“When I write,” Hank began, matter-of-factly, “I start with a very vague focus, and, kind of, just go with the flow. And, you know, I get more specific as things come to interest me. I start filling in my details.”
Hank was tall with a thin build, shaggy brown hair and electric eyes; if he had been talented, and British, one might have confused him with a young John Lennon. On the couch next to Hank, stretched out between us, with her head in his lap and her feet in mine, was Greta. Greta was Hank’s on-again-off-again girlfriend for the better part of two years. Hank idly wrapped an arm around her, and kept talking. Were they on this evening? Or was tonight an off night? I couldn’t tell. She stifled a yawn. Greta had heard him rant before; in fact, we all had. Hank was one of our best friends. He was a bright, witty kid, a writer-to-be, a real thinker, and he played that up. Not a night went by without a literary monologue delivered by our writer-in-residence, our passionate pretentious poet laureate.
“Take, for example, that picture,” Hank said, pointing. On the far wall hung a simple painting of three swans floating in the center of a pristine blue lake. “Say I’m writing a story about this moment, right now.” He turned to catch my eyes. “It’s me, Greta, Drew, Mike, and Jack, and we’re all hanging out in Jack’s basement, and it’s two in the morning.”
“So that’s a start,” I offered. I wanted to see where he’d take this. Drew yawned. This was nothing new. From his pocket, he withdrew a pack of playing cards, and began indifferently shuffling.
“I could start by describing the swans. I could write that there are three of them, shaded in a light cream, calmly floating on the surface of the water.” Hank stared at the painting for a silent moment. Greta looked my way, rolling her eyes, and, maybe, just maybe, just for a second, smiled. I got the nervous feeling this might be an off night.
“But now I have to talk about the water. So I write that the water is still, clean and clear, while still reflecting the blue of the sky, and that it’s a lake, and that there are trees lining the shore.” Mike cleared his throat, and lit a cigarette. Greta caught my eye again, and smiled, and this time I was sure of it.
“And now I have to talk about the trees. They’re tall, maybe redwoods. They’re covered with brown bark from the ground to about twenty feet up, where they start sprouting leaves. And then I could talk about the leaves, and how the sunlight cuts through the branches, and how the water shines, and how all this makes the swans kind of glow.”
Greta arched her back, and slipped one arm under her body, rearranging herself in such a way that her hand was casually draped along my inner thigh. I froze. What was she doing? Did she know what she’s doing?
“And that’s just what’s going on in the painting itself. Now I have to write about the thick gold frame, or the rough plastered wall behind the painting, or the single nail from which it hangs.”
He went on. “And then I’d have to talk about the walls, kind of off-white with wooden trim. And I can’t talk about the walls without describing the ceiling and then the carpet, and then the lights, the windows, the table here, the way these couches intersect. Detail upon detail upon detail. Everything builds.”
Slow as summer, barely moving, Greta’s hand traveled along my thigh, and I felt shivers from my feet, running up the backs of my legs, up my spine, tingling at the scruff of my neck. This was most definitely an off night. Good lord, what could I do? Any sudden movements, and Hank would snap out of his literati daze, and we’d be done for.
“That’s pages of material right there, and I haven’t even gotten to us yet. The five of us and how we’re sitting, the way the light hits Drew’s cards, the way Mike smokes his cig, the sound of my own voice.”
Greta laughed. “That’s your ultimate – writing pages describing nothing but the sound of your own voice.” She rubbed her head against Hank’s legs, snuggling deeper into him. At the same time, she lifted her lower half, and slid her hand deeper into my crotch. Surprised, I jumped, and like lightening striking, Greta grabbed at my groin, holding me tight. I wasn’t going anywhere. Should I say something? Oh god, oh god, oh god.
“My point is,” Hank went on, completely unaware of my growing discomfort, “there’s no way you can accurately capture any moment. You can do your best to describe what is important right then and there, but it’s just impossible to paint the full picture. So many details get ignored.”
Greta lay absolutely still, her face frozen in lazy smile, while her hand fluttered around my zipper at light speed. I bit my tongue, and did my best to sit still. This was torture. Hank went on.
“And it’s not the writer’s fault, even. You only take note of what is of relative importance. If I were writing the painting, I could go on forever. The smartest person in the world could come down here and sit in Jack’s basement and write a full length book all about that painting. Fucking Pavorotti could come down here and write the Three Swans opera. ”
Greta giggled, and used the opportunity to snake her hand through my freshly opened fly. I shot her a look which she pretended not to see.
“But if I were writing just about us, I might not talk about the painting at all. What does a bargain basement painting have to do with the five of us, really? The reality of the story is created responsively to the story itself; you only have to show things that are important to you, right then, right at that moment. The writer creates a relative reality based on necessity.”
My mind was swimming, and everything was happening too fast. If I didn’t stop this, and soon, we were going to have a real problem on our hands. Or, more appropriately, Greta would. Oh lord. I had to think. I had to buy some time. I would have to feed Hank’s fire, keep him talking, keep him distracted.
“Wh-what about the details that just aren’t important?” I managed. Mike leaned forwards and stood up, walking across the room to the recliner where Drew sat, smoking. “I mean, lots of times-” I paused, gulping, my words caught in my throat. Drew stood, and fished in his pocket for his pack of cigarettes, from which he drew two. He placed one behind his ear, and handed other to Mike, who lit the cigarette and once more sat down. “…lots of times, writers add unnecessary details, just to write more, you know?”
“Ugh. Verbosity?” He scoffed. “The sign of an amateur. That’s where a little thing called editing comes in. You go through your manuscript with emotionless efficiency and cut out all signs of extraneousness.”
Drew and Mike did little else for quite some time.
“You just don’t get it, Jack,” he said. “Everything has a purpose. I’m all about this stuff. I’m a writer. I get words.” The blood was pounding in my temples, and Greta showed no signs of stopping. Oh god. “I sit down with a blank page and I throw myself into it, and I create new worlds around me.” My breathing was becoming shallow, and I could feel the pressure slowly rise. “I’m a writer. I have imagination. I am a maker of worlds, man.” I could have sworn I was shaking. Greta’s hands moved at light speed, and everything was happening too fast. “It’s like The Creation. It’s like I’m a god or something. God of words. I am the Word God!” He began laughing, slowly at first, gathering momentum, and building up into a full fledged cackle. Suddenly, uncontrollably, something deep within me exploded into light. My face flushed, my brain skyrocketed, my whole body tingled. I wasn’t sure of anything, but I felt like I was groaning. Drew looked over. Mike dropped his cigarette. Hank, for the first time, stopped talking and turned his head.
“Did I miss something?” he asked. It was going to be a long night.