Let Your Dark Horse Run. Writing The Shadow With Joanna Penn

How can you let your creative dark horse run? What is the Shadow — and why explore your Shadow side?

This episode features excerpted chapters from the audiobook of Writing the Shadow: Turn Your Inner Darkness Into Words, written and narrated by Joanna Penn, available on Kickstarter until 25 October 2023: www.TheCreativePenn.com/shadowbook (link will redirect if you’re reading/listening in the future.)

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.

  • Let your dark horse run
  • Introduction: What is the Shadow?
  • Why explore your Shadow side?
Joanna Penn with Writing the Shadow

Let your dark horse run

Although much has changed over the last two thousand years, human nature remains the same. Around 370 BC, the Greek philosopher Plato composed The Phaedrus, which includes an allegory of a chariot that has helped me frame the Shadow. Perhaps it will help you, too.

Imagine a Roman chariot drawn by two horses — a white horse and a dark horse. I am the Charioteer, and I am in the race of my life.

The white horse represents my rational self, the one society sees.

My good behaviour, my industry, my hard work, my productivity, my scrubbed-clean, well-mannered good girl self. 

She helps others. She’s a peacemaker. She doesn’t like conflict. She says the right things, reads the right books. She needs to be liked.

My white horse trots delicately along paved roads, aware of the fences and boundaries, never needing to cross them, remaining within the lines drawn by others.

My dark horse is a wild animal, wreathed in smoke and ash and flame. 

She gallops across wide open spaces, leaps obstacles, smashes through fences, and avoids the paved and cornered world. 

She runs free and will destroy herself, rather than be caged.

If both horses run together in the same direction, I can fly along, whooping in delight at the speed and power. But if they become unbalanced, the chariot begins to wobble. 

When my dark horse stumbles, my white horse drives us hard along the highway, never stopping for rest. 

But if she dominates for too long, my dark horse rears up and runs out of control, driving us towards the cliff edge.

My white horse has often been stronger. 

I’ve always worked hard, got good grades, behaved well, earned enough money to support myself, paid my taxes early. 

But the more I let my white horse dominate, the more my dark one rears up unexpectedly and takes over until she exhausts herself with all the things that nice girls shouldn’t do. 

When I became a writer, these two horses drove me once more. 

My white horse writes non-fiction, helps others, wants to be useful, and responsibly manages a professional business. I’m grateful to have her!

My dark horse writes stories that tap into untamed darkness. 

I’ve tried to muzzle her, strap her down, regulate her chaos. 

But she rears her head, shakes her mane, stamps her hooves, paws the dirt. 

Let me run.


  • What are the key aspects of your white horse? 
  • What are the key aspects of your dark horse?
  • What happens when one or the other becomes dominant?
  • How could you let your dark horse run creatively?
  • How does it make you feel to consider that prospect?

Introduction: What is the Shadow?

“How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole.” —C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul

We all have a Shadow side and it is the work of a lifetime to recognise what lies within and spin that base material into gold

Think of it as a seedling in a little pot that you’re given when you’re young. It’s a bit misshapen and weird, not something you would display in your living room, so you place it in a dark corner of the basement. 

You don’t look at it for years. You almost forget about it. 

Then one day you notice tendrils of something wild poking up through the floorboards. They’re ugly and don’t fit with your Scandi-minimalist interior design. You chop the tendrils away and pour weedkiller on what’s left, trying to hide the fact that they were ever there. 

But the creeping stems keep coming. 

At some point, you know you have to go down there and face the wild thing your seedling has become. 

When you eventually pluck up enough courage to go down into the basement, you discover that the plant has wound its roots deep into the foundations of your home. Its vines weave in and out of the cracks in the walls, and it has beautiful flowers and strange fruit. 

It holds your world together. 

Perhaps you don’t need to destroy the wild tendrils. Perhaps you can let them wind up into the light and allow their rich beauty to weave through your home. It will change the look you have so carefully cultivated, but maybe that’s just what the place needs.

The Shadow in psychology

Carl Gustav Jung was a Swiss psychologist and the founder of analytical psychology. He described the Shadow as an unconscious aspect of the human personality, those parts of us that don’t match up to what is expected of us by family and society, or to our own ideals.

The Shadow is not necessarily evil or illegal or immoral, although of course it can be. It’s also not necessarily caused by trauma, abuse, or any other severely damaging event, although again, it can be.

It depends on the individual. 

What is in your Shadow is based on your life and your experiences, as well as your culture and society, so it will be different for everyone. 

Psychologist Connie Zweig, in The Inner Work of Age, explains,

“The Shadow is that part of us that lies beneath or behind the light of awareness. It contains our rejected, unacceptable traits and feelings. It contains our hidden gifts and talents that have remained unexpressed or unlived. As Jung put it, the essence of the Shadow is pure gold.”

To further illustrate the concept, Robert Bly, in A Little Book on the Human Shadow,uses the following metaphor:

“When we are young, we carry behind us an invisible bag, into which we stuff any feelings, thoughts, or behaviours that bring disapproval or loss of love—anger, tears, neediness, laziness. By the time we go to school, our bags are already a mile long. 

In high school, our peer groups pressure us to stuff the bags with even more—individuality, sexuality, spontaneity, different opinions. We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding which parts of ourselves to put into the bag and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.”

As authors, we can use what’s in the ‘bag’ to enrich our writing — but only if we can access it.

My intention with this book is to help you venture into your Shadow and bring some of what’s hidden into the light and into your words.

I’ll reveal aspects of my Shadow in these pages but ultimately, this book is about you. Your Shadow is unique. There may be elements we share, but much will be different.

Each chapter has questions for you to consider that may help you explore at least the edges of your Shadow, but it’s not easy. As Jung said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”

But take heart, Creative. You don’t need courage when things are easy. You need it when you know what you face will be difficult, but you do it anyway.

We are authors. We know how to do hard things.

We turn ideas into books. We manifest thoughts into ink on paper. 

We change lives with our writing. First, our own, then other people’s. It’s worth the effort to delve into Shadow, so I hope you will join me on the journey.

Who am I and why did I write this book?

I’m Jo Frances Penn. I’m an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers, dark fantasy, crime, and travel memoir as J.F. Penn. I also write non-fiction self-help for authors as Joanna Penn.

At the time of writing, I’m in my late forties and I live with my husband Jonathan and my two British shorthair cats, Cashew and Noisette, in Bath, England. I’ve been a full-time author entrepreneur since 2011 and before that, I used to implement accounts payable systems into companies across Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

I first learned of Carl Jung’s principle of the Shadow when I studied Psychology at A level, aged sixteen to eighteen, here in the UK. I later studied Psychology of Religion as part of my Masters in Theology at the University of Oxford (1994–1997) where I read Jung and many other perspectives. 

In 2005, I did a Graduate Diploma in Psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and considered becoming a clinical psychologist. That’s also the year I started writing my first book, which led to me becoming an author instead. 

Over the years, I’ve continued to study elements of psychology and have woven its principles into my stories as well as my self-help books. 

But of course, self-development is the journey of a lifetime and we are all a work in progress. I cannot claim to have solved all my issues, let alone brought everything that remains in my Shadow into the light.

I’ve been writing this book on and off for many years, first in my journals and then in various manuscript forms, but I backed away from finishing it until now.

Writing my memoir, Pilgrimage, unblocked a great deal and helped me overcome my fear of sharing more openly. I’ve also crossed a threshold into middle age and it’s been a journey of such change that I finally feel ready to share this book. 

While my personal experience will be different to yours, I hope you find this book useful as you face your own challenges on the path ahead.

What’s in the book?

Part 1 goes into the various ways you can tap into your Shadow. Since it lies in the unconscious, you cannot approach it directly. You need tools to help reveal it in different ways. 

You will find ideas here — ranging from personality assessments and identifying Shadow personas to mining your own writing and exploring your true curiosity — as well as ways to protect yourself so you don’t get lost in the dark.

Part 2 explores how the Shadow manifests in various aspects of our lives. I discuss the creative wound and how it may still be holding you back in your writing life, as well as aspects of traditional and self-publishing, then expand into work and money, family and relationships, religion and culture, the physical body and aging, death and dying.

Part 3 explores ways that you can find the gold in your Shadow, and turn your inner darkness into words through self-acceptance, letting go of self-censorship, deepening character and theme in your work, and opening the doors to new parts of yourself.

While the book is designed to be read in order, you can also skip directly to the sections that resonate the most.

There are Resources and Questions at the end of every chapter that will help you reflect along the way. You can answer these questions in your own journal or use the Companion Workbook if you prefer to write in a more structured way. 

Right, let’s get into it. 

Why explore your Shadow side?

It’s not an easy or comfortable process to delve into Shadow, so why do it?

You will learn more about yourself and other people

“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” —William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Self-development is the journey of a lifetime, a never-ending search for what it means to be human, a curiosity that drives us to learn and grow and change, to become more.

But self-development doesn’t have to be all positive thinking and upbeat affirmations. It can also include an exploration of your darker side, and what you find there may accelerate your growth far more than bullish optimism.

Aspects of the Shadow can drive our lives without us even realising, but if we take the time to delve deeper and understand our hidden motivations, we can liberate ourselves and move into a new place in life. 

If you have negative patterns in your life, this process may help disrupt them. If you can recognise your Shadow, you can express it in healthier ways than in self-destructive behaviour. 

The gifts of the Shadow may help you overcome creative blocks that have held you back for years, and greater self-awareness may help you with confidence and self-acceptance. The gold in your Shadow may even become the source of your most powerful creative work. 

Understanding these darker aspects of personality can also give you more empathy for others and give you an insight into why people behave in certain ways.

You will help yourself and other people

Humans love story in every form. We crave it. 

But we don’t want perfect people in perfect worlds experiencing nothing but a joyful, easy life. If a story starts that way, then we know it won’t end well.

Story is how we learn to deal with life, how we vicariously experience the world. We all face challenges, and story in all its forms helps us navigate them.

Even the sweetest sweet romance has conflict, a storm that the characters must weather to achieve their happy-ever-after. The most inspirational memoirs feature people who go through hell to find their transformation. The children’s books that resonate deeply are about overcoming adversity. Even most non-fiction books are written to help a reader tackle the obstacles of life. 

Readers want darkness, even if they don’t consciously know it, and so much of what we look for in art is the Shadow side.

If you don’t examine it, then how can you portray the true depths of human experience?

Of course, I don’t want to fight to the death in the zombie apocalypse. I don’t want to face dragons or demons or catch serial killers or blow up the Vatican. But I read books to experience those things vicariously, and somehow what the characters learn along the way helps me in real life.

If I’m scared about losing my family, then writing that threat into story allows me to experience that emotion and practice saving them over and over again. It releases the tension that builds up when I dwell on how powerless I am to help them in reality.

It’s cathartic to witness characters overcome difficulties, face fears, and carry on even when they’re wounded and broken. If we write these darker things, we can help others who need the same comfort.

David W. Wright describes his experience of bullying and being a victim of crime in his book Into The Darkness, and he talks about how reading comics and books helped him survive:

“They showed me that no matter how much of a freak or an outcast I felt like, I wasn’t alone… Without comics, books, and their promise of escape, I’m not sure I could have gone on.” 

He explains,

“Writing has helped me channel some of that fear, hate and helplessness I felt. It’s helped me find a place to put some of the residual pain I’m still working through. And it’s helped me see outside myself, which has helped me connect to others I might not otherwise have connected with.”

Writing is like telepathy. Two brains connecting over time and space, a way to touch another mind through words. If you can write your own pain, you can help heal someone else’s, and perhaps even change the course of their life.

You will improve your mental health

“Write whatever you need to survive.” —Charlie Jane Anders, Never Say You Can’t Survive

I’ve been journaling on and off since I was fifteen and while many of my notebooks are filled with inspirational quotes, happy memories, and love, many other pages contain words of anger, misery, fear, and self-doubt.

I often don’t recognise the person I was when I wrote those things, even though it’s clearly my handwriting. Who knows who I might be today had I kept those words inside and let them fester and rot?

But, because I wrote my dark thoughts down, they dissolved into the paper, captured between the threads. They felt real in the moment and then they were gone.

Writing your Shadow can help you process grief or anger or pain or anything you need, for however long it takes.

The blank page can become a counsellor without you ever having to speak a word aloud. It can be your secret therapist, and your words need never be published, unless you choose to share them.

You will deepen your author voice

Your author voice is what makes your writing your writing.

In many ways, it’s indefinable, but over a number of books, over a number of years, you will discover it and your readers will learn to recognise it and return for more. 

You can also deepen your author voice with elements of Shadow.

For me, it was about letting go of self-censorship and fear of judgment and allowing myself to write what I truly wanted to without letting my inner critic shut me down.

The first book where I really found my voice was Desecration, my fifth novel. That book means so much because I let myself be me. I needed time to discover this Shadow side, and I only uncovered it through writing.

“Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.” —Meg Rosoff

You will write more authentically and be able to double down on being human

Since 2016, I’ve been writing and podcasting about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on authors and the publishing industry. This impact has only become more significant as the years have passed.

To be clear, I’m a techno-optimist. I use various AI tools as part of my creative process, and most of the services and websites I use as part of publishing and book marketing are powered by AI. I’m certainly not against using them, but they are tools to help us achieve our human creative goals and should be used as such.

While it’s (almost) possible to generate an entire book with a few clicks, what is the point in doing so? 

If a book doesn’t come from a human creative spark, a call to write what we’re curious about, what keeps us awake at night, or what is on our hearts, it’s just another cookie-cutter product — and there are far too many of those already.

Life is short. We must write the books that only we can. The books that matter to us.

My recommendation has always been to double down on being human, to tap into our unique experience of the world, and to express what we consider important through our creative body of work.

We will never beat the machines at productivity and perfection, and I have no doubt that at some point an AI will write a technically ‘better’ book than me. 

But that’s okay. 

Our flaws make us human. Our Shadow side makes us human. And that’s the part other humans connect with in our writing.

If we accept that we are flawed, and so is everyone else, then why are we so scared to show it? Why do we resist putting our whole selves into what we create?

After all, we appreciate the depth of humanity in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, visiting The Starry Night and marvelling at his vision while accepting that his mental health issues and family trauma made him the artist he became.

We read confessional poetry by Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath because they shared their pain and flaws through their words. 

We listen to songs by Eminem because he expresses his rage about the Shadow sides of family and fame and how this world breaks us apart.

In fact, we criticise art that is shallow or fake, and we ridicule wooden or one-dimensional characters in books or movies or TV shows.

We demand depth in the art we love, so let us make art in the same way.

If we can be even more human in our books, our words will resonate and readers will seek them out because they crave authentic experience. 

In this book, I want you to see my quirks and imperfections — and yes, my Shadow side. That which makes me, me. I want to double down on being human and I hope it will help you do the same.

Kevin Roose explains this idea in Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation. He gives the example of fingerprints left on the surface of a handmade ceramic mug, and how that piece is worth much more than one mass-made in a factory.

Roose explains his own approach:

“For me, leaving handprints means that I start every reporting assignment by figuring out how I can put my unique stamp on it, and not have it feel like a generic story that any other reporter (or any piece of AI software) could have written.”

We must find ways to instil the essence of our individual human experience and perspective into our books. Delving into the Shadow can help you do that in a deeper way. 

Writing the Shadow: Turn Your Inner Darkness Into Words, written and narrated by Joanna Penn, is available on Kickstarter until 25 October 2023: www.TheCreativePenn.com/shadowbook This link will redirect if you’re reading/listening in the future.

Joanna Penn with Writing the Shadow

The post Let Your Dark Horse Run. Writing The Shadow With Joanna Penn first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • October 17, 2023