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Writing the Shadow Work Book, Part One: Storytelling
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As you can probably imagine, writing it was a journey as well.
A story from my experience.
I was working as a technical writer when I first encountered Shadow Work in 1995, and so I quite naturally asked if someone was writing a book about it.
Yes, I was told, someone is writing a book. I felt both disappointed and relieved.
I had been wanting to write a book for years. In fact, I had legally changed my name from Alice Ann Barry to Alyce Barry seventeen years earlier because I thought the symmetry of "y's" would look better on the cover of a book.
I had written a shelf full of software manuals for the company I worked for, but they weren't published for the outside world, only photocopied for my fellow employees. I had also started several nonfiction books on my own time but never found the energy or the commitment to complete them.
After hearing that a Shadow Work book was in process, I waited for several years. When no book appeared, it seemed the coast was clear.
A WRITING RETREAT
In the summer of 1999, I was scheduled to attend a week-long church conference. I decided to use it as a writing retreat and get started.
I took with me the typed transcript of a recording produced by Shadow Work® Seminars called Shadow Work Basics.
The recording explained many of the beliefs on which Shadow Work is based: what shadow is, how to recognize it, why a person would want to look at their shadow, and so on. It described in detail the four archetypes in the Shadow Work Model – the Magician, the Sovereign, the Lover and the Warrior – in their healthy and shadow forms, using some fun examples.
As far as I knew, the recording contained all the data I would need. I figured I was good to go.
The task of organizing the information into a short book didn't look particularly difficult; I had written computer manuals that were far more complex than this. I began by constructing a table of contents, then started typing in the pieces. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
The result was a manuscript of about sixty pages. I had changed very little of the content of the recording. When I got home, I put the manuscript in a drawer and resolved to look at it again in a few weeks, when I knew I would be able to view it more objectively.
After a few weeks had passed, I pulled the manuscript out of the drawer and reread it. The structure seemed sound, but I was surprised at how dull the words sounded. I tried moving them around, changing a few things, but somehow it still didn't gel.
I didn't figure out until several years later, in fact, that the words sounded dull because they weren't mine. I had retyped the information to suit the new structure, but it was someone else's way of explaining Shadow Work, not mine.
At the time, I didn't know what to do, so the manuscript went back in the drawer.
The following summer, I attended the same conference, and I resolved to have another go at it. This time I didn't even make it to sixty pages; I was still moving other people's words around on paper while failing utterly to infuse them with life.
Clearly this would be more difficult than I'd expected.
TAKING A BREAK
Meanwhile, other things were happening in my life: I went through a divorce, bought a house of my own and focused my efforts on making it a home. My job as a technical writer was changing as well: I became supervisor to four friends who had previously been my coworkers, and my new status was a big adjustment.
Two years passed.
In the spring of 2002, I left my technical writing job in order to build a practice as a Shadow Work® coach. As promotion for my practice, I paid for a booth at a local street festival in Evanston, Illinois, called Custer's Last Stand. I laid out brochures and business cards, but my booth didn't get a lot of action: the festival was really more of a summer entertainment than a venue for people exploring personal growth.
Something happened, however, that changed the course of the Shadow Work® book.
A man I had met once at a men's conference, George Rounds, walked by my booth and stopped to say hello. George was a life coach trained by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He asked if I would be interested in talking about Shadow Work® at a monthly meeting of the ICF's Chicago chapter.
"I'd be delighted," I answered. "How much time would I have?"
"About an hour," George said. "And you should leave 10 or 15 minutes for answering questions."
Forty-five to fifty minutes! I went home wondering what I could meaningfully say about Shadow Work® in that short time. I could recap the basics from the recording, of course, but there wasn't much juice in the idea.
I don't remember the exact moment when I thought of it: a passage in one of Robert Bly's books, probably The Maiden King. A passage that said, A story can convey a great deal of information, often in a very short period of time.
THE STORY'S THE THING
So it was that I invented Grace.
Grace was a little girl who was much like me as I was growing up: quiet and rather sensitive. I developed a story about Grace at age six, when she brought a paper home from school with a gold star at the top. I described her natural need for approval from those closest to her: her family members. I told how her family showed her not approval but ridicule. I described how the incident hurt her feelings and how and why she put part of herself – her natural desire to shine for approval – into shadow in order to avoid getting hurt in the same way again.
I rehearsed my story about Grace for several days until I could tell it within forty-five minutes' time, though I noticed a curious tendency to launch off on lengthy tangents. I arrived at George's chapter meeting to find a bigger crowd than I had expected: about sixty life coaches were mingling, networking, and foraging for snacks and drinks at a table along the back of the room.
I was given a wireless microphone to pin to my blouse. I'd never worn one before, and I was enough like Grace to feel a thrill at the prospect of having a captive audience.
As I began to speak, my audience settled down. I told them Grace's story, acting it out as if I were in a one-act play.
I played Grace at age six getting shot down by family members for acting too proud of her gold star. I introduced her Risk Manager: the part of her that told her never to shine again so that she wouldn't get hurt. I played Grace as she reacted to schoolmates who either "stuffed" their shining parts as Grace did, or acted like show-offs, or were able to express their pride in their achievements in healthy ways.
I fast-forwarded Grace to adulthood and placed her in a business meeting, making a presentation. I described her hard work on the presentation and her resolve to speak only briefly, following the advice of her Risk Manager to avoid showing off at all costs. Then I described her reaction when she received the first praise from her audience: her long-stifled craving for recognition took over, and she flipped into the opposite strategy. She became an obnoxious show-off, bragging about her efforts and making jokes at others' expense. This side of Grace I particularly enjoyed playing because it was a role I had so rarely played in my own life!
I demonstrated the inevitable reactions of the audience for Grace's presentation: their growing impatience as she goes on speaking too long, and finally their subtle ridicule. When Grace suddenly realized what had happened, she felt utterly humiliated. As she slunk out of the meeting, her Risk Manager, who had been unsuccessful in preventing her from showing off, was screaming at her, "What were you thinking?"
CHANNELING MY SUBJECT
Not surprisingly, just like Grace, I spoke for too long – I acted the part of Grace so effectively that my hour went by, and another twenty minutes or so, before I realized it!
What did not escape my notice, however, was the reaction of my audience. They were riveted, concentrating closely on the story I was telling. Not a single person had gone to the table at the back of the room for more refreshments. Not a single person had left early or gone to use the rest room.
That worked, I said to myself as I drove home. I knew now how to write about Shadow Work®: tell a story!
The day after the meeting, I did my best to repeat my performance at home with a tape recorder on. I transcribed it and began to fashion it into a book.
For the next three years, I worked with Grace's story. I embellished it, I added stories about her parents and other things that had happened to her.
But I began to run into a problem: Grace's story conveyed many of the basic ideas about shadow, but how could I get back to the four archetypes and descriptions of all the different kinds of shadows? I shifted from Grace to the archetypes and hoped that it would work.
I hired an editor to read the manuscript, and the good news was that he cared about Grace. The bad news was that there was a big disconnect between Grace's story and the rest of the book.
I began toying with other ways to present the material. I created siblings for Grace and brought each of them to a Shadow Work® workshop with a different archetypal energy in shadow. I learned pretty quickly that I wasn't skilled enough at fiction to make up characters with compelling and internally consistent personal stories.
Next, I tried creating case studies based on my work with clients. Before long, I learned that, after changing their details to protect confidentiality, my clients had become characters as unrealistic as my fictional characters. I learned that there is a compelling beauty, even symmetry, to a person's issues that immediately gets lost when the details are changed. When I changed a male client to a female, for example, I discovered that a man's relationship with his father was fundamentally different from a woman's relationship with her mother because men and women take their identity from their parents in different ways. Similarly, in the story of a man whose parents died in a car accident, the images and symbolism were very different from the story of a man whose parents died at sea.
MAKING IT PERSONAL
As I struggled to find a way to bridge the disconnect in the manuscript, I began hearing from friends, and eventually from my editor, that I should consider telling a personal story instead.
I was at first very resistant to the idea, and it wasn't hard to figure out why. While in my twenties, I had briefly attended a writers' group that met at my local library. I had brought to the group a story about something that had happened to me, and an older group member reacted with withering criticism.
"What makes you think anyone is interested in your life?" he said with disdain. I decided I must have been arrogant to tell stories about myself, and I put them away for more than twenty years.
As I look back on that encounter, I feel sad both for myself and for him. I'm sure he must have been blasted for telling his own stories at some point, and I hope he came to realize, as I did, that our own stories are the most valued stories we have to tell.
GOODBYE TO GRACE
Once I had decided to tell a personal story instead, I spent several weeks reading through old journals and listing the personal issues I could use as the story's basis.
My choice had to be an issue that had genuinely troubled me, that I had pretty well licked with the help of Shadow Work®, and about which I could remember a lot of detail.
I finally said goodbye to Grace. As I worked and reworked my personal story, a mental image came to me of sitting on a beach, smoothing a path before me in the sand. Each time I disconnected from the reader to explain an idea, a bump appeared in the sand, and I smoothed it out some more by making it part of the story.
I gradually found a way to explain most of the important ideas in Shadow Work® through my own experience, and even to capture some of the emotional experience of doing it, or so my readers have told me. Only at the end of the book does it diverge from my story, in order to include an exercise that offers the reader a direct experience.
Along the way, I received two very valuable pieces of advice, which I mention now for the sake of the other writers out there.
I met an energy worker and author named Kabir Jaffe who told me, Don't try to give the reader the whole pie; just give them a slice. The Shadow Work® Model is a very large and complex pie, and Kabir's advice has helped tremendously in paring down the ideas to what can be usefully conveyed in a single, easy-to-read book.
It may have been Kabir, or it may have been my editor, David Hicks, who gave me the other wonderful piece of advice: That the job of an author is to take the reader's hand on the first page and never let it drop.
I've attempted to do just that, and it's up to my readers to tell me whether or not I have succeeded.