#1: Gothic Novels and Ideal Readers

Dearest younses

Hi hi and welcome to the Black Cardigan Edit newsletter #1! These letters, which I’ll be sending twice a week, will contain advice, enthusiasms and curiosities related to writing and creativity. Tuesday’s notes will be longer; Thursday’s, much shorter. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want this to be—knowing it will morph as it goes along—and for now what I hope is that this letter will be a friendly thing that lands in your inbox twice a week that is occasionally, kismetically, useful to whatever creative project you’re working on.

For the first month, I thought I’d concentrate on strategies for getting unblocked. First exhibit up: Horace Walpole (‘Horry’ to his pals).

Horry Walpole And The Order Of The Ideal Reader

Back in 1764, Horace Walpole did us all a great favor by publishing the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. He wrote the book in a feverish (possibly laudanum-fueled) two-month stretch, and it reads like it was written in a feverish (possibly laudanum-fueled) two-month stretch: late into the night, the author’s hand moving steadily across the page, not even pausing to break the action into paragraphs.

Walpole also wrote letters. Thousands and thousands of them in his lifetime, and they are wonderful—as funny and sophisticated as Castle of Otranto is bludgeoning. I read a collection of them a couple years ago when I was writing an essay on Walpole for Longreads and I still think about them all the time. (In memory they’ve become the epistolary equivalent of having once seen the Scarlet Pimpernel darting around.)

Walpole was one of those people who stuffed about three or four full careers into one life, and his interests were all over the place: politics, literature, genealogy, art, and so on. He wrote letters on all these subjects, but he was selective in his audience. The letters on antiquities, for example, always went to a particular clergyman-scholar who lived in the country. The letters on politics went to a British diplomat in Italy; an old college friend got the letters on literature; and so on.

We all do a little of this, directing our conversation differently based on our audience, but what I’m describing with Walpole is something more consciously systematic. My theory is that these correspondents represented various Ideal Readers for Walpole and that he found it easier to write when addressing someone specific than when facing the page with no distinct recipient in mind. He was careful to choose readers who would understand and appreciate his letters. With them he could be fluid; he could be subtle; he could show off because he was certain that whichever way he zigged, these particular Ideal Readers would follow.

Advice For The Stuck And Anxious About It!

One strategy when you get stuck on something—I mean, really knee-deep in the sludge—is to pick a better “to” to write towards. Sometimes, often without being quite conscious of it, you can end up having anointed the wrong Reader to preside over a project, someone who’s either daunting or hostile or for whatever reason just freezes you up. It can be someone close to you that you fear upsetting (or disappointing) by what you’re writing, or it can be some person you hardly know who said something terrible once and now haunts your brain like a crap poltergeist. It can be completely random! (I went through a period of being menaced by Vladimir Nabokov and another by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing). If I sound glib I don’t mean to—what keeps us from writing is often really painful.

I’ve used the method below a few times. It’s a good Break Glass in Case of Emergency go-to. I think it’s most helpful when you’ve had a subject and an outline rattling around your head for a while, but whenever you open the Word file you feel nervous and almost as if you had stage fright, like if you opened your mouth you’d just barf up a thousand index cards all scribbled with tiny, furious notes. Or when you keep deleting things as soon as you write them and thinking “Christ, what an asshole” about yourself. That is when I’d go Horry Walpole on it.

When Walpole had a really burning nugget of something to say about a fifteenth-century church stone he’d recently come across, did he write about it to his urbane gossipy diplomat friend in Venice? No, he didn’t! The diplomat friend would have found the subject dead boring and Horry knew it. Did he sit down and say, “I think this will really knock the socks off David Remnick”? No! He wrote about it to his wonderful country clergyman acquaintance who knew a lot about these things and was absolutely de-fucking-lighted to get a letter on the subject. I encourage you to try to think of some equivalent of “wonderful, knowledgeable clergyman” for your particular project—a warm, intelligent presence who wants to hear what you have to say—and address your first draft to them. You don’t have to talk down to this Ideal Reader—they can keep up! And you owe them some things, like telling the truth and doing your best, etc. etc. But there’s no reason to be tongue-tied around them either. Remember, this Reader wants to hear what you have to say. Take a few breaths. You’re ready. Your wonderful, knowledgeable, slightly peppery clergyman is ready. Just start. Talking.

Choose Your Own Gothic Adventure!

If you wrote a Gothic novel what would be your setting? Mine would be set at a yoga studio, and it would tell the tale about an innocent who, leaving a super-crowded hot yoga class, must attempt a perilous journey through the ladies locker room to get some tissue and check the mirror to confirm that she looks as hideous and sweaty as she thinks she does (yes). To achieve this she must get past dozens (maybe hundreds?) of harried naked women all stampeding toward the showers. It’d be called Castle of O-boob-o.

About Black Cardigan Edit

At Black Cardigan Edit, I work one on one with both writers and non-writers. You can read more about it here. I’m also looking for part-time freelance work with a magazine/ website (particularly features features features). If you’d like to talk about a project, email me at blackcardiganedit@gmail.com.

All right, younses,

Carrie Frye
Black Cardigan Edit