Caged Owl – Anne Walsh Donnolly

Two years ago, at age fifty, I started to explore my sexuality in therapy. I experienced a wide range of emotions in the process; surprise, shock, shame, denial, anger and sadness. How did I manage to get to fifty without being aware of my true sexual orientation? Of course I blamed my therapist for putting mad ideas into my head. I definitely was NOT gay.

But unbeknownst to myself I’d been exploring my sexuality long before I started to in therapy. Five years previously, I began to write creatively. From the very beginning LGBT characters appeared in the poems, stories and short plays I wrote. My first short play was about a gay man coming out to his father. One of my first short stories was about a lesbian nun, another about a man who ‘came out’ after his wife of forty years had died. One of my early poems featured a gay boy who had a crush on his parish priest.

I did wonder why gay characters showed up regularly in my writing. But it never occurred to me that it might have something to do with my own latent sexual orientation i.e. my attraction towards women, that for years, I didn’t consciously recognise or explore.  

I have come to realise that my poems, short stories and plays were the pathway to my unconscious and the means by which, my hidden self, used to express the un-expressible. In fact, sometimes now, I’m nearly afraid to put pen to paper for fear of what my unconscious still has to unleash. 

Is this the same for all writers? We may use our imagination to create characters and plot lines. But how much of ourselves do we bring to our writing, consciously or unconsciously? Some experts advise writing what you know, others advise the exact opposite. So what’s a writer to do? That was a question, I constantly asked myself when I started writing.

When I reflect on that question today I think of my therapist and her modus operandi. Different therapists practice different models of therapy. The psychoanalyst sits silently and listens, a blank page, and lets the client to all the talking and exploring, with very little interaction. In contrast, the humanistic, integrative or gestalt therapist plays an active part in the session, recognises the importance of the client-therapist relationship and its potential for healing. They bring themselves to the therapy room. 

Are there ‘blank page’ writers, who like the psychoanalyst keep themselves out of their stories? Or are all writers like me, they cannot keep themselves out of their writing, even if they wanted to. I would not be arrogant enough to say which way of writing is better. But I do know that my writing is all the richer from my tendency to bring my whole-self to the process. I show up in my writing consciously and unconsciously. My sexual orientation showed up in my writing long before I was able to recognise or explore it. In effect I lived vicariously through my gay characters. 

One of the first poems I wrote as I was trying to come to terms with the fact that I was gay was a poem called “Tawny Owl.” Reading it now, I realise, I was writing my own story. At the time, I wrote it from the point of view of a woman, extremely lonely in her marriage, who turns to an owl for solace. It was easier for me to poke at my experience with a stick than jump straight into it. 

When I finally accepted my sexual orientation, my writing changed significantly and reached new depths. I abandoned the ‘safety’ of the short story, abandoned the ‘safety’ of writing in the third person point of view. I took the ‘I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb’ approach. I censored nothing. As I explored my sexuality in real life, I explored and reflected on it in my writing.  I documented my journey in poems and wrote from the only point of view I could, my own. 

I gathered these poems into a collection and in a fit of madness submitted them to an indie poetry press, not thinking that they might be accepted for publication. They were. I was delighted, excited and scared. It was one thing ‘coming out’ to myself, to my family and close friends, privately. But to publish a chapbook of poems on my sexuality? Was it really wise to share my experiences so publicly? I would be well and truly out then. After two weeks of having a mini-crisis, I decided not to dilute my truth. Not only was this a chapbook I needed to write but it was a chapbook that deserved a wider audience.

When my publisher released the news about my chapbook, ’The Woman with an Owl Tattoo’ the sky didn’t fall down. Nobody treated me any differently than before. Sure my sexual orientation may have come as a surprise to some, but I was still “Anne Walsh Donnelly.” I was not the pariah I had made myself out to be in my own mind. I realised then that I was my own worse critic.

When my editor and I discussed title’s and cover designs for the collection, we both agreed that the title had to feature the word “Owl” (taken from the title of my poem “Tawny Owl.”)  We also agreed that we wanted an owl to feature in the front cover design.

It was only after seeing the final proof, I realised the significance of the word “Owl”. What does it really stand for?    Older – Wiser – Lesbian.   My caged owl is finally free.


About the contributor

Anne Walsh Donnelly lives in the west of Ireland. Her writing has been published widely. She won the Blue Nib Spring 2018 Chapbook poetry competition, the Over The Edge 2018 Fiction Slam and was nominated for the Hennessy Irish Literary Award in 2019. She was also selected for the Poetry Ireland Introduction Series in 2019. Her debut poetry chapbook “The Woman With An Owl Tattoo” (Fly on The Wall) was published in May 2019. Her debut short story collection “Demise of the Undertaker’s Wife” will be published in September, 2019. To find out more about Anne and her work, go to: http://www.annewalshdonnelly.com.

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