Writing a book is a long process, which does not stop when the manuscript is complete. I began to write Guilt in the summer of 2007 at our retreat centre in France.
Starting out on a book is always a little surreal. The first words on the first page seem so small, one hardly believes they will grow into a full book length piece, and yet experience breeds faith. With time and determination, the words grow and pages spread and sometime around 30,000 words one starts to believe this one is really going to happen this time.
The process is absorbing too. Once launched, the content starts to draw one in. In this case, as a storyline emerged within the wider context of the exploration, I began to live and breathe the characters.
The second half of the book was written on one intensive week this time last year. Staying alone in a small cottage in the Peak District, I wrote and wrote from the moment my eyes opened until they closed at night. Each afternoon I took a walk - an hour and ten minutes exactly - up the farm road, down through the woods, along the reservoir and back along the hillside. With me walked Joanne and Wendy and Simon. By the end I could hardly put the story down - at the end of chapter fifteen, late at night I was very tempted just to write on - wanting so much to know what would become of them all.
People ask if the book is a novel or theoretical. The truth is it is both and neither. It is what it says, an exploration. John, my publisher's, first comment was it's well written but it doesn't fit easily into a genre. Well' I don't neatly fit categories, so this is probably par for the course!
The book began with a question which I had been mulling for a while - that and a left over sense of interest in the subject from 'The Other Buddhism', which came out that same summer.
The question really arose out of my therapy work. For years I had been a little troubled by the popular responses to guilt, and particularly to childhood guilt, which I heard bandied around in the therapy profession. A child was not responsible, could not know... was a commonly offered response to childhood experiences. To me it felt simplistic and even partonising. It seemed to underestimate the quality of childhood thought. To diminish children to incapable followers of adult whims. At the same time, I also recognised how often children were at the mercy of forces which they did not understand, could not control, and had no choice in.
Recalling my own childhood, I saw a complex web of half knowing, a time of curiosity and conscience, experimentation and risk taking; of pushing boundaries and of living according to codes of honour and respect which did not necessarily coincide with adult expectations, but nevertheless had their own logic.
From such muddy waters feelings of guilt might rise or indeed be buried. I was fascinated by the things which I remembered friends and aquaintances saying and how these related to the memories which cients struggled over in my therapy room.
Against this background, then, I began to create an illustration. I invented a character - Joanne - and her gang of friends and set them back in my childhood time and place: ninteen sixties London. The people are fictitious, as is the location, but they might well have been the sort of kids I played with then. The story grew in the telling. Had I set out to write a novel, I might have written it differently, but, as it was, it unfolded, event on event until it naturally became to account which is published this week.
So it was that the illustration which I had begun with had taken life and was growing. Originally my plan was for a short example, but immediately I saw that to do justice to the exploration I could not skimp on the detail, sinceto do so simply raised stereotypes and brief scenarios which lacked the context to really illustrate anything. Instead, then, I found the text inter-weaving the fictional account with my reflections on the subject. I found the multi-layered storyline offered a far richer source than the bare statements which a theoretical book might offer.
The other source of the book was, as I suggested, a theme which stood out for me in writing The Other Buddhism. There I saw how Pureland offers a particular perspective on guilt, which is both deeply honest and freeing - a position of radical non-judgementalism and recognition of ordinariness.