Appointment with Doubt
MICHAEL LANGAN is a former performance poet, constantly struggling novelist, and current memoirist. He has lectured and taught creative writing at Liverpool John Moores University and Greenwich University London for fifteen years and now writes on visual art, literature, film and dance. He also works as a mentor and reader for The Literary Consultancy. He is lucky enough to live in Lisbon with the man he loves. Michael is also currently Arts Editor of Polari magazine, the online LGBT arts and culture review.
In his monthly column Notes Towards Uncertainty, he explores his decision to give up his secure teaching job to concentrate on his own writing life. He had achieved a lot of things in his academic career, but not the stuff of his dreams. Follow Michael over the coming months as he tells the story of how and why he took this leap of faith and the rewards and difficulties it presents.
Appointment with Doubt by Michael Langan
I had taught creative writing for fifteen years at two universities in the UK, learning on the job and establishing a reputation for myself, before giving it all up to devote my time to writing. My decision to stop teaching was in no way a rejection of teaching, which I think is a noble profession. The creative writing workshop is, and remains, one of my favourite places; a space for discovery, experimentation, playfulness, serious discussion, hard work, flights of fancy, truth-telling, inspiration, strong emotion, risk taking and creative sharing. But the workshop was only part of the job and was becoming less and less what I was doing. I had devised and run my own Creative Writing degree programme, had seen some of my students go on to achieve much success on many levels, all of which was very gratifying, but I felt it came at the expense of my own creative impulse I had managed to complete my PhD and written a second novel while doing my full-time job, during what most non-teachers call ‘the holidays’ and most academics regard as Rest & Recuperation, as well as your research time. If you’re any good at teaching it takes up a lot of energy and the fact was I was really tired.
Leaving my job was a two-stage process. First, I took a year’s sabbatical, unpaid, and lived on my savings. This part of the decision was prompted by the death from cancer of my aunty Mary. Mary was my mum’s sister, my mum who had also died of cancer thirteen years previously. I remember looking at my aunty on her deathbed, looking for her, but she wasn’t there. I knew something had to change for me, but didn’t yet have the courage to leave my job for good. At the same time I had recently met someone and was falling in love in the way that makes you feel invincible. He lived far away, in another country, but I wasn’t prepared to pass up the chance to feel and have that love. Taking time out from work meant I could devote myself to see if the relationship could work.
Earlier this year, I interviewed the American novelist, and creator of the Dangerous Writing workshop, Tom Spanbauer. During our conversation I said to him:
In my own life I have had moments of striking out, of going for it, and it’s always been related to perhaps the two strongest emotions you can have – love and grief. Either you get the strength you need from love, or grief is the thing that gives you the push you need to change things. But there still is in me, like in you, the scared boy inside, who’ll never go away, I think.
I got a lot of validation from teaching. I was good at it and believed that, in the main, my students benefitted from their experience. But the truth, the real truth, is that, because I found teaching easy, because I was a ‘natural’ at it, I was in my comfort zone. I threw myself into my teaching and academic career because it made me feel safe. As a shy person my friends often couldn’t understand how I found it so easy to stand up in a lecture theatre in front of 150 people and talk for an hour or so, but I didn’t find it difficult at all. I have hidden behind and inside books all my life and am rarely so confident as when I’m talking about them. They are both sanctuary and shield. So, for all my complaining about the energy draining nature of the work, I have to take some responsibility for that. It meant that I didn’t have to face up to the possibility of failing as a writer for myself. I could blame the demands of my job, my students, marking, feeling tired, etc., when much of the time I was using it as an excuse to hide from my own fears.
Sitting down at your desk every day is an appointment with doubt; that is the nature of writing – Esther Freud
I’ve always thought that a good teacher should also become a student, from time to time. To put yourself in the position of pupil is to be reminded that we all have things to learn and it’s a good check on your ego to struggle and let someone else guide you. It also helps you consider what it is about your own role as guide and tutor that does and doesn’t work. A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a six-month course taught by the novelist Esther Freud. Esther’s workshops were nurturing, thought provoking, stimulating and productive. I’ve always been an eager student – sometimes over-eager – and some weeks I’d tell myself, before going into the session, “Now Michael, don’t speak so much this week. Just wait a bit and give some of the others a chance.” But that would last about five minutes. I’ve come to realise that my anxiety about being ‘over-eager’ is to do with wanting, needing, to be liked, and fearing that talkative smart-alecks aren’t necessarily liked.
Meditative interrogation (interrogative meditation) is the basis on which all my novels are constructed – Milan Kundera
This is my favourite definition of writing, because it describes most accurately what I strive for when I write. It strikes me too as the basis of what you should do with, and in, your life, in relation to the self. In the writing life, moments of validation are rare and precious. They’re also not much compared to what goes on in this writer’s head. Every day brings a fresh test – a test of writing. There are days when you pass and days when you fail. You make the appointment with doubt (in the mirror as well as at your desk) and sometimes doubt wins, but I’m less scared of that these days and there are more important things than being liked; big things like truthfulness, sincerity, creative ambition, self-belief, vision.
Writing about creativity and fear is a form of meditative interrogation (interrogative meditation), but, as I do this over the next six months, I want to avoid easy answers in response to that interrogation. Like any answers given under duress they can’t be wholly trusted.
Published: September 30th, 2014