As writers, our work can sometimes take us into some scary places. Whether that’s getting into the fractured mind of a damaged character, or exploring aspects of a broken society that are becoming impossible to ignore, creative writing is a way into—and through—the darkness deep within us all.
One of the most helpful things an artist of any discipline can do is explore the avenue of shadow writing—making contact with your deepest and darkest self in order to understand yourself better and manage the way these aspects bleed into your work.
In this article, we’ll explore what shadow writing is, how it can impact your life and your work, and some writing prompts to get you started in getting to know your shadow self.
What is a “shadow self”?
So to understand the concept of shadow writing, let’s first define what a shadow self is:
The shadow is a representation of your darkest and innermost thoughts, desires, fears, internalized prejudices, cravings, and impulses that you keep hidden from the world.
We all have shadow selves—parts of our being that, due to the constraints of society or our immediate world, we bury and try to forget.
The modern idea of a shadow archetype comes from psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who presented the idea that there are five aspects, or psychological structures, of the human psyche: the Persona, the Anima, the Animus, the Shadow, and the Self.
Everyone has each of these Jungian archetypes within them in some way; some are more comfortable than others. (You can learn more about each of the Jungian aspects here.)
But even though the Shadow as we know it from Jungian psychology has only been around since the ’30s, human beings have always had shadow selves they’ve kept hidden from others. However, in the age of social media, political minefields, and impossible standards, the gap between our inner shadows and our manufactured selves (Carl Jung would call this “the Persona”) is wider than ever.
Unfortunately, when our shadow selves are buried too deeply for too long, it can start causing problems in the rest of your life. That’s why it’s important to get to know it and understand it a little better—which means understanding yourself better.
What does shadow writing mean?
Shadow writing is a creative writing process used for self discovery, self awareness, and personal growth. It involves exploring deep, soul-searching questions that help you get to know your own shadow and gain a better understanding of your unconscious mind. Then, you can bring this understanding into your creative work.
We’ll give you some shadow work prompts to begin your journey to the “dark side” further on in this article.
Shadow work can be an incredibly powerful tool for overcoming the fears you face, consciously or subconsciously, during your creative process. It also has a ton of other advantages for the mind and spirit, which we’ll look at in more detail below.
Why practice shadow writing?
Although shadow writing can be challenging, it can have a positive long-term effect on our work, our minds, and even our bodies. Let’s look at some of the many advantages of working with your shadow side.
Shadow writing supports creativity
Since improving our writing is the name of the game, here are a couple advantages shadow writing has to offer creative writers.
Inspires new ideas
As you dive into your subconscious mind and get to know your own strengths and weaknesses better, you’ll find a wellspring of ideas for stories, characters, conflicts, relationships, and explorations into what it means to be human.
You may decide to bring some of these strengths and weaknesses into your own character creation, or they may just give you ideas for the sorts of motivations, ambitions, and fears that create the conflict necessary for an engaging plot.
Treats writer’s block
Writer’s block is something we all face at one time or another, and it’s almost always born out of an inherent fear of something—failure, success, judgement, slipping too deeply into the shadow element of yourself.
When we experience writer’s block, we’re on some level holding ourselves back. Practicing shadow writing can help you acknowledge and examine these fears, which means opening new creative pathways and beating writer’s block for good.
Shadow writing supports mental well-being
Shadow writing is most strongly associated with supporting your mental well-being—bringing the unconscious and conscious mind together, and mastering your true self. Here are a few of the things learning to shadow write can accomplish in your life.
Shadow writing helps encourage self-trust, especially if that trust in yourself was discouraged in childhood. You’ll find that your judgement of yourself and others is less clouded by unconscious prejudices and preconceptions, which means you’ll be able to see things more clearly.
So much of low self-esteem comes from internalized shame, regret, and trauma. Moreover, these things affect us on a subconscious level—we experience their effects without fully understanding why.
Shadow writing helps you better understand the choices you have made in the past and the sorts of things that shape your self-perception so you can learn to start liking yourself again.
Helps process trauma
Inner trauma, whether that’s from your own life or as a result of intergenerational struggles, can shape your self-perception and your perception of the world.
Even unconscious or inherited trauma can have a damaging effect on your conscious life. It also, naturally, both limits and informs your creative work.
Shadow writing helps acknowledge, understand, and process traumatic experiences that are holding you back from being your best.
The mistakes and negative emotions of our past inevitably impact our relationships with others—friends, family, partners, and professional colleagues. Often, the way we act towards others and the way we perceive their actions towards us is a result of the learned experiences hidden in our shadows.
By getting to know ourselves better through shadow work, we’ll be able to create and accept healthier, more fulfilling relationships.
The sad truth is that so much of society—advertising, social media, and workplace standards—is designed to discourage acceptance of our authentic selves. After all, if you embraced your aging skin for what it was, why would you spend money on that InstaYouth™ anti-aging cream?
Shadow writing can help you reassess your own strengths and weaknesses in a healthier way, so you can focus on what matters most.
35+ Shadow writing prompts
Ready to shadow write your way into a healthier, more balanced life? Here are some journalling prompts to get your started plumbing the depths of your darkest consciousness.
1. Describe yourself in one word.
2. Describe yourself in one sentence.
3. Describe yourself in one page.
4. How do you want others to see you?
5. How do you think others really see you?
6. What is your ultimate goal in life?
7. What tangible thing are you most afraid of?
8. What intangible thing are you most afraid of?
9. What core values do you try to live your life by?
10. Write about a difficult situation in which you went against those core values.
11. What is your best memory with your mother or father?
12. What is your worst memory with your mother or father? How is this memory impacting you today?
13. Which goal, person, or idea are you having trouble letting go of?
14. Which aspect of yourself do you keep hidden from others?
15. Which part of your life do you currently have the least control over?
16. What is an actionable step you could take to retaining control?
17. Who are you most envious of? How does that person make you feel?
18. What makes you feel most self-conscious? Why do you react this way?
19. What is your healthiest interpersonal relationship?
20. What is your most damaging interpersonal relationship?
21. What makes you feel most ashamed?
22. Who do you wish you could apologize to?
23. Who do you want an apology from? How do you think this person feels about their actions?
24. What character trait do you most respect in others?
25. What character trait do you wish you saw in others more often?
26. How do you cope with times of overwhelming stress?
27. Do you feel this coping mechanism is benefiting you? Why or why not?
28. Describe your inner child. Are they healthy, curious, creative, adventurous, lost, frightened, or all of those things at once?
29. What piece of advice would you give your childhood self?
30. What lie did you believe when you were a child? How has your perception of the world changed?
31. What is something true you knew as a child that you’ve forgotten, or no longer acknowledge?
32. When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
33. Have you followed your childhood dream? If not, why?
34. What aspect of yourself is most embarrassing or shameful? Why does it make you feel this way?
35. What’s one thing you wish you could change about yourself? What’s one thing you would never change?
To get the most out of your shadow writing practice, you may find it helpful to revisit some of these prompts several times. You might be surprised at what you discover if you answer the same question a few weeks or months apart.
Also, you can experiment with various forms of journalling—freewriting, drawing, bullet points, even putting your responses into scenes (checking out our article on 100-word memoirs might be a good place to start!).
Because your self-knowledge is constantly shifting and evolving, your answers may take shape in different ways, too, and reveal new lessons to teach you.
Incorporating shadow work into creative writing
As a writer, how can you bring this practice into your creative work?
Attaining a greater sense of who you are as a human being will help you develop story and character from a healthier, more fulfilled creative place. It will also give you a deeper understanding of humanity as a whole—and understanding humanity, in all its messiness and beauty, is what crafting character is all about.
As you move through the shadow writing prompts, note any experiences or discoveries that you could incorporate into your next story. Some of these might be difficult, but often, that’s where the strongest stories lie.
How can you bring the complexity of your own multifaceted relationships onto the page? How can you use your own descent and subsequent journey of healing (Kurt Vonnegut would call this “Rise-Fall-Rise”) to inspire the journeys of the characters in your story?
When bringing your shadow work into fiction, consider how your discoveries would look if you had grown up in different circumstances, in a different place or with a different set of people shaping your view of the world.
It can be helpful to shadow write from the point of view of your character, too. What do these prompts reveal about your story that you couldn’t see before?
Shadow writing doesn’t just help you get to know yourself better—it helps you get to know people better. This is a skill that informs everything from writing believable relationships between your characters to crafting realistic dialogue.
No matter what genre you’re writing in, no matter how high the stakes your characters face, readers open a book to read about people coming together in new and exciting ways.
Final thoughts: Write your way into the light
Discovering your unconscious through shadow writing isn’t an easy journey. It may mean examining a fear you didn’t even know you had, or revisiting old memories long since buried. It may mean facing aspects of your character you’d rather ignore, or taking a fresh look at the way you present yourself to others.
However, all of these things are integral to who you are as a person—whether they’re pushed down into the dark or brought out and examined in the light. Getting to know your shadow, allowing it to breathe and teach you something about yourself, will make you a better writer and help you live a healthier, richer creative life.