NDJ:3 Karen Earle, MSW


I went into therapy because of creative block, a condition the neurologist Alice Flaherty (2004) describes in The Midnight Disease as similar to agraphia and aphasia in that an individual suffers greatly due to an inability to communicate. At the time I entered therapy, I was closely involved with the care of my father, an elderly man who suffered from increasing dementia. I might have explained my inability to write as a normal response to burdensome family responsibilities, except that the problem so painfully replicated two similar instances of creative block earlier in my life. However, there were also differences between those episodes and this one.

Each of the earlier episodes occurred when I was much younger and each involved a male teacher. In both of those earlier cases, I was a student enrolled in a course and the male teacher was the instructor. I enjoyed the course material and—in each case—comfortably engaged in a playfully flirtatious relationship with the teacher. In fact, that playfulness eased my inner critic and made my work “flow” more easily. Then something happened. When my work elicited praise from the teacher, I became overwhelmed and confused. I doubted the sincerity of the praise, while—at the same time—experiencing a heightened level of sexual attraction for the teacher. In both instances, the praise had made me feel “known” in a special way.

As Elise observes in “Blocked Creativity and Inhibited Erotic Transference, “It is this intoxicating feeling of being ‘known’ that permeates the interactions and subjective experience of new lovers” (2002, p. 166). We were, however, never lovers, never involved in the mutual emotional risk-taking that true love requires, never open to the mutual emotional transparency of an authentic adult relationship. Reflecting back, I now feel that in both instances, praise triggered a powerful erotic transference, which frightened me; consequent to that fear, I shut down creatively as a defense. At the time of my therapy, however, I was not aware of the transferential issues involved in my creative block.

Instead, with my contextually-trained therapist, I worked hard, exploring family of origin issues. My mother—by then deceased—had been distant and rejecting of me but conflictually enmeshed with my older sister. Their enmeshment excluded both my father and me. My father, an emotionally needy man, turned to me for attention. In return, he nurtured me intermittently, his interest in me ebbing and flowing, his praise unpredictable. However, something is always better than nothing; I clung to my father, waiting for whatever affection might randomly come my way. In therapy, I grieved my way toward a deeper understanding of how the events of my life had shaped me. Still, I remained creatively blocked.

A turning point in my therapy and my life occurred with the following dream: The dream’s visual field is organized like a large painting or stage set constructed of many rooms with invisible walls. I enter the dream-space from a door that opens stage right. In the first room a young girl sits surrounded by infants and toddlers; she looks unhappy. In the dream I recognize her as a younger version of me. In the next room, a middle-aged woman sits at a desk looking severe in a dark blue suit jacket and high-collared shirt. She looks like me but is dressed in clothes that my mother would have worn. In the upper frame of the picture, my therapist smiles a toothless grin. Something in her manner reminds me of my sister. I realize that these female figures are fragments of my negative selves. In the last room—a dark, vast, multi-storied mirrored ballroom—sit many old men, their faces covered by their hats, their posture suggesting sleep. Although dressed like construction workers, they nod idly in the shadows. I turn back confused, but in turning see myself standing with eyes wide open in the lower right hand corner of the picture in the space traditionally occupied during the Renaissance by the patron of the creative work. Suddenly, I realize that I am the dream’s patron.

In all the years since that dream, I have never suffered from writer’s block again. In a sense, with that dream I achieved creative freedom, and most importantly, a more beneficent narrative control over my life. I had been a multitude of unresolved Oedipal selves, each damaged and diminished. The sleeping men, those many fathers, were also a multitude of selves, but they were all the same, all workmen idle in the cold shadows of a mirrored room. In contrast, my walls were invisible, my life transparent, perhaps too transparent and unprotected.

My father could only see himself, if and when he chose to look. In contrast, my emotional pain spread out in a harsh stage light for all viewers to see. I paced through those rooms examining my sadness.

On completing my journey in, I turned to realize what I could have seen all along, if only I had had the courage to look. I realized that as patron of the dream, that as narrator, I can and do integrate those negative selves and in that act of integration complete myself, day-by-day writing my life story with an understanding of my past but freed from it. (The blocks dissolved, the mirrors shattered, the transparent walls stucco-ed by those stories I choose to tell.)