My Doubts are Chains of Shadows – In the Light, I am Free

Dear Reader, I ask that you bear with me as this post gets very personal. However, I promise I tie back to the point of this blog, and re-focus on a woman in history.

I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I knew such an occupation existed. I remember in the 2nd grade, a teacher stayed inside during recess with me one day to teach me about haikus. I decided to write a poem a day, and found an old legal pad in my dad’s office on which I scribbled out some semblance of poetry every day for a good few months. Some were haikus, and some were my own brand of free verse, given my limited seven-year-old vocabulary. (They all rhymed)

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The Two Brothers The Two Brothers by Elenore Abbott2

I started a writing group in the 3rd grade. At recess, two of my friends and I would sit under the tree with our notebooks and write stories together. They were fairy tales, mostly. Princesses and dragons and that sort of thing. Because those were the stories we knew and loved, and the ones we wanted to write.

 

But I soon learned that sharing your soul on paper is a dangerous activity. We were teased mercilessly about our writing group, and my two friends caved. One day, they simply didn’t want to write anymore, and I was left to go at it alone.

I kept a diary in a 3-ring binder. During a chilly fall day, a girl jerked it from my hands, popped open the rings and threw the whole thing in the air. I chased my loose pages, picking them up from the damp fallen leaves. It was poetic, really, the leaves of paper among the colored tree leaves. But it was the last time I wrote at recess.

I remember in fifth grade being given a writing assignment in class. We were to write a story–any story–but we had to follow the five steps of the writing process, and each of those steps would be graded. When we were given time to work in class, our teacher would circulate the room, making sure we were on task. I hated this. I didn’t want her to see what I was writing. I didn’t want to share. I hovered over my paper so closely so that she couldn’t see what I wrote. Thus I did most of my work at home, but one day carelessly left my notes lying on the coffee table, where my mother found it. She told me how wonderful it was, and asked why I didn’t show it to her sooner.

I threw it in the trash.

It wasn’t good enough. It was never good enough.

What happened to the girl who wrote poetry every day? And fairy tales at recess? Who narrated her own life as if she were a character in a novel?

Somewhere between 1st grade and 5th grade, she had discovered that writing made one vulnerable; and she did not wish to be, as they say, “an open book.”

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The cover of one of my many, many journals

I did not stop writing. I filled notebooks of story ideas and stories and drawings of maps for my make-believe worlds. And then I took all of these things and shoved them under my mattress (I know, I know — incredibly original hiding spot for a teenage girl).

 

In college, I tried to write “literary” stories and poems for my creative writing classes, but never showed a soul the fairy tales hiding on my computer. Even if I wasn’t sharing my stories, I still felt impelled to write, to create. But never, never, not ever would I tell someone I wrote “fantasy.” Fairy tales were for children. Unless you were Tolkien. Which I was not.

After undergrad, I decided not to even apply for an MFA program because there was no way I could possibly get in. I would save myself the pain of rejection, and apply to MA English lit programs because those were much safer. I went to George Mason University, where I took a course in 12th Century literature (because it’s amazing), and one week, we studied the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century German nun, and I came across a passage where Hildegard describes hearing a “voice from Heaven” urging her to write “what you see and hear.” Here was Hildegard’s response to the vision:

“But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and a low opinion of myself and because of what people might say, I refused for a long time the call to write.”1

I stopped. I read that passage, then read it again. Here was a woman, in the 12th century, expressing in words what I had long felt, but refused to acknowledge. Even with a vision from Heaven telling her, “Hey, write this,” she refused — not because she doubted the vision. Not even because she doubted the message she was meant to convey. But because she doubted herself.

Hildegard_mapHildegard wrote what is commonly known as the oldest morality play, Ordo Virtutum. She was a pioneer of the study of natural sciences. She was a theologian. A scholar. A poet. A healer. A songwriter. My professor even described her as “an early sort of marriage counselor.” She was a Renaissance woman before the Renaissance was cool. And to think what the world would have missed out on, if we didn’t have her writings! If she had continuously refused to offer them.

 

What would have happened if Hildegard continued in her refusal because of her self-doubt and fear of “what people might say”?

And am I, in refusing to share my own writing, depriving the world?

I don’t think I’ve had any specific visions from Heaven I can point to and say, “ah ha! There’s my calling!” However, I do know that when I am writing, I feel in that moment that there is no other purpose for my being. I do not doubt that purpose. Nor do I doubt the message in the words I type. It is myself I doubt, and the rejection I fear.

Yet fear is a lie, determined to keep us in chains. It deceives us into thinking that it keeps us safe, far from the rejection and pain. But the shackles with which it holds us is darkness conjured by our own minds — shackles made of shadows. Once we test them, once the light of truth is cast upon them, they dissipate. We are freed.

Hildegard says that she overcame her doubt with “the witness of a certain noble girl of high morality and of the man whom I had found[…]” then “I set my hand to writing. When I did so[…]I rose from my sickness with renewed strength.”1 When she didn’t write, it made her physically ill, and it wasn’t until she sought the council of trusted friends that she realized what she must do — she must cast off her illusory chains, pick up the pen, and write. It was her only source of freedom.

We may none of us be the next Hildegard of Bingen, pioneering sciences, writing plays, and studying theology, all while healing people and offering counseling services (without Netflix, the 12th century was really productive). However, we do all have something to offer the world. If Hildegard or Jane Austen or Agatha Christie all had said, “oh, but what might people think about me, if I take up the pen? I can’t possibly,” imagine how the worlds of drama, romance, and mystery would be so altered. Imagine what the world might have lost.

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I cannot say I am completely over this fear. However, I have resolved myself to write and share my work, even in the face of rejection. I will surround myself with support of people who remind me, “yes, this is your calling. Pursue it.” I will face my fears head on, throwing the leaves in the air myself, to see who might wish to pick them up. And even if no one does, I will keep writing.

Don’t deprive the world of your light simply because someone has shackled you with shadows. Shine, and watch them dissolve.

1 Hildegard von Bingen. Secrets of God. Selected and translated by Sabina Flanagan, 1996, pp. 11.

2 Scanned from Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1920 Charles Scribner’s Sons edition), Public Domain

3 Sean Butcher & Carmen Butcher. Map used in Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader by Carmen Butcher, published by Paraclete Press. Map of Hildegard’s preaching tours.

Pictures of Hildegard, Jane Austen, and Agatha Christie {{PD-1923}}

2 thoughts on “My Doubts are Chains of Shadows – In the Light, I am Free

  1. Beautiful post from a strong willed lady. Continue your writing as you were born to do. You are an exceptional lady with a talent for writing,

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