Heavens, what is the matter with all my characters! Not one of them will budge. They’ve all stopped dead in the middle of their stories and gone to sleep; gone into a fatal coma presaging death itself. And here just a short time ago they were all so alive! But now, poor things! A deadly blight has fallen upon all of them. Not one of them will take up the thread of his or her story and finish the pattern I have so carefully planned.
There’s “Virginia” for instance, up there at the edge of the woods—indeed the girl’s been stuck there for two weeks or more. What’s the matter with the creature! All she has to do to bring her story to a climax is to pick up her bunch of goldenrod and walk down the path to the house. ” ‘Virginia,’ dear ‘Virginia,’ won’t you please?—You who have told me so many stories about yourself—wanted to tell them to me—won’t you please finish this one? All you have to do is to move out from among the blackberry brambles, step into the path—and really, it’s such a good little trail! I think it would do the rest—fetch you straight down to the bottom of the hill and the end of your story. That young brother of yours that you’re so fond of could bring you down, but alasl I don’t yet know what he is called. I’ve tried a lot of names but he answers to none of them, and as long as I don’t know how to call him, how can he call you? ‘Virginia,’ won’t you please? Won’t you please come home to your author dragging your tale behind you?” No, she won’t! She who has been so alive, so distinct, walked about in my mind, and discussed the problems of life with me, she’s dead now, poor girl! The goldenrod will have to be used for the funeral. But she needn’t expect me to attend the obsequies!
When characters attempt suicide Eke this they get no countenance from their authors.
Well then, what about “Leah”? The gangplank of her story was all laid, all she had to do was to walk along it, board the ship of Romance and sail to a triumphant port. Poor “Leah,” what a sad life the woman has had! She appeared in my mind only lately, confided to me much of her unhappy experience—wanted me to know all about it, felt I was the one person who could really understand—finished her story almost to the last paragraph, and then alas! fell into this strange coma. ” ‘Leah,’ please go on! Won’t you please—?” No, nothing from her today.
Well, anyway there’s always “Pappy.” If I speak to him in his own dialect it may woo him into life. “Say, ‘Pap,’ won’t you tell me about that there wildcat you thought you seen up yander on The Ridge?” Hooray! “Pappy” does unlimber a bit—his own tongue is sweet to his ear! I can see him distinctly sitting before the fire in his own log cabin, and now he fetches out his plug of tobacco and “bites him off a chaw,” which is always a good sign. “Go ahead, ‘Pappy.’ I’m all ready, all attention. . . . Go ahead, ‘Pappy’. . . . Go a—oh, go to Guinea! Do you think I have time to sit here all day waiting for a temperamental old fellow like you?”
Well, I’ll have a try at “Caroline” and that invalid sister of hers. “Caroline” is a writer herself; one would think she would be ready to help a fellow craftsman. No, she won’t, the jade! And the invalid sister, “Lucy,” does nothing but cough. “Caroline” is afraid “Lucy” is going into a decline—Well, she certainly declines everything today! “And the next time you want sympathy over ‘Lucy’s’ cough, ‘Caroline’ my girl, you’ll just step around to some other author!”
No, they’re all stuck. Even my old familiar and fantastic friend “Tony Beaver” has retired into his log camp “Up Eel River,” and apparently pulled the river in after him. This is Death in The Desert—my mind is the desert, and the characters are lying around dead in it!
Suddenly it comes to me that they are not really dead but are waiting for something. “Caroline” puts up her hand in a delicate gesture for silence; “Pappy” glances quickly over his shoulder, and even “Lucy” stops coughing to listen. Why all of them are waiting for something—for somebody. They’ve caught the sound of an approach I haven’t heard yet, and there they are, all listening, expecting—hoping—
Why, here is “Peter”!
“Well, but ‘Peter,’ who are you? I never saw you before in all my life; how did you happen to pop into my mind? As far as I know I had no sign out, ‘Peter needed/ ‘Boy wanted,’ or anything like that, so how did you happen to come, and how did all those other characters know you were on the way? ‘Peter,’ you are charming! I do like you, but where in the world did you come from! One minute ago there was just nothing, and now here you are! Oh, you needn’t laugh 1 Of course I recognize some of the snips and snails, and puppy dogs’ tails out of which you are compounded, and I also know only too well the emotion which informs you! Nevertheless it is extraordinary that out of this scrap-heap of fact, fancy, and emotion, there should arise ‘Peter’!”
“Peter” smiles at me most engagingly and begins in a Southern drawl, “We ‘as skeered about the fella — we thought he was gonna d-i-e!”
“O ‘Peter’! How dreadful! Will you tell me all about it some day?” No, not some day—apparently it’s got to be this day! That is why “Peter” has come, and that is what all the others have been waiting for. This is his day. You might think it was Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, or anyway Friday, but no, it’s “Peter’s” day! It’s the only day in all the year on which he will tell me that story about the “feller” they thought “was gonna die,” and I’m the only author in all the world to whom he will tell it—now or never! Me or nobody! Such is “Peter.” “All right then, ‘Peter,’ go ahead! The others won’t budge anyhow until you are through. They’ve all picked up their stories and stepped out of the ring. Very, polite of them, I’m sure! But also very trying to their author. Very well, ‘Peter,’ all ready now! But stop a bit—What’s the title of your story?” “Why, how could it be anything but ‘Here Is Peter’?” “Of course, I see it couldn’t and if it can only have one title then it will have no zigzagging, but will shoot straight to the mark. Go ahead, ‘Peter,’ you’re alive anyway. Wait, wait, not quite so fast! I can’t take dictation as fast as that.”
“Peter” is absolutely adorable! So real, so in a hurry to crowd his story into my hand (“Not so fast, please!”). All the other characters, having accorded “Peter” the spotlight, have retired to the fringe of my mind, and settled themselves to listen to him. And now because he is so alive, he somehow infuses vitality into them. They needed “Peter” as badly as a cynical world needed Charles Augustus Lindbergh, and they are sure if Lindbergh had not flown the Atlantic in that perfect flight, “Peter” would have done it. “Virginia” up there at the edge of the woods relaxes at last, and sits down. Poor girl 1 I should think she’d be glad to; she’s been stuck there in exactly the same position for two mortal weeks. She sits down, and half listens to “Peter” and half philosophizes about him, as is her way. “Pappy” likes “Peter” immensely—”Be dogged if he don’t put me right much in mind of one time when I was a young feller.” “Pappy” bites him off a fresh “chaw” with eagerness. “All right, ‘Pappy’—all right, but just keep that story until tomorrow. Remember you wouldn’t give it to me when I wanted it, and now ‘Peter’ ‘s on the wire.” “Caroline” is laughing over my difficulties with “Peter’s” lingo. “0 ‘Caroline,’ does he say ‘at,’ or ‘dat,’ for that?”
“Peter” has the most charming way of confiding his story rather than telling it, and every now and then a little singsong picks up his words with a rising inflection and hands | them over to me, as though he said, “This is just for you— for you! I wouldn’t—couldn’t—tell it to any other author on earth.” “O ‘Peter,’ what a flatterer! Not quite so fast— please!”
And so “Peter’s” story comes in, comes in almost as fast as I can write it, spinning itself into my mind, running like a smooth shuttle without hitch or tangle. But why does it come so easily when no amount of effort on my part could disentangle the threads of all those other stories? And where does it come from? Oh, of course I know something j of its composition, but what transferred it suddenly from the outer world of fact into the inner of fancy? Made “Peter” himself appear, take on personality, and walk about there within the walls of my mind ? Did an unheard trumpet blow somewhere so that all the rags and tags of fact and emotion within me were precipitated into a pattern called “Peter”? And how much does emotion have to do with fiction? Oh, no doubt a very great deal. There was once an author who experienced an emotion so intense that it transmuted itself into four short stories and an essay before ! it was exhausted. And even then there was enough left over for a poem or two.
Possibly emotion is the magnet by which stories are drawn into the mind. One may think they are “made up” when perhaps after all they are “drawn in.” Perhaps they are j out there blowing around somewhere in space when all at ; once an opening appears in an author’s mind and a story ! squeezes through it, and appears all ready to be poured into | words. “Oh,” some reader may exclaim, “Is that the way j people write?” Well, sometimes — one must take with a j grain of salt what is said about writing—and let the salt be Attic! |
Well, “Peter’s” story is finished. It rose at the end like a rocket, burst into a shower of words, and disappeared into the dark. “Oh, thank you! Thank you, ‘Peter’!”
We exchange a gay salute. Mine says, “Come again!” His says, “Perhaps!” He vanishes, but he has left his tale | behind him. Where has he gone? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t put it beyond “Peter” to approach some other author, and say in just the same engaging manner with which he wooed me, “I couldn’t tell this story to any other writer on earth, but just you!”
And now that “Peter’s” story, is finished, there is a rattling of dry bones, and all the other characters show signs of life, and indicate a desire to continue with their narratives. “All right, good people! But not today—today is ‘Peter’s’ day: and anyway, what do you think I’m made of?” But now at last how alive you all are! “Virginia” is all ready now to step into the little path; “Pappy” longs to tell me about that wildcat, and “Leah” has a fresh trouble which she wishes to confide to me. As I walk about in my thoughts, looking at you, numbering the hairs of your head, all at once I am half afraid you may suddenly come to life right there inside my head, and if you did, goodness knows what would become of me! I’m afraid I’d split up like a glass snake into half a dozen pieces; and which would be me, which you, and which the original author, heaven only knows!
But now you are really alive, and tomorrow things will begin to happen; the stick will beat the dog, the dog will bite the pig, the pig will get over the stile, and I really, shall get home with a story from one of you before dark! And all thanks to “Peter”! But who was “Peter,” why is a writer, and what is fiction?