The Shadow, the Unconscious, and Writing

You write from the point of gravest danger; such a location cannot be better for authenticity, sincerity, and genuine speech.
–  The I Ching For Writers, by Sarah Jane Sloane

I keep coming back to primary questions about writing: How do I make it meaningful for myself, as well as for the poor reader?  How can I let the creative source emerge from what I write?  I keep circling around the shadow, methods of approaching the unconscious in writing, ways to focus on the fictive dream.

This preoccupation is even in the header of this blog – “getting down with my bad side” – a phrase that was added after an insightful comment by one of the first people to comment here.  It alludes to the shadow, to the left-handed, dark currents in myself.  I liked the balance it brought, although I’m still coming to terms with what exactly “getting down” means!  I know it does not mean wallowing in one’s shit; but it does mean saying hello to it.

I came across a fascinating article that seems to follow naturally from the similar considerations I’ve been exploring for myself in past weeks.  It has the ungainly, if not thoroughly offputting, title of Utilizing the Concept of the Shadow in Fiction Writing in order to Facilitate a Dialogue between Ego Consciousness and the Unconscious, by the writer and academic Madeline Sonik which appears in Jung: the e-Journal issue of April, 2006.

Sonik has published short stories and a novel.  She writes in a much more readable way than what that article title might suggest about how the shadow aspects of projection and possession have been used in literature and how she has used them to inform her own writing.

Carl Jung in his Memories, Dreams and Reflections tells of a dream where he found himself in dense fog, in a storm with a tiny light cupped in his hands.  Everything depended on keeping the light alive and sheltered from the wind while he fought his way forward.  He noticed “a gigantic black figure” following him as he struggled in terror to keep his flickering light alive.   When he awoke he realized that this ominous figure was projected on the swirling fog by the tiny light he held, his own consciousness, which was the only light he would ever have in a world of darkness.  His development of the concept of “the shadow” springs from this dream.

Sonik points to powerful examples of the use of this psychological knowledge by writers who could know nothing of Jung.  Of course, there is the classic story of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, which is so well known as to be part of our culture.  This story exemplifies a case of possession by the shadow, while another well-known tale, The Picture of Dorien Gray, by Oscar Wilde, illustrates in striking form the mechanism of shadow projection.  Both are stories of bold strokes, akin to horror or fantasy stories, but their power is not of the fantastic but of the shadow’s pervasiveness in our lives, recognized or not.

Sonik describes how she uses the idea of the shadow in her own work, and how useful it is:

“As a writer of fiction, I have found that by consciously using the concept of the shadow in story production, I am more readily able to engage with unconscious content.”

She wrote a story comprised of a series of letters by a daughter to her mother, where the daughter is struggling with what “being a good daughter” means and how it was imposed upon her willy-nilly.  This was part of the author’s own struggle.  By reflecting on the shadowy dichotomy between “the good daughter” and “the resistant daughter” and by a process of near free association, the character of the daughter came into view.  The idea of the shadow focused Sonik on creatively uncovering the unstated underside of the character.

This requires a skill that is little acknowledged, never mind taught, Sonik observes:

“The concept of a writer ‘listening’ to her story as it unfolds rather than consciously directing the story’s unfolding is fundamentally opposed to what is taught in elementary and high school creative writing curricula. Also, in university writing workshops, approaches to the process of writing are rarely discussed, as the product itself becomes focal.”

Her story above developed and ended in a surprising but inevitable way.  It’s worth reading Sonik’s article to find out where.

As another glimpse of the shadow, I’m reminded of John Irving writing about The Under Toad in his The World According to Garp.

In that novel, the youngest child is constantly being told to watch out for the undertow when he goes for a swim.  The child always heard this as “under toad.”

“Garp…realized that all these years Walt had been dreading a giant toad, lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea. The terrible Under Toad.”

In Goethe’s Faust, called by Jungian analyst and writer Robert A. Johnson the greatest example of the meeting of ego and shadow, a professor encounters the devil.  The professor is a dried-up, used-up shell of a man contemplating suicide.  But he meets Mephistopheles and in Goethe’s tale, their “long, vivid story is our best instruction in the redemption of ego and shadow.”  Faust becomes capable of passion; Mephistopheles becomes capable of love.

Sometimes you have to say hello to The Under Toad.


Explore posts in the same categories: Awareness, Writing

5 Comments on “The Shadow, the Unconscious, and Writing”

  1. Karl Says:

    Hi Fencer. This post really sent me thinking. I also read Sonik’s essay. Why indeed do we engage in any creative endeavor? And if we do, what makes that endeavor successful, whatever successful means.

    I am an artist, primarily a fine art photographer dabbing in documentaries and a bit of writing. I’ve learned that art is a matter of absolute truth to yourself. Truth and honesty are sub conscious traits, they are not conscious items where we might decide that “today I’ll be honest and create a bunch of true art”.

    Is that sub conscious trait a Dark Shadow or an Under Toad? Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde? Darkness versus Light? I guess I think perhaps the “Dark Shadow” is really a better, not worse, me. I know that when Darkness affect my personal conscious life, then I somehow reach into a “better me”, allowing me to create better art. The worse I’m off, the better artist I am. You can’t sing the blues till you’ve experienced it.

    I’ll need to think about this some more. Thanks for a post that made at least me a bit more aware and curious. And thanks for your encouragement over the last six months or so.


  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Karl,

    Thanks for coming by!

    We do tend to think of the shadowy parts of ourselves as bad or worse, but it ain’t necessarily so. Robert A. Johnson in his little book on the shadow says that the better side of ourselves is also often in the dark: “Some of the pure gold of our personality is relegated to the shadow because it can find no place in that great leveling process that is culture.”

    He says people often resist the better part of their nature more strenuously than they avoid the dark side, and I think this is true.

    There’s gold and lead in the darkness.


  3. sputnki Says:

    Hey Fencer, another superb insight into the creative process. It’s funny you mention how writing classes are rather mechanistic (I’m interpreting here, you didn’t ACTUALLY say that…). One writer who never gets enough credit for his work, Stephen King, often writes about his writing process. In fact, he wrote a book called “On Writing”. In his second Foreword he puts the matter bluntly:

    “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do — not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.”

    I’ve never really gotten into most of SK’s work, but I loved the Darktower series. In most of the books he would talk to the reader in an “Argument” at the beginning and “Afterword” at the end. One theme constantly came through as he took well on 30 years to finish the series was that “I don’t know what happens next!”. He even incorporates the element of writing creating the universe on the go into the story. People on their death bed wrote him, begging him to tell them what happens to Roland (the hero). He couldn’t, he didn’t know until he wrote it.

    If you’re looking for someone who reaches into the deep unconscious for material, he’s your man.

    Your comment on people resisting “the better part of their nature more strenuously than they avoid the dark side” rings very true!

    Karl’s comment struck me as well. Photography for me started as a hobby. Strictly a creative process. As time went on, I wanted to make it more than that. That’s when the analysis (and paralysis) started. The fact is, I don’t always know what makes a good photograph. I have a number of guidelines running through my head from extensive reading and experimentation that nudge me in certain directions, but often my favourite stuff just looks right to me. It seems I’m most creative when I do something that “looks right” to me, but all the other little voices say “that sucks”. Maybe that’s how you find your own style, the point where training and intuition balance.

    You write something provocative and it provokes a cascade of thought on my side. I should probably just shunt it into a notebook and put “Good one!” as a comment. Rule 17 of “Principles of Composition” in Strunk and White “The Elements of Style”. I’ve really got to work on that one….


  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post… I much prefer specific comment over general praise!

    I have to confess that I’ve never liked Stephen King’s stuff very much. But I haven’t read the Darktower series and his process of writing sounds appealing. But good genre writers in general I think often have a better grasp of unconscious process and psychological archetypes, including the shadow, along with the importance of story, than do many so-called literary writers.

    I like your point about that balance point of training and intuition and how the way that we make our choices there may be what defines our voice or vision. You can’t make your voice or style, you can only find it, I think.


  5. […] [For a related post on the shadow, there’s this one.] […]

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