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Creative Lessons from 'Women Who Run With Wolves' by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Updated: Mar 2

Seeking wisdom from folk stories in connection to the creative process.

Women who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (along with the Artist's Way) has become a cornerstone to my creative practice. I remember hearing whispers of women who had read it, speaking of it like a holy text. Patiently waiting on my shelf for 5 years, lock down gave me the opportunity to read it. In the midst of a dark winter, with blankets, hot cups of teas and fires going, I joined a book club and began. We were 12 women around the U.K and met monthly to receive the wisdom from the book. 'Women Who Run With Wolves' is an anthropological book about folklore, stories that have been passed down through generations collected from all over the world. The metaphorical stories act as teachings for the soul, insights into rights of passage and indicators of how to reconnect to our wild self. Each of us in the group, all entered our introspective journeys, listening and discussing our experiences. It was my first ever experience of being in circle with other women.

Working my way through the book, we came across one story and chapter about creativity and our relationship to our creative self. She starts the chapter saying 'Creativity is a shapeshifter'. I really believe that to be true in the sense that creativity is about translating and transcending our human experience. The story of this chapter is 'La Llorona', which I wanted to share here first, as the story is not only moving by its message, but also powerful by its format. They are called 'shiver stories' with the intention to wake you and listen.

"These overtly entertain, but are meant to cause listeners to experience a shiver of awareness that leads to thoughtfulness, contemplation and action." - Clarissa Pinkola Estes

'La Llorona' is a tale about a rich Spanish nobleman who wins the affections of a poor women; they have two sons. One day he says he forms new interests in another women and wants to marry a wealthier women instead and take his sons. The poor women turns mad and drowns her sons in the river after then ending her own life. As she descends into heaven, they allow her entry as she has suffered but they say she needs to go back and reclaim the souls of her sons from the river to gain full entry. So the story goes thats why children should not play near the river, or go after dark because 'La Llorona' is coming for them. 'La Llorona' is part of a series of stories from 'cantadoras y cuentistas' that in her family they call 'temblon', i.e shiver stories.

'Taking Back The River' is a metaphor for the creative psyche, showing how the creative process is a flow and moves in a cycle. A process of birth, death and rebirth, carry lessons to guide us forward. For me this is about the flow and movement of the process, similar to the flow of 'Gestalt' of a cycle. I.e the character of something, needs to keep moving otherwise we stay fixating on one part.

“The Life/Death/Life nature causes fate, relationships, love, creativity, and all else to move in large and wild patterns, one following the other in this order: creation, increase, power, dissolution, death, incubation, creation and so on.” - Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Clarissa Pinkola Estes also talks about the sensitive nature of the creative process, I think that's why I loved it so much. She stresses how our conditioning, past traumas, subconscious and environments so deeply affect our psyche's. Our creative relationship is a relationship to self, so naturally we bring so much to the table each time we venture on our creative pursuits. 'Taking Back The River' is meant as a reminder that we all suffer from our self sabotage, criticism and inner bias. In order for us to step aside, we must bring it further into our awareness and work alongside it anyway. I now have this concept close to my heart every time I create something, especially when I feel overwhelmed or overly self critical. Because of this, it has become a holy text for me too. Here is the passage in 'Taking Back The River' .

“Receive nurturance: to begin the cleanup of the river.” - “To reverse the phenomenon, a woman practices taking in the compliment……”
Respond: that is how to clear the river. - “To create one must be able to respond. Creativity is the ability to respond to all that goes on around us, to choose from the hundreds of possibilities of thought, feeling, action, and reaction that arise within us, and to put these together in a unique response, expression or message that carries moment, passion and meaning.” - “Be wild, that is how to clear the river.”
“Begin: this is how to clear the polluted river. If you're scared, scared to fail, I say begin already, fail if you must, pick yourself up, start again. If you fail again, you fail. So what? Begin again. It’s not the failure that holds us back, but the reluctance to begin all over again that causes us to stagnate.”
“Protect your time: this is how to banish pollutants. I am working today and not receiving visitors. I know you think that does not mean you because you are my banker, agent, or best fiend, but it does.”
“Stay with it: how further to banish pollutants? By insisting nothing will stop us from exercising the well integrated animus, by continuing our soul spinning, wing making ventures, our art, our physic meandering and sewing, whether we feel strong or not, whether we feel ready or not. If necessary by tying ourselves to the mast, the chair, the desk, the tree, the cactus - wherever we create. It is essential, even though often painful, to put in the necessary time, to not skirt the difficult tasks inherent in striving for mastery. A true creative life burns in more ways than one.”
“Protect your creative life: Practice your work every day. Then, let no thought, no man, no woman, no mate, no friend, no religion, no job, and no crabbed voice force you into famine. If necessary, show your incisors.”
“Craft your real work: build that hut of warmth and knowing. Pull your energy from over there to over here. Protect your soul. Insist on the quality of your creative life. Let neither your own complexes, your culture, intellectual detritus, nor any high sounding, aristocratic, pedagogical or political la-la steak it away from you.”
“Lay our nourishment for the creative life: Although many things are good and nutritious for the soul, most fall into Wild Womans four basic food groups: time, belonging, passion, and sovereignty. Stock up. These keep the river clean.”

By sharpening our awareness and developing our position as the observer, we develop the lens of the witness. Using the perspective of storytelling gives us the ability to step outside of ourselves and re align our actions and energy. Keeping the river flowing is a skill I have come to harness and cherish. The awareness that our creative and spiritual selves are deeply connected and intertwined has now become the life blood of my practice. A deeply intimate relationship to myself which I truly believe will only become more rich over time.

“The awareness and the commitment to this awareness, is the creative life." - Julia Cameron

This quote I reference in my previous article 'Reflections from 'The Artist's Way' By Julia Cameron' as I feel it captures a key element towards the creative path, our commitment. In my experience, being a creative person is a deep need and longing. It does not feel like an option or a choice. Our commitment to our creative self lives deeply in our commitment to developing our self awareness. To me this was a bit of a light bulb moment, suddenly realising my sense of journey was more internal and cyclical.

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About Me

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I am an Artist and Expressive Arts Facilitator ​working from my home studio on the Welsh Borders in Hay on Wye. Working from home I run my own online business, whilst training in London for my MA in Integrative Arts Psychotherapy. I also run creative and therapeutic workshops locally and very soon, online! 


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