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On Giving An Author A Plot
by [?]

There are two people who annoy an author more than any others–the person who calmly supposes that everything he writes is biographical, or even autobiographical, and the person who declares, “I’ve got a dandy plot for you”–and proceeds to tell it.

The first person, of course, is annoying, because an author’s stories always are either biographical or autobiographical, and he never cares to admit, even to himself, how true this is. To be sure, his characters are composites, and his self-revelations are rather possibilities (or even, alas, Freudian wishes!) than records of actuality. But fancy trying to explain that to a gushing female who has developed a sudden passion for calling on your wife, and is heard to remark, “Oh, is that where he writes?” as you flee by a back door, down the garden!

The second person is annoying not so much because most of the “dandy plots” that he or she tells are hoary with age, or even because most writers don’t start with a ‘plot’ at all, and couldn’t define a plot if they had to; but rather because a writer, however humble, has to feel the idea for a story come glowing up over the horizon of his brain out of the east of his own subconsciousness, or it is never his, it never acquires the necessary warmth to interest him, the color and light to make it real. This is a curious fact, and one which your modest writer shrinks from trying to explain to his well-meaning friend, lest he seem egotistical. Only the blessed publicity of print could draw him out. Yet the psychology involved perhaps deserves some attention.

Suppose it is my common method, in writing a story, to start from some social situation which illumines a strata of life; suppose, let us assume, that I am present at a dinner party where a radical has got in by mistake and says something which profoundly shocks some capitalistic pirate who honestly feels himself a pillar of law and order, and in this situation I see an irony which gradually demands fictional expression, as imagined characters and more extensive clashes begin to shape in my brain. There you have a not at all impossible evolution of a story. But now suppose that instead of my being present at this party, a friend had been present, quite as alive as I to the ironies of the situation, and suppose my friend later repeated the incident to me–why should it not serve me just as well, why should it not start the fictional urge, the gestation of character and incident?

Generalizing is dangerous work. Of course, there may be authors in whom it would start the process. But I have never known one. Even in so exceptional a case as this–of course, the usual friendly suggestion has no real meat of fiction in it at all–something is lacking to fire the imagination. It is exactly as if your nose were called upon to sense, or your retina to image, an odor or a scene described to you and not directly experienced. Your brain accepts the description, but there is no warmth in the reaction, no tingle of life. Just so, it would almost seem, the conception for a story, a poem, no doubt for a picture, too, or a strain of music, is something less, or more, than merely mental; it is in some subtle way sensory, as if the brain had fingers which must themselves touch the thing directly to get the feel of it. Is it not, perhaps, this fact which has caused so many artists, consciously or unconsciously, to believe in “inspiration”?

The singing line walks from nowhere into the poet’s head, the perfect situation comes to the writer of fiction when he is least expecting it. To take a humble example, I was once sitting in an editor’s office, listening while he expounded to me a grand “plot” for a series of stories. I looked across the street from his window to avoid his eyes, lest I should show my lack of appreciation, and there beheld a slight incident which I instantly knew was a starting-point. It turned out to be worth a year’s income to me. Yet, to a merely impersonal judgment, the editor’s idea was more interesting and worth while than mine. Only it wasn’t mine; that’s the point. It was foreign born, and could never become a citizen of my mental commonwealth. I have not quite reached the pitch of calling my ideas inspirations, but I long ago recognized that unless they were my ideas from the dim days before their birth they could never be mine, and it was only a waste of time to wrestle with them. So when a friend declares he has a dandy plot for me, I summon what patience I may and pretend to listen, while planning a better succession of perennials for next year’s garden, or mentally reviewing the prospect of cutting three strokes off my golf score.