Creativity by Fred Skolnik

Fred Skolnik explores the nature of creativity and consciousness as his character tries to write the story of a woman in a dark coat.

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Point A is connected to Point B, Point B is connected to Point C. When you run out of letters you go back to the beginning, using subscripts. In this way you can record an infinite number of connections, or "links" as they are called nowadays, though there are in fact only a few trillion. Well, maybe many trillion, but in any case not an infinite number. However, since you are starting a new series every time you reach the letter Z, there is no necessary connection between parallel terms, that is, A is not necessarily connected to A1 and A1 is not necessarily connected to A2. On the other hand, as each point may have numerous connections, A may very well be connected to B1 and/or C2, and so on and so forth. These connections are being created every second of every minute of every hour of the day. No one can actually follow them. We can only run off labels and look around for something to stick them on. Furthermore, at a given moment, any of these trillions of connections may present themselves to us, that is, become conscious. For example, all the words in our language are connected and therefore you may say "I think" or "I feel" as the case may be. But not only words are connected, the thoughts and feelings themselves are connected, objects are connected, people are connected. Thus the heat of a summer day evokes the distant shouts of children, ships standing out at sea, women with sun-browned bodies lying in the sand, viz., a cluster of connected points gathered around a central point or nexus like the hub of a wheel (say, A) that subsumes the others, much like Proust's petite madeleine. All this may be represented as follows:

roughly speaking. In this manner I may come under the spell of a chain of associations sparked or ignited by a particular stimulus that touches a center of thought or feeling in my unconscious mind.

I wait patiently for these connections to reveal themselves. Though I may focus all my attention on a certain point I am essentially passive in the process. I cannot reach my hand into a barrel and pull up whatever I like. You cannot know beforehand what your next thought is going to be. I wait for something to occur to me. In the meanwhile I make a cup of coffee and my mind wanders. Random connections come up, unrelated to the task at hand. I look out the window. I daydream. I walk around in circles. Then I come back to the pages on the table. I read: "She was wearing a dark, expensive-looking coat with a fur collar and had a little dog at the end of a leash and a fleshy, handsome face and he knew she would be fleshy under her clothes and found the thought exciting and looked down furtively at her legs and they were perfect." This is the starting point and I can't say why the sentence came into my head at a given moment though I can see the context and frame of reference easily enough. The sentence resonates. I know it is the beginning of a story. I can feel the connections wanting to surface.

Unfortunately I can think of nothing at this point but to introduce some commonplace dialogue to bring the characters to life and get them together:

"Hi," he said.

She said hi too and smiled engagingly. "You live here, don't you?"

"Yes, we went to high school together. Remember?"

"I remember."

"Where you off to?"

"Just walking my doggie. I live at the other end of the block."

"I know. I've seen you on the street. But I never saw you like this before."

"Like what?"

"All dressed up on a Sunday morning. You look great."

"Thank you."

"May I accompany you?"

I don't precisely invent these words. They are offered to me out of, I suppose, various models stored in my mind. Whether I accept them or reject them depends on still other models stored in my mind. I of course feel that I am "writing" dialogue. This is a moot point, as the lawyers say, and also a pretty big philosophical question. Who am "I"? What am I? Am I only a passive observer borne along by the tides and currents of a sometimes stormy, sometimes placid sea? This troubles me. I have a certain difficulty locating myself on the ontological plane though I know I'm right there. If the sea were conscious, I think, it would see itself as we see it, but with the difference that it would know it belongs to itself. Is this the key?

From here I try to pick up the thread again:

She laughed at this, at his fancy way of talking, knowing it was a joke, and said, "Why certainly," in the spirit of the thing, and they crossed the street to the park opposite the row of houses where they lived and walked beside the low retaining wall under the overhanging trees where autumn leaves covered the sidewalk. They were a couple now, a young man and a young woman with a dog on a leash. A car came by and then a boy on a bicycle. Daniel half turned toward her but she was looking straight ahead, almost smiling, as if waiting to see how he would begin.

"Nice day," he said.

"A little chilly," she replied. That was why she was wearing the coat. But the weather was perfect, it was football weather, and after the game hot drinks. He was wearing a sweatshirt and a suede jacket and his black chino pants and his scuffed suede shoes, on his way to the candy store to get the Sunday paper, and now she was here, like a gift. He noticed how clear her skin was. She is blooming now, he thought.

They were alone on the street. The dog stopped at every tree and went through the motions of peeing and she tugged a little at the leash to get him moving again. The steep, grassy incline running down to the retaining wall from the pedestrian walk that traversed the park was also full of trees. He had played there once but had not been there in many years. The park belonged to his childhood. Nothing had really changed, not the neighborhood and not his life. Behind his house there was a little yard, also grassy, but somewhat neglected now, and facing the street there was a garage with an automatic door where his father parked his Dodge and kept his gardening tools, mostly for the hedge out front and the tiny flower bed. All the houses on the block were identical and he imagined that Marjorie's bedroom upstairs looked out on the street where she might have seen him passing by some night.

This is Teller Avenue in the Bronx, opposite Claremont Park. I lived on College Avenue, on the other side of the block. From my bedroom window on the sixth floor, looking across to Teller Avenue, I saw a few elm trees in a fenced-off area next to a big parking lot and also a few of the little yards behind the houses there and the rear of the six-story building on the corner of Teller and 170th Street, whose windows we occasionally broke when we played stickball in the parking lot, and the steep, grassy incline of Claremont Park. I am now, figuratively speaking, at G2900264.

In fact, the girl and the picture of Teller Avenue are evoked simultaneously. The moment she appears in my mind I see her on this street, and I also know at the same time that this will be a story about beginnings and possibilities feeding off my own emotions and history but not directly connected to them, a work of fiction then in every sense. The dark coat with the fur collar is what such a girl might have been wearing on a chilly Sunday morning fifty years ago and creates a picture that I find appealing. The dog or doggie, on the other hand, is a prop. An internal editor, created out of many and diverse elements, great complexes of connections touching everything I have ever read, thought, felt, tells me what is needed to complete a sentence. Any object can serve as a prop, a fire truck that a character leans against, a bag of potato chips, a cigarette. The internal editor scans the entire stock of props piled up in the storeroom of the mind and picks one out, saying, "This will do." Sometimes, of course, another voice says, "Not quite," and then the search begins again. In all this I am like a head of state waiting for his ministers to sort out a tricky problem. The dog or doggie is not really my idea. I am reluctant to take credit for it. It is given to me, along with everything else.

I didn't know anyone who lived on Teller Avenue. It was a very quiet street, lined with trees, and the park right across from it. I rarely had occasion to be there, except when I took the shortcut through the parking lot and crossed the street to enter the park by boosting myself up on the retaining wall and then making my way up the grassy incline. The center of my life was College Avenue, the parking lot, the Taft High School schoolyard and 170th Street, the commercial axis of the neighborhood running up to the Grand Concourse and beyond. Later our horizons expanded in ever-widening circles. We discovered Fordham Road, the Paradise and RKO movie theaters, Van Courtland Park. We discovered Manhattan too. Ultimately, we felt at home everywhere. We were New Yorkers. Nothing surprised us.

Teller Avenue thus remained an out of the way street, the urban equivalent of a country road, and I suppose that was part of its charm, or more likely all of its charm. Claremont Park itself was quite large, running from 170th Street to Mount Eden Avenue, about four city blocks, and then down to Clay Avenue. It had big playgrounds, ballfields and basketball courts and endless green fields where we played rough games of football. Thus, when the girl walks up Teller Avenue on a Sunday morning, an entire physical world is evoked. This is simple memory, without its underside, without its texture. It does not lead me back to its source. It does not proceed from such a source. It is a chain of tangential associations. I am dissatisfied. There is something stronger, deeper here. I want to go back to my original impulse, the image of the girl and the street on that Sunday morning. Instead, working against myself, I am constrained to push the story forward and write some more lifeless dialogue so that before I know it Daniel invites Marjorie to spend the day with him and takes his father's car and they drive up to Van Courtland Park and go horseback riding and then they have pizza in a little restaurant where Dean Martin sings "Mambo Italiano" on the jukebox and they get back when it's almost dark and he asks her to go out with him next Saturday night and she says she'd love to and it's as simple as that.

Here I lose the story. I know that I don't want to write Goodbye, Columbus or Love Story, but that seems to be where I'm heading. I write a few more pages without much enthusiasm. Daniel thinks about Marjorie all week. He goes to his French class and his science class and his sociology class and daydreams most of the time. The sociology teacher is a Southerner and quite contemptuous of everything, calling scholars who hold certain views "damn fools" in his Southern accent, and Daniel finds himself thinking that this was not the place for him, the sociology teacher that is, and he would be better off back home in the South teaching in some backward university, and the French teacher is a German who speaks French with a German accent which no one would have noticed, least of all the other French teachers, who were probably all Americans, and they go out a few times, that is Daniel and Marjorie, and he kisses her and they sit on the stoop in front of her house till late at night and she confesses that she always had a crush on him and it is clear that she considers him her boyfriend now and he feels that way too. They are like a smalltown couple on their little tree-lined street with the park across the way and when it starts to get cold they go inside and usually her parents are already asleep so they sit on the sofa in the dark and kiss and pet and she resists him a little but always gives in though he would not go too far.

I no longer have any sense of the characters. They have lost their reality. Marjorie's father is a shoe salesman and her mother teaches elementary school and she, that is Marjorie, has a younger brother who Daniel rarely sees. Daniel has a younger brother too and his father sells insurance and does pretty well so his mother has never had to work. Here I gratuitously introduce an aunt who dies of cancer of the cervix, taking her off the shelf so to speak. She is a big, handsome woman who "goes to business," as Daniel's mother puts it, meaning she is a secretary, and always wore sweat-stained see-through blouses and expensive tailored suits and nylon stockings and high-heeled shoes. This was my next-door neighbor in the Bronx, a single woman in her late thirties who lived with her elderly mother, and her death made a profound impression on me and I have kept her in mind all these years. I suppose I will have to use her someplace else, as she doesn't really belong here. In any case it is clear that marriage is on the horizon and Daniel and Marjorie talk soberly about sleeping together and decide not to, or rather Marjorie decides not to with a great many rationalizations to win Daniel over to her view, and they continue to pet very heavily on her living room sofa when everyone is asleep but at other times they have long, serious talks, baring their souls as the saying goes, and Daniel begins to idealize the life they might have together and is convinced he loves her and tells her so and she says she loves him too and everything is settled.

As I say, this is not the story I wish to write. It has swept me along in spite of myself. I have no interest in Daniel's married life. I am interested in the few moments that contain the essence of a life. These make up the lexicon of memory and desire, so to speak, these contain the images, symbols, motifs from which all things flow. I contemplate the material at hand. I see that first day taking shape. It will have been a perfect day, of the kind that lingers in memory for a lifetime. But beneath it, again, there is something more. It is this that I am looking for. It is buried in this vision of the girl in the dark coat coming up the street. Otherwise, I am afraid, instead of Love Story I will be writing Before Sunrise, whose charm I doubt if I can equal.

I make another cup of coffee. I scratch myself. I check my mailbox. All these impulses and inclinations present themselves to me sometimes in a trickle, sometimes in a flood, and are filtered, sorted and displayed by a system of checks and balances whose workings are hidden from me. I am being ridden by these impulses, in a manner of speaking, like a pogo stick, or steered around the house like a vacuum cleaner, if you will. Later I "decide" to have hamburgers for supper and take the chop meat out of the freezer. The thought of having hamburgers for supper gives me a little lift. This is an emotion, produced in that same hidden place and perceived like all the data of consciousness as belonging to me. Clearly, however, it is the thoughts and objects that produce the emotions after being mediated subliminally. Now I perceive an object, now I have a thought, now I have a feeling, now I act. Everyone has a lot to say about feelings but I suppose they can best be viewed as an evolutionary device, varieties of pain and pleasure to warn or encourage us and thereby help us preserve ourselves. The flesh feels pleasure and pain but the "self" feels joy and sorrow and all the other refinements of feeling because its survival and integrity are driven by the same biological imperative as the survival of the body. At any rate, these feelings are not generated consciously. They simply "come up" like so much flotsam and jetsam. Then we act, not like automatons to be sure, though many of us lean in that direction, but with a clear sense of "choosing" a course of action. This is the crux of the matter. A thought, feeling, perception or impression, more or less complex, more or less strong, impels us toward an action - to eat an orange or rob a bank - and if there are no dissenting inner voices we act without further ado. If, on the other hand, objections are raised, a debate ensues and one voice or the other prevails, depending on its force or volume. Not surprisingly, as consciousness is conscious of a choice being made, it perceives it as its own. But consciousness is only a kind of seismograph that recognizes itself as the ground of its own being. Volition must necessarily be generated outside it, asserting itself as from behind a veil. We are in essence unknown to ourselves, we cannot see the process, only the result. To enter this process and discover ourselves is thus to embark on one of the great journeys of life.

She was wearing a dark, expensive-looking coat with a fur collar and had a little dog at the end of a leash and a fleshy, handsome face and he knew she would be fleshy under her clothes and found the thought exciting and looked down furtively at her legs and they were perfect.

I have come back to the beginning. I have gone back to the top of the page. Again I feel the powerful resonance of these words, or rather of the image or vision they evoke. Again I find myself waiting for what will come next, for now the process begins again and again I am a bystander. The day stretches on. I have absorbed thousands of impressions and thought thousands of thoughts. These are duly recorded; they will find their place in the general scheme of things in their own good time. I await further developments. There is little I can do to speed up the process. Whatever expedient is suggested to me pops up in my mind like a jack-in-the-box. I am directed to look here or look there. Sometimes I find something, sometimes I don't. This is of course frustrating and again calls into question my autonomy. I am not the author of myself. I am whatever comes into my head. My only certainty is that all these connections flooding the unconscious mind are uniquely my own. I inhabit myself like the occupant of an empty room hearing voices behind the walls.

The girl in the dark coat comes down the street on a perfect autumn day and evokes or is evoked by a certain sense of a distant time and place that I bear within me. I skirt its edge and feel its reverberations. From the street and the park and then the parking lot and the view from my window high above the street I move now into an inner circle of associations attached to a single image. They have always been there, linked, resonating, giving color to everything I see and think. Now, suddenly, I have arrived at the center of my life.

Point A is connected to Point B and Point B is connected to Point C. Around these centers of feeling gather great constellations like points of light yielding the essence of a life. You may label them like isotopes, if you like, and trace their paths down all your days.

B12 then are the shadows moving like bars across my bedroom wall when the cars turned into the parking lot from Teller Avenue and threw their lights against the slatted blinds of my bedroom window. And as I lay in my little bed watching the shadows moving on the wall and listening to the sound of distant traffic I had a vision of the night that was like a call to another life.

I724 is the rain beating down on the sidewalk in the dim, yellow light of the streetlamp on the corner of our street. And I would watch the rain for hours from my kitchen window, dreaming of that other world without knowing what it was.

N386215792 are the long, narrow streets like canyons steeped in shadow where I walked alone one quiet Sunday afternoon when the day was winding down and the air was hot and still, and I could almost touch what I was looking for.

G2900264 are the young mothers with infants in carriages and their milk so sweet, their breasts so full and white. I remember the young mothers and the sloping lawns and the mornings in the park. It must have been during the War. And I must have looked out at the world from beneath a woolen cap with hunger in my eyes. In that time and that place women wore long skirts or dresses and high heels and nylon stockings and the sky was always blue. And you saw a squirrel run up a tree and heard the shouts of children playing in the vast green fields. And there were beds of flowers and little ants and dogs on leashes and bikes and roller skates and bouncing balls, so much noise and movement and color and light and the sun so bright and a pale quarter-moon still in the sky and you wanted it all and you said, "Me! Me!" and she looked too, or maybe she didn't hear you.

O416705938284 is a young woman sitting on a fire escape in the hot summer night and the smoke from her cigarette curling into the air.

And A? And A? A must be the lazy, distant drone of a plane high overhead in the cloudless summer sky. I could hear the excited voices of children all around me and such a hum and buzz and then it came so far away and I looked up and saw it and heard the distant sound and it made everything seem so right and filled me with such wonder and such peace, and fixed forever on that perfect day my sense of the world and the promise it contained.

I know that I do not wish to write this story. I wish to leave the image that lies behind it unresolved. I do not wish to go beyond the moment that contains all the possibilities of my life. So great is the tension within this moment that it could fuel the birth of an entire universe. As long as this tension resides in me all things remain possible. The girl in the dark coat embodies this possibility. I shall forever see her coming up the street. Nearer and nearer she will come and I shall wait for her.


  1. I read this story three times, but descriptively I could find nothing more illuminating that to repeat Charlie Fish’s blurb that this was an exploration of creativity and consciousness by the unnamed narrator as he or she tries to write a story. Perhaps there isn’t any more to it than that. However, it seems more appropriate to a primer on creative writing than to a creative writing ezine itself. I’m not being at all dismissive when I say that it’ll take a deeper intellect than mine to properly explain Fred’s purpose or perspective. Go ahead, Adam.

  2. Very different and very good. An interesting and meta way to philosophize while telling a story. Love the final image with its Waiting for Godot vibe.
    — David Henson

  3. I love how the author entwines and juxtaposes the meta-story and the story.
    The viewpoint character is an author having a difficult time writing a story.
    He introspects on theories of the mind, consciousness and writing as he struggles along with his plot.
    His story - the story-within-the-story that he is attempting to write - it is failing to “pop”. It is not engaging the author himself, and so likely not to engage readers.
    Why? In my opinion, it is because nothing is at stake for the young couple. A couple meets and falls in love and marries. There are a series of incidents relayed, background material disclosed, but the incidents string together rather easily, without dramatic consequences, and little character development occurs for the two lovers..
    In the meta-story however, the real story here, there is quite a bit at stake. The meta-story - and not just the philosophy discussed within it (though that is fascinating) - is quite dramatic. We are taken into the mind of the author - a conflict of Man vs. Nature - how does an author's mind struggle against the universe to create and write a compelling story. There is much at stake. He writes and rewrites the story. He is dissatisfied. He struggles with the dissatisfaction and finally accepts his immediate fate and shelves the story. For now. He know however, in time, he will win the battle, and the true story will come to him. Because he is a writer :-)
    This is a very special story!
    Wow, great job!