Photo by Danker Peter on Unsplash

How writing makes peace with the baggage we carry

Musings on Robert Bly’s A Little Book on the Human Shadow and on writing the shadow

Anyone who thinks s/he has no shadow is likely to be living in delusion. To push the metaphor, in everyday life someone without shadow would have to be not simply thin, but transparent, without substance. Even a slender pole casts a shadow.

Poet, Robert Bly describes the shadow as a ‘long bag we drag behind us’ filled with all that we denigrate and repress:

  • The parts our parents and teachers disapproved of
  • The parts that didn’t fit with peer pressure
  • The parts our culture has labelled ‘disallowed’

The child, Bly argues, starts life with a huge ball of energy and reaches adulthood with only a sliver in tact. Depending on the culture the variety of characteristics that go in the bag include:

  • sexuality
  • spontaneity
  • individuality
  • inventiveness
  • exuberance
  • difference
  • so-called ‘feminine’ traits in men (emotions, spirituality, weakness…)
  • and so-called ‘masculine’ traits in women (rationality, strength…)
  • fear
  • anger
  • competitiveness
  • appetite

and the list could go on…

The problems of repression

Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

What is the impact of repressing so much?

i. for individuals

For individuals, Bly describes the process that R L Stevenson fictionalised in Dr Jekyll an Mr Hyde. Whilst the outer person appears to get ‘nicer and nicer’, the sealed up parts regress and become barbaric.

Putting so much of ourselves into a bag, stuffing it down, holding it shut and hauling it around takes a great deal of energy.

We find our buttons are easily pushed by people (real and in fiction) who seem to have no problem expressing the traits we schooled ourselves to repress. Those of us who have become overly-compliant and unassertive may find ourselves disliking and distrusting people who are confident, for example.

We find ourselves taking apparently unobserved moments to live out the opposites of how our parents or culture raised us: ‘nice’, compliant people might have a secret side that is sneaky, wilful, greedy, longing for fame…

We may gravitate towards toxic people who play out the shadow. Or we may begin to project the shadow onto those we are in relationships with, metaphorically as though it’s a film we have rolled away into a dark can:

A man’s anger, rolled up inside the can for twenty years, he may see one night on his wife’s face.

Whilst projection can be a step in getting the material out of the bag and into the conscious, we have to balance it by recalling and owning the shadow. We begin to reabsorb the rejected traits when we notice, at some point, that the projections don’t quite hold up.

A man may project his helplessness and indecisiveness onto his wife, but feel unsettled when she takes charge of a situation and shows strength. If she doesn’t play the weakling he might engineer situations to try to make the mask he’s fittted onto her fit again or begin justifying to himself why his perception of her as weak is still correct. But this process is exhausting and there comes a moment when

we see our own diminishment

At this point we face the task of retrieving the projection, which Bly describes as eating the shadow, a long slow process:

darkness contains intelligence and nourishment, even information … the person who has eaten some of his or her own shadow is more energetic as well as more intelligent.

ii. for cultures

Bly notes that society, as well as individuals, suffers from the repression of the shadow.

So a decision taken privately as part of one’s inner life, to fight the dark side of oneself — … can cause the ‘conscious’ and the ‘unconscious’ to take up adversary positions; and the adversary positions can quickly spread to foreign policy.

Bly considers that not only does all the repressed energy feed into evil in society. He also notes how whole cultures become obsessed with denigrating particular characteristics, most often those associated with ‘yin’. In short, misogyny and racism flourish when a culture and the individuals who make it up have not begun to deal with the shadow. Violence, sexual violence, xenophobia thrive.

The shadow of a culture can also become projected. A celebrity or an iconic figure can become the focus, particularly fuelled by mass media. The projections of millions, with no personal contact, is a dangerous thing, even fatal Bly considers.

so it’s infinitely important that each person brings back his or her own shadow

Dealing with shadow material

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Realising our projections are just that, is a first step to dealing with the shadow.

But opening the bag and letting the shadow run riot isn’t a solution. To do so only destroys the ego, causing other problems. Generally we have two default positions with shadow material: we either repress it or express it. Repressing anger is psychologically and probably physically damaging. Expressing it by throwing tantrums is immature and destructive. Neither of the defaults is useful.

Bly recommends mediating. In meditation we can allow the anger (or whatever the emotion we are dealing with) to emerge. The whole body can burn with it, for hours if necessary, neither expressing nor repressing the emotion. Later, we can chose an expression, a witty remark rather than a screaming rant.

Alternatively we might dialogue with our shadow, a form of active imagination to process the material. Face the anger and ask: What do you want of me? Slowly, we begin to integrate the shadow.

And importantly, we can encounter shadow in play — in this way it becomes absorbed, more playful, more condensed and creative. Play can take many forms:

  • practice being the shadow, playing with it as a role
  • spend time alone meditating, processing, simply being
  • through creative activities from drumming to making clay figures, from painting to dance
  • walk around with all your senses open to the world
  • vary your habits to challenge your patterns and dislodge projections
  • travel to different cultures and put yourself in the role of outsider

And vitally, use language:

Certain kinds of language are nets, and we need to use the net actively … If we want our witch back, we write about her … Writing contains retrieved shadow substance of all our ancestors … Always cry for what you want .. every bit of energy we don’t actively engage with language or art is floating somewhere in the air.

Don’t refuse to approach your life actively. Journal, write poetry, write fiction, write articles, create …

Bly is a poet and hyper-aware of the need to use every sense in writing, to write detailed, specific, visceral work. He believes that we work with the shadow when the senses unite, when smell and sound and colour merge, when thought is expressed through the senses. He points out that William James described a decaying mindset as one that had ceased to notice details. Individual sights and sounds vanish. Nouns become plurals or generic. The ‘thatness’ of the universe, every precise colour or scent or feeling is missing.

All literature can be thought of as corrections by the ‘dark side’ to enable it to rise up from earth and join the sunlit consciousness again.

This matters to writers. Doing work that is specific, clear, uncluttered by generalities, qualifiers that do no work, too many adverbs that could have been incorporated into stronger verbs, is not only a stylistic necessity, but a matter of urgency. Bly cautions:

Stop juggling ideas. Got to this place with your body, bring the senses forward, sound first, then sight, then smell if possible. Ask your imagination to bring you the sound.

For Bly the mindset of collapsing things into one another, of reductionism is one that tends towards the disconnected and a remote kind of superiority over real, bodily life. The sensual is left to sink, is characterised as base and devoid of spirituality, a false split between mind and body that keeps us separated from our environment and keeps the shadow in exile.

The retreat from the shadow is negative, as this Rilke poem expresses:

Already the ripening berries are red,

and the gold asters hardly breathe in their beds.

The man who is not rich now as summer goes

will wait and wait and never be himself.

The man who cannot quietly close his eyes

certain that there is vision after vision

inside, simply waiting until nighttime

to arise all around him in the darkness —

he is an old man, it’s all over for him.

Nothing else will come, no more days will open;

and everything that does happen will cheat him,

even you my God. And you are like a stone

that draws him daily deeper into the depths.

Writing the shadow

Photo by Alexa Mazzarello on Unsplash

The novel I recently launched in Wales and am now traveling to Hungary to launch in Budapest is a book replete with shadow, both national and individual. To write it I had to go to the places I was writing about with all my senses open and my imagination working hard on the smells, the sights, the sounds, the visceral experiences. I had to meet people, ask questions, be the outsider. I had to work with precision. And I had to allow the darkness to rise up to consciousness.

It is a book that invites hope, evolving identities and a new future, but along the way it grapples with political oppression, imprisonment, brutality, mental illness, suicide, loss…

It demanded of me not only that I do a great deal of reading and research and plotting and planning, but that I got involved with the material. The story of A Remedy for All Things inhabited me.

It feels appropriate to be traveling to the launch in Budapest, via trains to Paris and Munich, at this season of All Hallows-All Souls-All Saints — when traditionally we think of those who’ve gone before us and those we’ve lost; when the world seems to thin and the past reaches out to us.

Unless we return with the shadow, not in a bag kicking and screaming, but integrated, we will go on perpetrating atrocities, producing the conditions that break individuals.

And I aware that I couldn’t write the shadow without the journaling I do. The space where all the processing and writing begins to emerge into consciousness and be made bodily; the space where the energy of the shadow is eaten and nourishes the next story.

Where do you go with your body to bring the senses forward, to eat the shadow?

Becoming a Different Story journaling

Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. If you are looking to enrich your writing practice and widen its scope, no matter how experienced you are as a writer, join me for a free live online workshop and leave with some powerful tools to inspire your writing and your life. The workshop will take place on November 10 at 12 noon EDT (4 p.m. London; 5 p.m. Budapest & Paris)and you can register for the workshop in advance @




Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Wholonomic article 1.0

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

What Is Knowledge?

Ideology — A Crime Against the Soul

Am I Enlightened?

Epictetus on the Climate Crisis

spontaneous reflections on the fiction of being ‘one’

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jan Fortune

Jan Fortune

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @

More from Medium

Your heart knows

3 Ways To Eliminate Burnout

Dealing with FOMO as a Writer and Maintaining Self-Care

Having Pen Pals in 2022

A red postbox graphic with a letter falling out the front