The heater beneath the desk roars to life.
I unclench my fingers with relief. I’m freezing alive in this underground dungeon, the basement that holds my writing desk.
“God damn, it’s cold in here.”
I spin around in my chair which audibly protests this unexpected motion. A silhouette appears at the door and I audibly protest this unexpected visitor. “Can I help you?”
The ghost leans in the threshold, inspecting the inhumanity in which I dwell. She says in a familiar voice: “What are you writing about?”
I rise from my seat and extend a “listen-here” finger to the nuisance at my door—no, not a nuisance. A nuisance is a hot buttered cob in your lap. Or the third in a sequence of non-functioning ballpoints. Or the mid-way-through realization, ‘Er, this isn’t my toothbrush.’
A wild truculent hog has been unleashed in my bureau: What are you writing about?
I wince at the sight of What are you writing about?, the gruesome swine now snorting around my office. She is going to ruin my second-hand rug and my writing time. I stride two-three-four steps to the cabinet and fling it wide.
A sourdough dust fills the air. A stack of virgin notebooks, an empty box labeled ‘Chekhov’s pocketknife,’ two long-tarnished Champagne flutes in silver, and the meat cleaver I am looking for.
Mmm. My eyebrows lift at the cutlery in the grip of my fingers. What are you writing about? sniffs the corners of my desk, hypnotized by aromas of long-expired prose in the trash.
I hold my breath. Seizing both opportunity and curly tail, my cleaver descends and rends the backside of What are you writing about? I slice off the final term, a preposition; the swine barely notices her missing rump.
- Around; all round; on every side of.
- In the immediate neighborhood of.
- Over or upon different parts of.
About isn’t any place I know. You can roam about, but you can’t visit it. You can look about, but you can’t look at it. You can feel about, but it’s impossible to touch. About is around, over, and upon; it’s everything but the thing.
About needs an it, doesn’t it? And what is it? It’s not Maria Von Trapp twirling on The Alps, nor the war swirling around her, nor the melodies whirling around all that, nor this unfurling sentence of indefinite length. The it of this bloody rump in my hand is What are you writing?
And that backless hog is presently gorging maggot-covered free verse from my garbage can.
It’s amusing that this unwanted visitor is such a fan of my work. I give the cleaver a jaunty spin while stepping toward What are you writing? I take full aim for the shoulder (sometimes, confusingly, known as the butt) and slice What off with ease.
- As an interrogative pronoun, used in asking questions regarding either persons or things; as, what is this? what did you say? what poem is this? what child is lost?
What is tough. Let’s answer What is not:
I don’t write for the papers, it’s far too about for me. I used to write narcissistic preambles to white-girl recipe blogs, but that’s a younger man’s game. I don’t write Tweets; deliberate overstatement to say nothing at all. I am categorically not working on a goddamn roman à clef, so stop asking. I am not writing a manifesto, libretto, or cappuccino. I am not writing semantic snares to lure unsuspecting humans into attention traps that urge them to consider, after much cerebral chafing, that they should have a go at this or that soap—though I hear it pays well. I am not writing a self-help book, because I neither believe in help or the self. I am not smearing feces on a rock wall somewhere deep the woods though I am eminently moved by the honesty of that medium. I am not writing a sestina.
Right now I am writing this. And Are you writing? is snout-deep in a now-collapsed pile of fresh, unsent letters.
God damn it. Those are not trash! I assume two-three-four seething steps toward the greedy beast, but she has learned to avoid my lunge. I fall into a pile of books never-read while she topples a pile of books meant-to-make-me-look-smart.
The taste of copper on my tongue brings clarity. This isn’t the way to snare a wild hog. On my knees, I make way to the wastepaper basket and fish out an aborted essay about The Writing Process which has congealed into a thick mucoid slime.
I offer Are you writing? my slime-covered hand. She cautiously sniffs the aroma of overwrought prose and begins licking my fingers.
I set down the cleaver and wonder at Are you writing? who snorts happily. With my other hand I pat her head, which is covered with tiny hairs. Swine flesh is a lot like human flesh, not that I’ve touched either in awhile.
A flicker of pity moves through me. She didn’t choose to be in this cold cellar. I did. I ease the rest of the fetid goo into her mouth. It almost looks like she’s smiling. From my front pocket, I fish out a small pocketknife, flick it to life, and slit her throat.
It floods my lap with blood.
I reset the knife and rise to my feet. Sorry darling. With my boot on her chest and cleaver in hand I make a confident wack at the bone above her throat.
Brain and skull, skin and snout, rolls away. With hands covered in ink, blood, and rotten prose, I place the head upon my desk.
Are you? lies lifeless on the floor, a pink barrel painting my rug in wasteful, bloody, glugs.
I am the act. I am the art. I am what I eat. I am what I do. I am raiding my office with an instrument that sharpens with each use. The pen. I am surrounded with dust, and destruction, and reams of unpublished prose turning to humus. I am witness to the death of a question; sentenced to the capital crime of being unanswerable.
I am putting my office back together. I am choosing a clutch of thoughts right now from a billion a minute and smacking them to existence with wet metal on soft paper.
And I am confronting two eyes of wonder made inert, now looking at nothing in particular, forever. I hold the last of this hog, this piece of Writing, in my hands. Unexpectedly, it’s warm to the touch.