The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Shadowy Selves, Part 1

by Tricia Dower

How can I be substantial if I fail to cast a Shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole; and inasmuch as I become conscious of my Shadow I also remember that I am a human being like any other. ( Dr. Carl G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul)

I have a tendency to relate everything I learn to writing, so when a friend introduced me to Jung’s concept of the Shadow a few days ago — it’s amazing how little I know about really important things — I wondered if the most powerful writers are the ones most in touch with their Shadows.

Jung used the term "Shadow self" to describe everything in us that is unconscious, repressed, undeveloped and denied. And not just the usual stuff you may have been programmed to deep-six, like anger or selfishness or sensuality. The Darth Vader side, too, the one that draws you to photos of Abu Graib and mutilated bodies in Sierra Leone. We know the capacity to torture, rape and murder is within us even as we’re repulsed by these acts and may never lift a hand to harm another. Likewise planted in us are seeds of hatred and emotional abuse though we may go out of our way to be loving and just. On the plus side, according to Jung, our Shadow also has a light side in undeveloped, positive potential.

As writers, we need to create Shadow selves for our characters to make them authentic. And that means acknowledging our own Shadows. Whatever we can imagine in our characters is somewhere in us, as well.

I recently read Susan Musgrave’s Cargo of Orchids (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000) which is riddled with images of torture and murder that frightened me at times. The female narrator is on Death Row. She goes into great detail about the different forms of state-ordered murder — hanging, electrocution, firing squad, lethal injection, gas chamber — and what happens when it’s botched. Horrible and fascinating. I could imagine myself watching, maybe even firing the bullet, or dropping the pellet; tried not to imagine myself being zapped. The story also explores kidnapping, drugs and the lives of merciless thugs — female thugs, to boot. It’s brave writing that risks exposure (How do you know all this?), courts disapproval (How could you?) and forces us to face our dark side.

I sometimes worry that if I allow violent images into my mind, I’ll attract violence to myself. Kind of a twist on ‘You are what you eat.’ I don’t know if this is true or not but I can see that shying away from thinking about aspects of life I find distasteful may inhibit my ability to develop characters readers recognize as whole human beings. I’m studying gangsta culture right now for my latest story and trying to get beyond tut-tutting about how awful it is and embrace the life. To feel what it’s like to be ‘jumped into’ a gang and wear its colors, to tattoo your body with its symbols, to pack a roscoe and patrol the ‘hood, with your dark side on display and the light of your Shadow buried, maybe forever.

Next time: one man’s take on his shadow.

Image: Embracing Shadow Self by Rita Loyd


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I have been doing some 'shadow work' with my clients ever since I read Debbie Allen's "Dark Side of the Light Chasers". I can't believe I am recommending such a new-agey book! But I am.

I've never connected that kind of exploration with my writing though. Thanks for this post, Tricia, it's given me some ideas.

Sat Jun 16, 12:27:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tricia, written with a certain sadness and elegance - thanks so much - ruminating on those shadows.

Sat Jun 16, 03:50:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Martin Heavisides said...

A scientist said recently, and succinctly, in response to the claim in The Secret that "A positive thought has been scientifically proven to be one hundred times as powerful as a negative thought," "No--it hasn't." As you point out, it isn't because we imagine negative thoughts aren't powerful that they frighten us. I remember talking to an actress who said there are certain parts she didn't want to play because she was afraid of drawing the situations in them to herself. One of the things a professor of mine particularly admired about Swift was that "There was no thought so perverse he wouldn't entertain it."

Sat Jun 16, 04:30:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

So glad to get your comments, all. I may look for that book, Andrew. And, Martin, thanks for telling us about your actress friend. Good to know someone shares my concerns. But, should we as writers try to emulate Swift?

Sat Jun 16, 05:59:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

Great post, Tricia. I can relate to your own reluctance to entertain certain dark subjects in creative work - my own experience has taught me to be extremely cautious in this regard. There's more to it than we know. But "sympathy for the Devil" is always a good idea - I still want to be believe that "love conquers all".

I'm looking forward to Part 2!

Sun Jun 17, 10:47:00 am GMT-4  
Anonymous Larry said...


I thought you made really effective use of the shadow-light dance/struggle/reality in that one story with the child-sex shack/whorehouse. The matriarchal figure was so ruthless and controlling, while allowing an odd but genuine maternal impulse to shimmer through, here and there. This helped provide a complexity and dimensionality.


Mon Jun 18, 12:48:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Mel. I HAVE ventured into the dark as Larry's comment indicates and it was difficult and stressful.

Thanks for the affirmation, Larry. In that stary, I wasn't consciously dipping into shadow selves, just trying to understand where an essentially "bad" character might be coming from. Maybe it's the same thing.

Mon Jun 18, 01:37:00 pm GMT-4  

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