The Doctrine of Shame


I've just read (in Julian Baldick's Mystical Islam) about a practice from Syrian Christianity adopted by the Sufis: "that of deliberately incurring blame through apparently reprehensible conduct: pretending to engage in illicit sexual relations, behaving like a madman, sitting on a dunghill, and so on ... the mystic puts himself in a position where he is indifferent to the opinions held by others about him, or indeed prefers to be despised."

I've been considering how this might apply to writers. I've never ceased to care about the opinion of others - like most writers perhaps, I enjoy some respect. However for a while the opinions of others ceased to matter. The period stemmed from a conversation I had with my agent of the time, Deborah Rogers. "I can't write, have a full-time job, and have a social life," I lamented. The solution was suddenly obvious. I had to write, and I had to support myself with an income that my writing was not bringing in. I left behind my life and friends in Glasgow, took a teaching job on the south coast of England, and gave my days to teaching and my nights and weekends to writing. I sought no social life at all.

It was a joy to write without the requirement of commercial success. My writing had an audience. That audience was me, and it was wildly approving.

Suddenly (and for the last seven years now) writing became my only means of support. I learned the art of writing proposals. I had to switch from writing what I wanted to write, to learning what people wanted to read. I've kept a few ongoing personal projects which I write for the joy of it, but even those I rework and shape so that they might please others some day. My last two books were so tough to write I certainly wouldn't have bothered if publishers had not bought them in advance.

Those Sufi mystics wanted to be left alone with their sense of God, I suppose. Writers are reclusive but different - open to the same mystical realms (it's called inspiration) but wanting to share it. Books are loners' attempts at creating community.

The last big media splash abut me was a full-page feature in The Guardian after the publication of In Search of the Divine Mother, which ran like a 'where are they now?' spot. I was the rising literary star who had gone missing. My couple of new, straight good-read novels are out looking for publishers while I Was Carlos Castaneda and the new one, On Sacred Mountains must prove as baffling to most literary critics as ever.

So I guess my conclusion is that I don't need to practise the doctrine of shame. Being a gay writer with a mystical bent I'm already three times at odds with society. It's a dear thing, spending one's life trying to establish verbal rapport with the world, but I would be a fool to expect universal success. I do want some readers engaged by my writing and on my side, but others will surely despise me without any further effort on my part. It will be good not to care about that.

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