Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, he told of a comet striking earth and triggering an epidemic that swept the country with a death that no one wanted to imagine. He had become a genius at adding just enough authentic details to make the stories seem authentic and believable.
And a nation of readers trembled at his words.
They were chilling, to be sure.
They were macabre, which was Poe’s trademark.
But Poe’s wild and vivid ventures into cosmology, the origins of the universe, and Mesmerism – the idea that a mysterious substance known as ether could be manipulated to alter someone’s thoughts – has been credited for inspiring the science fiction genre.
Jules Verne even credited Edgar Allan Poe with providing a great influence on his own writing. His Five Weeks in a Balloon came from Poe’s great balloon hoax, and Verne’s An Antarctic Mystery could be traced to Poe’s novel about the stowaway Gordon Pym.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote.
He was rejected.
He was tormented.
And his own death was as mysterious as his fiction. He disappeared for five days and was said to be wandering the street of Baltimore. He had been drinking heavily. He was found wearing clothes that belonged to somebody else. They were definitely not his own. And his cause of death ranged from alcoholism to rabies, from heart disease to suicide.
He was only forty when he breathed his last, and his last words traveled to the grave with him.
But Poe left so much for those writers who followed him
From the madness of his mind came the mystery story.
From the curiosity of his mind came the foundation for science fiction as a genre.
And all he had to offer were words.
But his words didn’t.
Words never do.
When it’s all said and done, our words are the only legacy we have to leave behind.
Our words may impact many.
They may only touch one.
But sometimes, one is enough.
Night Side of Dark is my latest noir thriller. It has 99,000 words. I hope one of them works.