Aphelion Issue 261, Volume 25
May 2021
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The Writer

by Nikhil Kshirsagar

The psychiatrist opened the door to his office and welcomed the new arrival with a friendly smile. The man had walked in without an appointment, but luckily there was nothing else scheduled at that time. He noted the unhurried and languid manner in the way the man moved, as if he had all the time in the world. Perhaps a bit presumptuous, he thought, given that the fellow had walked in without an appointment.

Once he settled him in and small talk had been dispensed with, he waited for the man to speak his mind. After a while he realized the patient did not seem to pay much heed to the fact that there was a clock ticking. Maybe a gentle prod in the right direction would help.

“So, what brings you to my office, sir, how may I help you?”, he asked. In response, the man had simply smiled and begun to look around the office. The psychiatrist waited a few minutes but nothing was forthcoming. He tried again.

“Sometimes, I find all it takes for a solution to present itself for a person troubled with a seemingly unsolvable problem, is to speak his mind frankly and in total detail with another person. You would be surprised at how helpful mere conversation is. If all you need is a friend, you may treat me as one, during these sessions. But sir, we must remember we are bound by the usual rules of time, and my next appointment will be here soon.”

The man looked at him, apparently struggling to find the right words. Then his face changed as if to internally say to himself something along the lines of “Oh, the hell with it”, or “Here goes nothing”, or something else, perhaps a thought that the psychiatrist could not read, and he began to tell his strange story, groping for the right words at first but more and more confident as he went along. This is what he said.

“I’ve come to you, not as a last resort, but as a first. Perhaps my malady is something you may have cured the opposite of. No it’s not what you think. Let me explain.

I’m a writer, sir. I live alone. I was born abroad and moved to this country a few months ago. I make a living writing stories for various anthologies and collections of fiction. In my own country, I had gained quite a reputation over the years. You may have come across some of my stories if you’re a reader of modern fiction (No? I see), or perhaps seen certain offbeat films (No?) whose scripts were based on my stories, borrowing an idea or two, or at times the entire story. They did not seem to find favor with the general mainstream public, but went on to gain quite a loyal following in the underground circuit.

Years ago, when I began writing for a living, it seems my approach was acknowledged to be somewhat original. Perhaps it was my habit of writing with paper and pen? I’m old school, you know. Whatever it was, fortuitously for me, it seems my writing had particular nuances which were unique and original, leading to analysis over time by both scholars as well as students of literature, to try and understand what it was derived from, and which writers seeded my thoughts and lent their unknowing hands into making me who I was. I’d never write in anything but the first person. My narrators always seemed to be telling their own stories. It seemed to my readers I never wrote about anyone else but me. But as time went on, the situations my protagonists found themselves in, got increasingly complex, surreal, and difficult to resonate with reality. Reality, as you know sir, is bland, mundane and downright boring. Isn't it?”

The psychiatrist smiled and agreed. He let the man carry on.

“And so, over the years, as is bound to happen, my ideas began to lose their sheen. There is such a thing as running out of ideas, you know. And I must also tell you something about the process of writing itself. It’s no good sitting at a desk, pen raised over paper, waiting for ideas to strike. Writing is a by-product of doing. Where do original ideas come from anyway, but from the things you see and hear. When I began to recycle old or borrowed ideas giving them what I felt was an adequate tweak, my readers distanced me. Reviews were generally unfavorable. A change was needed. A crisis was looming. And you might think of it as something every writer must go through, and solving it is the art of survival, perhaps.

One day a solution arrived. Or perhaps I should say, one night!

Now, I’m generally not a light sleeper. I’ve slept through earthquakes, storms, neighborhood mayhem. One day I woke and upon re-reading the draft of a story I had written out the earlier night, I noticed something strange. It was changed, with certain parts crossed out and written over. My notes in the margins were also commented upon by a superior writer. My ending was entirely re-written. The edited manuscript was placed on my writing desk for me to wake up and discover the mastery and favor of my unknown benefactor.

I read the modified draft, and knew there could be no better version. I sent it off to the publishers and received enthusiastic responses that reminded me of my heyday. The presence of this mystery person interested more than troubled me, and I felt in time whoever it was would reveal themselves and their reasons.

Nothing of the sort. This ‘ghostwriting’ carried on. Whoever it was, was obviously capable of breaking into my room knowing when I was deeply asleep, and worked silently, rapidly and efficiently. He (or she) obviously knew my writing well enough to know just what to tweak. I received no clues as to the identity of this person. All I would get were far superior stories than the ones my mediocre and saturated mind could conjure up. In fact the real genius of this person was to use my very same themes and ideas but with much better results. I think it’s more difficult to change an average idea to an excellent one, than to create an excellent one from scratch.

This happened at least twice a week, if not more. A few months of this, and I was resurrected as a writer. My reputation was re-established, and recently, some stories of mine were even marked as recommended reading for college degrees and literature diplomas. This is all very recent. I am in the process of becoming one of the stalwarts of the field, one of the names people throw at each other in art galleries and literature workshops, discussing my style, my re-inventing myself, and this new ‘phase’ of my fiction writing. As a writer, you could say I saved face. But to whom did I owe this face-lift?

It was time to find out. At first I locked my windowless bedroom and kept the key under my pillow as I slept. As if to mock my absurd attempts at obstructing my own advancement, the next morning I found the first complete story my ghostwriter had written. My incomplete draft was untouched this time, but placed on it were newly written pages, detailing a story composed of ideas and concepts I was completely incapable of conjuring up.

Now this I could no longer pretend to ignore. Until now, I would assuage my guilt by telling myself that the stories were mine and merely modified. But sending this brilliant work off for publication under my name presented an ethical problem of a less ambiguous nature. I needed to know who visited in the night and left me written pearls that were so brilliant that not sending them off for publication would have been an equal sin.

The next thing I tried was to place a hidden camera in the room. While this is not as easy as it sounds, I managed to eventually disguise it behind one of the light fixtures, which also I left turned on, so I’d be able to see with enough clarity what the camera would capture. It turned out all this stealthiness was completely unnecessary.

The next few nights passed without incident. Neither did the camera capture anything but my sleeping form, nor was there any new material for me to read and learn from. However, the fourth night I did see something. It happened around three AM or so, the time I supposed myself to be in deepest sleep, dreaming of things that did not matter.

What I saw was myself, rising from my bed and walking to and sitting at my writing desk, my eyes still shut, my chest still rising and falling uniformly, and (if you still think there is any doubt in the matter), my loud snoring accompanying silent writing that I proceeded to scribble out without a single pause. I wrote for more than an hour. Then without fuss, I laid the pen back in its proper place before sleepwalking back to my bed. What I left for my waking self to read that astonished morning turned out to be a fiction piece that earned me a recent Queen Mary Wasafiri award for literary achievement.

Subsequently, I watched myself perform this sleep-writing several nights, almost each time coming up with true and original masterpieces that are, as we speak, redefining the very nature and structure of the short fiction story format itself. Greater writers than me have begun to imitate my style, the most significant honor one writer affords another. This was all a dream come true, and even the little guilt I had felt for using plagiarized ideas faded away. Do you think it’s strange that I proudly claim the material as mine though I could never come up with anything like it in my waking life?”

It was a few seconds before the psychiatrist realized he was expected to interject and answer. The patient waited motionless, not speaking. “No”, he finally managed, “No, it’s not strange. You’re still you when you’re asleep”, he said. “Continue, please, this is most fascinating”.

“Well”, the man continued, “this happy partnership flourished for a while. But then something changed in the style and manner of what I was writing out in my sleep. And you’re probably wondering where you fit in, and why I’ve come to see you, and I’m getting to that bit now.

What I began to find on my writing desk in the mornings were initially nonsensical writings, then progressing on to disturbing material. Some days it was total gibberish, or bland stories replete with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. And sometimes I would be staring in the morning at foolish and inane rhymes, like those absurd and nonsensical songs children invent for themselves, to sing to themselves. The video recordings of these instances show nothing unusual - (to use the term with generous license) - what I mean is, my dozing demeanor was no different than when I’d leave myself coherent and creative masterpieces.

Then one day I found myself reading a demon infant’s graphic account of bizarre carnal experiences with old, frail and arthritic consorts. I wasn’t sure who was molesting whom. I say demon because no human, juvenile or otherwise, could create a depravity as in that document, with vulgar metaphorical winks at the reader and an air of such moral decadence and kink that it left me with a very nasty taste in my mouth. This draft I destroyed immediately. More such accounts followed, at times with notes in the margin stating that ‘No-body’ or ‘No-won” (sic) was writing these accounts. Again, I would destroy the drafts, sometimes before reading them till the end. Never did I leave myself anything I could use for profit or gain.

As you can imagine, I did my best to fix it. I sedated myself before sleep. I drank warm milk with nutmeg. I stood on my head. I tried self hypnosis. But all that merely magnified my sleep-writer's trance, and in the morning I would be puzzling over accounts of torture in the first person so real that it was impossible to believe they could have been imagined or dreamed.

On a few later surreal occasions I found that the material was written in phonetic reverse and needed to be vocally read into a recorder and then played back in reverse to make any sense of, and upon doing that I would, at times, witness coherent sentences emerge, though bland and tasteless. More often though, the reversed language would yield rhythmic chants or incantations in a language I did not know. And sometimes it sounded simply like growls or whimpers of living creatures in pain.

This went on for some time and then suddenly stopped. The next few nights were without incident. And now a new situation doctor. For the last few nights, the video recordings show me sleep writing again, but it’s the exact same story each morning. To me, this is the same as someone writing "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy", over and over again. I have brought it along with me in case you can make any sense of it. Perhaps my sleep self feels it is worthy of publication and hence the repetitive insistence?”

The doctor had never heard anything like this but was keenly interested and said “You say you have something you have repeatedly written each night in your sleep? Let me take a look, perhaps we could interpret it as Freud would interpret dreams? Perhaps it might explain the entire thing, from start to finish?”

The man reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and brought out a sheaf of folded pages, filled with neat writing. He handed them over. The psychiatrist glanced at the first line, then his eyes widened and he read the first page with increasing surprise, then quickly turned the pages and looked at the last line, which was exactly the same as the first. It was -

“The psychiatrist opened the door to his office and welcomed the new arrival with a friendly smile.”


2021 Nikhil Kshirsagar

Bio: Nikhil Kshirsagar lives in Pune, India. He takes inspiration (and a lot more, if you ask me) from authors like Nabokov, Asimov and Dahl. In his free time he feeds and nourishes his considerable hypochondria. He also rapidly tires of writing about himself in the third person.

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