Machine street typists in Kolkata by Jorge Royan

Does the writer think of writing?

A bunch of small picnic-like portable tables were placed on the sidewalk shaping a familiar office setting, only men were behind those small street desks of a size big enough to fit a typewriter and a few papers. As I approached them, the ubiquitous melody of mechanical tak-tak sounds surrounded me gradually attenuating the honking jam session of the city traffic. In front of one of the folding desks were two women sitting down and looking up towards the typist who was shaping the official documents they required.

That was Mumbai, lots of sandals, extreme sultriness, extreme crowds, extreme dirtiness, and an apparently infinite list of extreme everything. It was 2012, the year I surrendered my way of living for a trip to India. Looking back years after I still remember clearly that moment, a narrow line of typists tik-taking on the street and the two women sitting close to one of them, they were having a conversation — Should we write this or that? What do you think? Is this good enough? — There were a few men behind, looking marvelled at the fresh ink covering the sheets of paper the typist was holding with an intellectual look while reviewing their words, as if that demeanour came with the job, as if that expression was something exclusive, something that came along with his art.

Being that my first week in India I thought those women were illiterate and that was why they required the service of the typists. Maybe they needed a letter sent to their loved ones abroad, maybe the typists didn’t have an office or if they had they just preferred to work outdoors, maybe it was an event of some sort, maybe a sport, maybe they were just writing a book collectively, maybe it could have been a creativity meeting or a demonstration of automatic writing as if they were the dadaist branch of India. I had no idea. As I would learn, India never is what it seems to be. I was still too shy to ask but there were many chances that my initial assumption was wrong, and that being the High Court and other government offices nearby, those two women required the typist’s services for legal affairs. Unknowingly, in the midst of trying to understand the depth of a foreign image, I found myself staring at the typists just like the men behind them. I let go, I was mesmerised.

Like you probably, I’ve never done too much philosophy about my act of writing. Besides reading Plato’s Phaedrus back at university and think about it for a small amount of time, I’ve just taken throughout my existence writing as the most effective way of global memory, and sometimes communication too. It’s been always a natural thing to do, right? An action of self-communication, of self-discovery. But after witnessing the typists work with their old typewriters in front of the two women discussing what to write, I wondered about what I understood writing to be, and I thought I was staring at two completely different worlds, but then again I was wrong, they weren’t.

What is that defines writing? — I asked myself — Is it just a record? Is it a pose? Is it the act of communication being objectified? Could it be the art of drawing commonly known abstract symbols with a commonly known meaning? I couldn’t make up my mind around a definition. You know, it’s important to take things seriously but not for too long, so as my ignorance took the lead, I gradually let the idea go. Then as the days passed, I kept on writing the thoughts that were popping up in my mind as I roamed from the tropical south to the northern mountain range. And then, thinking again about the Mumbai typists I realised that what I experienced with them was just what writing had always been to me, a conversation, sometimes a live conversation, sometimes a record of a conversation. My mind was at the same time that picture I had of the scribe and the customer, of the literate-illiterate dichotomy I hastily assumed. Have you ever felt like that? I’m thinking now that I could write many things, but the only time I feel like writing is when, what I thought was an intrinsic aspect of writing (time) just vanishes, and my hands just flow as a spoken conversation would whilst leaving behind a trace of abstract characters to be organised and revisited afterwards. And so in that same moment, in the verge of that communication, when my illiteracy is telling me how to be literate, I’m a writer.

In the midst of the typist profession, writing arises as a collaborative process. The writer is neither those women who were dictating and providing necessary information, neither the typist who was shaping the information into the document. The writer was being built as the conversation between them three took place, and as the feeling of the writer became present, so they wrote, together.

Extrapolating the collective to the individual, the dilemma arises in the temporary nature of that conversational writer compared to the permanent status of the writer as it’s commonly understood. If writing is a common space for the flash of creativity, illumination, subconscious mind, muse, you name it, and the follow-up of ourselves as elements of understanding, then there’s no such thing as ‘I am a writer’ but people holding moments when they’re ‘being a writer’. That same time of writing that feels like no time at all, that rush, that flow, that presence, that something, is a key element of what the writer is, and to sustain it for a long time is incredibly difficult and none can do it forever, therefore — I considered— writers are writers, artists are artists, painters are painters, when they perform as such, when emotion drives a conversation between the unknown and the will to know. It doesn’t matter the outcome, the essence of writing is the truth behind that moment.

With enough luck and persistence it’s possible to be a writer many times a day, or maybe once a day, or once a week. I strive to be a writer several times per month but sometimes I feel I can hardly keep up with the pace of that conversation. So when I sit down to type I remember those women and the typist and pray, and wish, that whatever it was that happened amongst them, comes around just for a brief moment to allow that great conversation between thoughts and craft to take place so then maybe, once everything is over and I lay back and look at how the writer has performed, I can borrow both the mesmerised look of the public and the enlightened grin of the artist.

This text is an extended version of an essay I wrote last year about my writing process.
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