Exploring the process of working “briefly” (a series of 6-10 sessions) with two individual clients who were experiencing creative blocks – enabling them to heal and resolve the deep-seated issues that were hampering their creative output.
Transforming creative blocks
This article was first published in Counselling News Magazine
This article focuses on an approach I developed for working with creative blocks, which stemmed from my experience and interest in the creative process. This could be a writing block, an inability to paint, sculpt, compose or perform music.
Clients fall into two camps: either they feel they have a great desire to be creative which they cannot express, or they feel their “muse” has dried up.
The experience is a feeling of being blocked; that something is literally in the way of the flow of their creativity which they are unable to shift. They are faced with the blank page, the white canvas, the lump of clay, and find themselves devoid of any inspiration or imagination to express through it. For many, this is an intensely fearful experience.
In the first session, I negotiate a brief contract of six individual sessions in which the client’s block will be identified, explored and transformed through the creative process. The client explores a character, story or metaphor as a means of revealing and gaining insight into his inner self.
The creative metaphor becomes a container for the client’s inner dilemmas, and enables him to understand more about himself and from there, express, release and transform the aspects of his psyche that have kept him trapped.
It is in the nature of stories that they have a beginning, middle and end. This structure is used to “contain the chaos” (when clients don’t understand why they feel the way they do) and to facilitate its resolution.
Alida Gersie, says of play:
“The ability to create and enter an inner space where we are temporarily freed from a dominant awareness of the events and experiences of our life is of vital importance to each of us… Without this capacity, we are deprived of the ability to transcend and therefore transform our situation.”
The process invites the client to play and through play, allows the damaged and hidden aspects of the psyche to make themselves known, so that they can be explored and transformed through the therapeutic process.
WORKING WITH THE BLOCK
It is my method in the first session to invite the client to characterise the block in some way. Often I ask them to visualise the block in their imagination and then to ‘become’ the block by physically expressing it with their body. How the client expresses the block will tell me a lot about it, the client’s relationship to it and how I might approach working with it and them.
Most creative blocks are heavy, static and immovable. I often invite the client to transform the block into a character in order to open up the possibility for exploration, movement and the release of creativity. Even if the client has been blocked for a very long time, they are being invited to use their creativity to explore the blockage within it and thus this soon begins to have an impact on their ability to be creative.
Kia, a 45-year-old woman, who had felt unable to express her creativity in any way, discovered that her block was a punishing nun who was intent on controlling the “wild girls” in her charge. This nun was a figure from Kia’s own boarding school days. Her psyche had registered this nun as responsible for the suppression of her creative impulses.
As Kia explored the character of the nun, she discovered that the nun had seen any expression of emotion or freedom as “wild” and had put them all into a box. We thus began to work with opening the nun’s box and to explore what was trapped inside. By exploring this, Kia could begin to release the ‘punishing nun’ within herself who had kept her creativity locked in a box.
The client I would particularly like to focus on in this article is Eva, a Polish woman in her fifties who came to me to work on a writing block. She told me that she had painted regularly as a hobby and had been accepted by two art schools to study Fine Art, but had felt unable to take up the place. Eva wanted to write but said her writing was “reporting” and she was unable to express herself through it.
When invited to create her creative block, Eva knew exactly what she wanted to do. She built an enclosed space out of chairs and curled up in the middle of it. I asked her to give a name to the character in the space and she said it was “Ava . “Ava” was very happy to be in the space and was reluctant to come out, although she also felt lonely and abandoned.
Eva told me that “Ava” was the non-Jewish name she was given during the war in Poland when a family hid her from the Germans. The creative block- the enclosed space – was the table she had been hidden in. She had been five at the time and had been kept in the well of the table all through the day and had had no toys to play with, except for her own shit when Ava could not hold it back until the end of the day. The only contact she had was with the woman and a ten-year-old girl who were hiding her. She remained with them for five years, separated from her parents for the full duration of the war.
The biggest revelation for Eva in the exploration was that she had experienced not wanting to change. She had been very content inside the ‘table’ and had felt very safe in there. The physicalisation of other childhood experience had enabled her to feel safe, which had been the pay-off for the trauma she had experienced. Eva had realised that in her adult life, she continued to feel safe in situations in which she was blocked or trapped.
It was no surprise to me that this experience in early childhood had affected Eva’s ability to express herself creatively. The five years of sensory and emotional deprivation at such a young age, along with her separation from her parents, should have caused deep psychological damage, and yet Eva had apparently had a successful life (although she had been a “handful” later on). Her father had died of natural causes during the war and her mother had remarried, and Eva had subsequently had a difficult relationship with her stepfather.
In the next session, I was interested in exploring “Ava” in more depth. Dramatherapy works with dramatic distance, which enables the client to get denser to the truth of their feelings by fictionalising their projections. As “Ava” was a false identity, I wanted Eva to fictionalise her further to avoid re-traumatising herself. Eva identified five aspects of Ava. They were “Angry”, “Bored”, “Unloved”, “Cosy” and “Abandoned” and she created five images in pastels to represent each of these aspects. The images were striking, violent and ugly. Two strongly resembled male and female genitalia. The images expressed Eva’s rage at being shut up inside the table. By working creatively, Eva could begin to play with the feelings, she could distance them from herself and thus begin to set them and herself free.
I invited Eva to make characters out of the aspects. She focused on “Unloved”, whom she made into “Baldy”, a vulture who had no feelings and was waiting for death. She was disgusted by “Baldy” whom she saw as having no redeeming features. As a vulture, he was a scavenger who fed on others and had detached himself from his emotions.
“Who can love Baldy”, she asked? I was aware that Eva was also asking who could love Eva as she was. She had “terrible relationships” with other people; her children were not speaking to her. she was at war with her ex-husband and she was continually falling out with friends.
We began to relate this to what she had expressed through the dramatic metaphor and I commented although “Baldy” was a vulture, when vultures flew, they became very beautiful. This was a great surprise to Eva who became inspired by the idea there could be any beauty in “Baldy”.
In dramatic terms, we had used the character of “Baldy” to get Eva to express her intense hatred other self, a conclusion she had come to when she was locked up inside the table with only her faeces to play with, and there had been no one to love her. “Baldy” was a dramatic metaphor through which Eva could begin to transform her feelings about herself. If she could experience “Baldy’s” beauty, then she could also see beauty in the things she did not like about herself.
In the remaining four sessions, we worked with the other aspects. The Abandoned aspect became “Smudge”, who had no voice. The Anger aspect Eva expressed as a Raging Goddess who furiously threw chairs around and then exited from the room in disgust. As she began to let each aspect out and to give them a voice, Eva began to release her anger and her despair, particularly against her stepfather with whom she was locked in battle.
It was apparent from what Eva explored that there was a huge amount of material that could be worked with, but she was clear that she did not want to go into a long therapeutic process. She was afraid that what she had discovered in the first session of not wanting to change would hinder any therapeutic work she did. The six sessions served to open up and explore the block, to break down the walls of the enclosure and discover what it was like to live outside. The anger she had never been able to express at being locked up in the table, had been boldly and theatrically demonstrated.
A month after we had completed the six sessions, Eva wrote to me to say that she was going away to write with a friend about her experiences as a child. I was intrigued that she had chosen to write in collaboration after all that she had expressed about her difficulty in working with other people and her fears of sabotaging close relationships. Clearly something major had shifted within her.
Working with this process had allowed her to explore her block and to act out the emotions that were trapped inside it. The process had allowed her to be creative and had given her tools in which she could transform her trauma into a work of art. Her writing had been ‘reporting’ because she was cut off from her emotions as “Baldy” was. Now she was connected with these emotions, she could also discover enough objectivity to write about her experiences.
One of the assets of working creatively is that it enables the client to turn a traumatic event into an aesthetic entity. Eva had worked intently and intensely. She had known what she wanted to achieve and what she wanted to express and I had helped her to find a dramatic metaphor for containing and holding her pain. The short contract had enabled this. Resolution and integration had apparently continued after the sessions were completed and had brought her to the point where she could contemplate writing a book. I knew that the creative process itself would bring more opportunities to release and resolve the trauma of her childhood experience and the Brief Dramatherapy had given her a forum in which to initiate the process of change.
Jennings S. (1987) “Dramatherapy and Groups” and Gersie A. (1987) ”Dramatherapy and Play’ both from Dramatherapy: Theory and Practice for Teachers and Clinicians Croom Helm
(published in Counselling News)