The psychiatrist opened the door to his office and welcomed the new arrival with a friendly smile.
The patient had walked in without an appointment, but luckily there was nothing else scheduled at that time. He noted the man’s unhurried manner, as if he had all the time in the world. A bit presumptuous, he thought, given that the fellow had walked in without an appointment.
Once he settled him in, he waited for those typical outbursts of emotion that the new patients inevitably exhibited, but realized this patient seemed perfectly happy to sit quietly with a polite smile on his face and stare at him. 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 then 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 self-assured 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. I live alone. I was born and grew up abroad and moved to this country a few months ago. I make my living by writing stories for various anthologies of fiction. In my own country, I had gained quite a reputation over the years. You may have come across some of my tales 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.
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. Or perhaps it was that my narrators always seemed to be telling their own stories, since I’d never write in anything but the first person, and it seemed like I never wrote about anyone else but me.
Whatever it was, it seems the general opinion was that my writing had particularly unique and original nuances, leading to analysis over time by 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. All this was very nice and fine and fueled my initial success, helped me establish my reader base, and set up a reasonable platform for a career as a writer.
But things are never quite that simple, are they? As time went on, it became harder and harder to write. The situations my protagonists found themselves in, got increasingly complex, surreal, and difficult to resonate with reality. Reality, as you know, 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, 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 inspiration to strike. Writing is a by-product of doing. Where do original ideas come from anyway, but from the things you see and hear. And so, when I sought 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 a situation every writer must face sooner or later, and overcoming it is the act of survival, perhaps?
One day a solution seemed to present itself. Or perhaps I should say, one night!
Now, I’m generally not a light sleeper. I’ve slept through earthquakes, storms, and neighborhood mayhem. One routine morning I sat at my writing desk, but upon re-reading the draft of a story I had written out the earlier night, I noticed something curious. 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 this unknown benefactor.
I read the modified draft, and knew there could be no better version. I sent it off to the publishers and received such enthusiastic responses that they reminded me of my heyday! The idea of someone quietly changing my manuscripts in the night does seem creepy in hindsight, but it intrigued more than troubled me at the time, and I felt whoever it was would reveal themselves and their reasons in due time.
Nothing of the sort. The ‘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 literature diplomas. This is all very recent, but I’m 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. They discuss my re-inventing myself, and this new ‘phase’ of my fiction writing. As a writer, you could certainly 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 career 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 could placate my guilt by telling myself that the work was 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 these written pearls that were so brilliant that not sending them off for publication would have been a greater sin.
So 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. But on the fourth night I did see something. It happened around 3 AM or so, the time I supposed myself to be in deepest sleep, dreaming of things that would not matter.
What I saw was myself, rising from my bed, walking to and sitting at my writing desk, my eyes still shut, my chest still rising and falling uniformly, and (if you think there is still any doubt) 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 placed the pen back in its proper place before sleepwalking back to my bed and lying down. 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 that little pang of guilt I had felt for using plagiarized ideas faded away. Do you think it’s strange that I proudly claim the material as my own 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, progressing to downright disturbing material. Sometimes it was complete gibberish, or bland stories replete with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. Other days I would be staring at foolish and inane rhymes, like those absurd and nonsensical songs children invent 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 those earlier times when I would 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 narrative, with vulgar metaphorical winks at the reader and an overall suggestion of utter moral decadence and kink.
This draft I destroyed immediately, but more such distressing tales followed, at times with notes in the margin stating that ‘No-body’ or the palindromic ‘No-won’ (sic) was writing these accounts. Again, I would destroy the drafts, often without even reading them till the end. On a few surreal occasions I discovered that the material was written in phonetic reverse, and needed to be read into a vocal recorder and played back in reverse to make any sense of. Upon doing this, tasteless but coherent sentences would sometimes emerge. More often though, the reversed play-back would yield rhythmic chants or incantations in a language I did not recognize. And sometimes it sounded simply like growls or whimpers of living creatures in pain. Never again 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 affliction, 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.
This went on for quite some time and then suddenly stopped. The next few nights were without incident. And now a new situation. For the last few nights, the video recordings show me sleep writing again, but it’s the exact same story each morning. 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 “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”
Nikhil Kshirsagar is an upcoming short story writer from Pune, India. He is currently working on publishing his first book of short fiction. He works for an IT organization and writes short fiction stories as a passion.