A Story From My Own Shadow

When I was twelve years old, I wrote my first story.  It was about a girl named Sherry who had a crazy mother.  It was autobiographical of course.  I loved writing that story.  I created a world where I could escape to but at the same time manage what was going on around me.  I still recall some of the words I wrote:

“Sherry looked outside the window of her house at their perfect green lawn, the rain running soft currents down the glass as if the house were crying.  Outside the world went by, but it didn’t see what was going on inside.”

Sherry’s best friend was an old maple tree that sat on the corner of the high school lawn, a few blocks from her house.  Its huge branches were like arms, holding her small body as she looked down through the thick leaves at the high school students walking by.  She felt loved by the giant old tree, and she often wondered as she put her ear to the bark if she could hear it speaking to her.”

I wrote in my story every day, looking forward to it much like a coveted appointment with a best friend.  I carefully hid it where I thought it wouldn’t be found.  But it was.  I came home from school one day and found it ripped up in the downstairs bathroom waste can.

My mother was home ill from work that day (something that almost never happened).  I heard her voice calling me sharply from her upstairs bedroom.  I felt a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I ran up the stairs to find her.  I only remember stammering somewhat incoherently: “The story isn’t about you!  The story isn’t about you!”  (This was a lie, but I was doing a preemptive strike to ward off what I was sure would be the usual retribution when displeasing or irritating her in any way; her moods were unpredictable).  I simply recall her snapping back in that cold, barely constrained rage that was so characteristic of her at the time:  “I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.  Now go clean your room.”

On one hand, I was relieved that I had apparently escaped a beating (usually by a belt or the hard plastic of the vacuum cleaner wand; or sometimes just her hands: slapping me or pulling clumps of my hair until I screamed; but what I hated the most were her vicious verbal tirades).  However, my story being destroyed and her cold dismissal of my concern felt in some ways worse than those things.  Her response left me reeling, as if I had just gotten off a spinning carnival ride and everything was a bit off kilter.  There was no solid point of reference to help me understand any of it.  If she hadn’t ripped it up, then who?  (I hadn’t really gotten to the “why” yet).  Of course, I knew logically there couldn’t be anyone else.  I doubted one of my siblings could have done it.  And so I internalized all of it, because that’s what writers do–especially when they are children with a crazy mother.

After that, I still wrote–but never as freely; and I almost always destroyed everything I wrote.  Although I did keep a childhood diary, a Christmas gift from my Grandmother.  It was one of those pre-printed types with a page for each day of the year.  I would write a few lines of what I did during the day, such as: “I went to school today and we learned about polar bears,” or “today I went to the bookmobile and checked out two books.”  It was the writing equivalent to coloring within the lines. It is very telling in what I left out:  I didn’t want to go too deep.

As a teenager, I rebelled and fought back.  And as much as I paid emotionally and physically for that needed defiance, I was just trying to survive.  That survival effort also had an additional price: my writing went increasingly underground, and my shadow was hidden (like everything else) behind the 1970s suburban image we were expected to uphold.

It took me years later when I had children of my own to fully understand what had happened to me as a child and the destruction of my childhood creative work. I couldn’t imagine doing that to any of my children — ever.  I treasure everything they have created and still have boxes of those creations from their childhood years that I guard like the precious and priceless gold it is. While I realize with adult compassion that my mother was sick and suffering from her own unvoiced shadow, the damage was done.  While my resulting denial was a needed survival mechanism then, it adversely affected my writing for years to come.  So much of that was unconscious of course, but in those days I felt as if I was fighting myself every time I tried to put words on paper–and of course, I was.

As a result of my crazy childhood, I spent years in and out of depression.  The shadow within was making itself known, and as counterintuitive as this may be, acknowledgement of the shadow is the pathway to light and healing.  As I wrote about in a prior post, The Inner Critic, I recovered my writing when I was hospitalized in my early 30s for depression.  It was during this time that I finally let myself feel the shadow emotions I had so long ago repressed and had once tried so faithfully to express as a 12 year old.  I finally gave my bruised and battered childhood a voice and a lot came pouring out.  From that point forward, I have kept almost everything I have ever written, two decades worth in several boxes and on a variety of old computer media.  It doesn’t even matter if any of it is any good– just that it lives.

In closing, here’s a note to my childhood alter-ego Sherry:  You wrote from the shadow and you did it beautifully.  Now put on a red dress and dance: there’s nothing there to stop you now.  :)

Photo Source: 

Photographer: Wendy Cutler.  http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-2577188984

The Work at Hand

“I find myself most drawn to art that has arisen from a deeply personal conversation between the artist and the work at hand. It is art that walks perilously close to the Edge, that crosses the river of blood into the Faerie, that flies so high it is scorched by the sun, and then returns to tell the tale to us.  It is art that needed to be written, or painted, or sung, or woven, or otherwise shaped.  It is art gifted by the Mystery to the maker, and then in turn, gifted to us.”

— Terri Winding

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. Writing is nothing.  You just sit at the typewriter and bleed.”

— Ernest Hemingway

Using Hemingway’s metaphor, we know that open wounds bleed and so do open souls:  creating works of art that flow from the deepest parts of ourselves and of life.  Whether our creating begins with “writing the truest sentence we know,” as Hemingway so brilliantly instructs us to do,”or walking over the river of blood” as Winding describes in her beautiful metaphors, we write our truth.

There have been times in my life when I wrote from those places of despair.  As I have said before, they could also be portals of inspiration and healing despite their rigor.  Other times I wrote from the opposite end of the spectrum: happy, joyous, celebratory times, which also inspired me to write.  There were also rare and special times when inspiration would seemingly come from nowhere, like the rush of an incoming tide, leaving in its wake a flood of words on paper that flowed easily and almost effortlessly.

These are the times when, as mystical as it may seem, I feel as if I am being guided from a Source outside myself: yet its voice and medium are my own experience and understanding, like the liturgical metaphor of the connection between bone and marrow.  During these times I feel as if the creative process is almost like an act of worship, but not in the traditional sense of the word.  Rather, it is a journey, where I travel the outermost reaches of my soul and find God there waiting. Others will call their creative experience something entirely different, and it is right that they do: there is no single definition for the creative process, unique as it is to each writer or artist.  Perhaps we all draw from the same Source, I don’t know; but each time we create we give ourselves a glimpse of what is possible.

I wish I could have these mystical experiences every day, but of course I don’t.  Those times are wonderful, absolutely, but much more common is the simple day-to-day discipline of writing, the choice to create as an act of will and heart.  I struggle a lot — writing this particular post being one of those times.  I felt like I couldn’t put two cohesive thoughts together.  My Inner Bitch was urging me to skip writing this week and “apologize to the entire Blogosphere for having the audacity to post this piece of crap.”  :)   Life is messy; writing sometimes is too.  And so I write from this particular part of my own shadow, stare that Bitch down and write … anyway.  As Jack London once said, “You can’t always wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”


Many bestselling authors admit they still struggle with self doubt despite their success.  I found that comforting. In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King mentions how he will work feverishly for as long as it takes to get everything out that he wants to say before he will go back and edit.  He said if he stops before he gets all of it out, his self-doubt will kick in and he then finds it hard to finish.  In the closing paragraph of his book, he wrote of the hope that what he wrote will give his readers the “permission slip” to go out there and just do it:

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art.  The water is free.  So drink.  Drink and be filled up.”  

Stephen King’s encouragement reminded me of a similar quote from Goethe, written over two hundred years ago:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

As writers and artists, we can wait for those splendid divine moments or we can write our way into them.  Either way is a gift.  Hemingway’s timelessly beautiful advice on “writing the truest sentence we know,” is a writer’s best first step.  That truest thought begins the conversation that Winding says is “between the artist and the work at hand.”  Begin: write from the shadow, “walk the Edge,” “cross over the river of blood into the Faerie,” or “fly so high you are scorched by the sun;” –but however you do it,  just begin.  And wherever that first step of truth may take you, please “return to tell the story” of that Divine conversation you found along the way.  We are as hungry to participate in that conversation as you are to create it.

Photo Sources (in order of appearance):

Photographer: Glores.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Computer_keyboard.gif

Photographer: Zaui/Scott Catron.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaui/4455991107/in/photostream/

Photographer: Weinstock.  http://pixabay.com/en/hand-child-paint-play-colorful-93168/

Artist:  Winslow Homer. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Incoming_Tide,_Scarboro_Maine_by_Winslow_Homer,_1883.png

Photographer: Katara. katara1439.deviantart.com

Artist: Sarah Klockers-Clauser. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarabbit/4549185468/

Photographer: Chandra Spitzer. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M82_Chandra_HST_Spitzer.jpg


Viktor Frankl


What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.  – Viktor Frankl

Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurosurgeon who had barely begun his professional career when he was condemned to die, along with millions of other Jews at the onset of World War II.  During that time, Dr. Frankl was imprisoned in no less than four Nazi concentration camps, one of which was the most horrific and notorious: Auschwitz, where over 1,500,000 people alone died in its gas chambers.



During the War, Dr. Frankl also lost his wife, his parents, and most of his family.  He miraculously survived this horror and afterward wrote a book about his experience (written in just under 9 days), entitled Man’s Search for Meaning.  To date, this influential book has sold over 14,000,000 copies and has been translated into twenty-four languages.  By many accounts it is one of the most important books of our time, and I agree.  This book was completely life changing for me and continues to deeply influence me.

In the forward to the 1992 edition of his book, Dr. Frankl reveals what drove him to write his book in the first place:

I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.  And I thought that if the point were demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing.  I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.

In summary, Dr. Frankl believed this search for meaning and purpose is the most important task we have in life and described three primary ways in which we find it:  (1) by creating a body of work or doing something we feel is important or relevant; (2) through love (a deep connection to someone or something other than ourselves); and 3) by finding meaning in our suffering.  While Dr. Frankl is quick to point out that suffering in and of itself is meaningless (and to be avoided if possible), if we do find we cannot escape our suffering, we attempt to find meaning in it. He writes that this act of choice will not only help transform the experience, but ultimately will give us the courage and strength to rise above it.

So how does this specifically apply to the act of writing?   Undoubtedly, Dr. Frankl was a brilliant doctor and clinician, and while he wrote many books from this point of view, his most powerful and influential book came from his own personal experience. Through the act of writing about his suffering, he exemplified for us his own guidance in how we find meaning in our own lives:  (1) he found meaning in his suffering (in his case, to help others, which also was an act of love); (2) through love (one example of which he relates in the book: how during a particularly terrible time in his imprisonment, his despair made him want to give up; but he found a mystical yet very real and present strength when recalling the love of his wife); and (3) he wrote a seminal book and created a professional practice and school of psychotherapy around what he learned from his experiences[1].


There is so much more to Dr. Frankl’s book and life’s work than I can adequately relate here, so please try and read Man’s Search for Meaning if you can.  It is an inspiring and beautifully written book, and one that I can promise you will touch, inspire, and encourage you no matter what your background or circumstance.  And of course, do “give voice and effort” to your own quest for meaning, whatever path yours may take.  Perhaps you will find that a life or two (or more) gets changed in the process: most notably, of course, your own.

With that, I will close with Dr. Frankl’s own closing words at the end of his book:

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.  What he becomes—within the limits of his endowment and environment—he has made out of himself.  In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints.  Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is.  After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

For those who have read the book, please leave your own thoughts and reflections in the comments.  I would love your help in honoring this beautiful man and his work.

[1] One Note: Dr. Frankl emphasized that even prior to his experiences in the concentration camps he deeply believed in these ideas.  His experiences in the camps only strengthened his original core beliefs and thereafter crucially shaped his clinical practice for the rest of his life.

Photo Sources (in order of appearance):

Photo by Dr. Franz Vesely. http://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dosya:Viktor_Frankl2.jpg

Photo by Mariusz Cieszewski.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/polandmfa/8736839849/

Photo by Private Ralph Forney (Army). http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:At_the_German_concentration_camp_at_Wobbelin.jpg

Book Cover. Galicia Musuem Publications. http://www.shop.galiciajewishmuseum.org//produkty/mans-search-for-meaning.html

Photo by Michael Schaffner. https://www.flickr.com/photos/

Photo by Travis Forsyth. https://www.flickr.com/photos/forsytht/5844157752

Photographer unknown.  Viktor Frankl Institute. www.viktorfrankl.org/

Photographer “CAHairyBear.”  https://www.flickr.com/photos/91173606@N00/5766331983/