WHAT ARE FREE-WRITES?
THE BLACK COCKTAIL DRESS
In summer 1998, I attended a one-week writing retreat at a mountaintop resort in Vermont. The retreat focused on integrating psychoanalytic thought and clinical writing. I arrived there with laptop in tow, hoping my creative ideas would take form — in meaningful words. I had never done a writing retreat before so I did not know what to expect, but I was eager. I was struggling with writing, unable to articulate concisely my thoughts. More problematic was that I could not own what I wrote. I kept changing what I thought. I wrote and rewrote; then I threw it all away.
The retreat was exhilarating. We met as a large group and immediately engaged in numerous writing exercises. In Vermont that summer, I had my first exposure to the free-write. Initially, the task was daunting. The instructors provided a topic and told us to write, just write without stopping. I stared endlessly at the paper in front of me. Nothing came to mind. Words refused to spill freely from my unconscious. I looked around, taking notice as others busily wrote while I sat frozen — pencil in hand, my blocked thoughts creating endless anxiety. Finally, feeling enormous pressure to produce something, anything — I forced myself to write. My words did not flow easily. When the exercise ended, people shared the content of their free-write. I listened, somewhat in awe, touched deeply by the personal nature of how certain individuals expressed intense feelings in the written material. This unnerved me but stirred me positively. I identified with the unreserved articulated thoughts and feelings of the group; an identification which felt encouraging and optimistic. I gradually became more comfortable with the spontaneity of the free-write experience, and with each successive exercise, my unconscious thoughts began to appear in the written word without restraint. The process was liberating as each new free-write astonishingly illuminated my unresolved issues.
Now as each ensuing summer approaches, I am delighted to see familiar faces as well as those who arrive anew to embark on this creative and nurturing writing experience. And each summer I become undeniably more mindful of how the free-write becomes both a transitory and transformational process in which I work through unconscious conflict. A particular free-write helps me identify and work through powerful feelings of loss and mourning as I see before me my all too familiar fusion with internalized objects.
I am instructed to write about an article of clothing and the following image of a black cocktail dress of my mother’s comes immediately to mind.
/ think about that short black cocktail dress of my mother’s, a dress that seemed lonely in hersparse bedroom closet. She was always smaller, thinner than I… a fact which gave me much displeasure. I loved that short black cocktail dress, but my large body was never able to fit inside of it. I wished and wished that it could. I don’t think she really enjoyed that dress. Not like I did. She always said she had nothing to wear…and she didn’t. She kept an empty closet, while she kept mine full and full and full She would take me shopping for dresses of my own. Stand there and admire me as I tried on one dress after another. Tried them on over my too large body. She bought them all for me — none for herself. For she needed to have nothing to wear and for me to wear everything for her. All I e ver wanted was her small body and that short, black cocktail dress. All I ever wanted was her, but it was difficult to want someone who wanted nothing and wanted me to have everything. My favorite color is black. My closet is abundant with black. That perfect black dress is somehow still what I long for. I’m thinner now. I no longer yearn for her body and reject mine. But that black cocktail dress is a lasting image.
These words, which so easily fall upon the page, startle me. I had forgotten that black cocktail dress until the moment I put my pen to paper in the free write. It was as if some crucial part of my history was staring back at me from the white, lined pad. Where is this coming from, I wonder aloud? Though I have not described the dress, the image is clear. Short sleeves, low, square neck with an inch wide strip of satin hugging the bodice, subtly forcing the breasts to protrude. A back zipper, when pulled up snugly, allows the curves of one’s body to predominate eloquently beneath the wool crepe that delicately hangs just above the knee. How many times had I tried to stuff my large adolescent frame into this curvaceous pencil thin container to no avail? The dreaded zipper making its way up my back only to stop abruptly at my waistline, refusing to budge another inch. The recalcitrant teeth of the zipper telling the real truth.
The images contained in the free-write glare at me: her empty closet; black as my favorite color; her small body, my large body; buying everything for me, nothing for her. I suddenly feel anxious as I visualize my mother and me in Narcine’s Boutique for women. I feel emergent rage. I picture myself standing in front of the large rectangular three-way mirror making certain that all possible views are aesthetically acceptable. I remember wanting and getting. Buying all those dresses but never feeling sated. Leaving Narcine’s like an overindulged child and, at the same time, feeling incredibly deprived.
This memory of the black dress, however, evokes new emotions. When I reread the passage, “My closet is abundant with black. That perfect black dress is what I long for,” the contradiction is glaring. I am writing about the black cocktail dress as if I can not have one, when in fact I have and have had many. The free-write unsettles me and I leave the retreat with a mixture of restless feelings albeit renewed insights into my maternal longing. It is clear to me now. That black cocktail dress is my mother — a symbol of my yearning. It is not the dress, but her that I still desire and cannot have.
A few days after returning from Vermont, my husband alerts me to a feature article in the New York Times. After all this time, it is yet another Monica Lewinsky piece. There she is in a low-cut black cocktail dress showing abundant cleavage. I then notice the byline. “Sarah Boxer,” I exclaim. “I know Sarah Boxer.” She’s my cousin. As I relay the details to my husband to convince him of my lineage to this New York Times feature writer, my associations astound me. I have not seen Sarah Boxer since she was five years old when I attended the wedding of my cousin Bill, her uncle, as the sole representative of my family. At that wedding, thirty-nine years ago, I was twenty-one-years old and I wore that black cocktail dress of my mother’s.
Six weeks later, while driving to my office I hear on the radio the devastating news that airplanes crashed into each of the twin towers of the World Trade Center causing their total collapse. I see my first patient without mention of what I know. As the events of the tragedy intensify, my scheduled appointments are cancelled and my first thought is to go shopping, in particular, for a black dress to wear at my stepson’s wedding. As I head toward the store, however, my urge troubles me and I start to drive home. A moment later I turn my car around and head back to the store. But when I arrive there, I can not get out of my car; feeling guilty that, while thousands of human lives are at stake, I want to shop. Ashamed of my desire, I reluctantly go home where I spend the next three days, when not at work, glued to the television coverage and repeatedly watching the imploding towers, heroic rescue workers, near death stories of survivors, and disheartened families still holding on to hope.
The following Saturday morning, in a television special, Peter Jennings talks to children about the implications of this horrific attack on America. A five-year-old girl clinging tightly to her father, a major in the army reserve, is visibly distraught when asked if she is proud of her daddy’s efforts to help the victims of this tragedy. Unable to fight back tears she states, “I know that he is special, but I want him to be special here, because he is always gone and he’s going to be gone even more since they did this.” A psychiatrist urges others to heed her sincere response to feelings of uncertainty. None of us, he says, should feel ashamed of how we choose to feel safe as we struggle to cope with this traumatic situation. It is at that moment, listening to his acceptance of this child’s unabashed honesty, that I feel released from my own shame about wanting to shop for my black dress. As that small child clings anxiously to her father to feel safe, I am clinging to that black cocktail dress of my mother’s.
I muse how my free-write fuels a creative journey that illuminates psychic conflict: first in unleashing an unconscious memory of the black cocktail dress; then to the contradicting memory generated by Sarah Boxer’s byline; and finally as a defensive reaction to the World Trade Center disaster. The image of the black cocktail dress finds its way into my consciousness and provides a working through of psychic conflict by bringing into my conscious memory something that had not been there before. The act of writing freely about this dress allows me to discover and rediscover knowledge, information and insight about infantile wishes that I can reflect upon and appropriately use. This free-write and its subsequent associations enable me to express psychoanalytic thought in a way that permits my creativity to develop and flourish. I gradually inch away from pure clinical writing to memoir and personal essay; comfortable in sharing my all too familiar conflicts that stir issues of unresolved ambivalence in various aspects of my life. In so doing, I find my own voice as a writer.
But why is it that this black cocktail dress appears in the free-write? Of all the dresses I bought at Narcine’s not one was black. Colors; all kinds of colors. And nothing sexy or revealing like my mother’s black dress. Does Sara Boxer’s byline alert me to the forgotten memory, or does the image of Monica Lewinsky? The contradictory memory of the black dress haunts me. I yearn to fit inside of her (dress) but I can not. But I do. Perhaps this is the feeling I needed to block all along — that I could and d/df\t into my mother’s dress. Afraid to remember, for to remember calls up the fusion with her that is excessively frightening. As if the only way I can have her is to be like her. I fear my wish to be like her will turn into a need to be her.
That black dress stirs my maternal yearning, but it also illuminates my struggle to separate; to move beyond mother without guilt that I will destroy her. I cannot compete with her, for it is difficult to compete with someone who remains out of the competition, someone who needs to keep an empty closet. It is safer to feel angry about her needing me too much, than to feel the despair of my longing. Safer to feel that I shopped for beautiful dresses just to please her, rather than view our shopping expeditions as an activity that we mutually enjoyed together. Perhaps that infamous black dress is a symbol of sexuality —of movement from childhood to adulthood. I like black because it is sleek, smart and sexy. Wearing my mother’s black dress is a wonderful compromise, a way to identify with her without losing me.
The free-write releases me from my urgency to cling to the image of the black dress. The symbolic meaning now conscious, my defense is less potent, diminishing my need for external containment. I am, however, not yet ready to abandon my vast array of black ensembles. I realize how much my black wardrobe still contains my anxiety and keeps me safe. I can somehow find the capacity for empathy toward a mother who could never feel safe, nor to function without feelings of uncertainty. The World Trade Center tragedy heightens the fragility of life and the defenses that we cling to when life is threatened. This insight frees me, for I am now able to allow into consciousness how my mother and I were alike, despite knowing how disarming it still would be for us to own how we are so different.