Jumping the Fence
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.
Jumping the Fence by Michael Langan
Six weeks before I was due to leave for Lisbon my dad died suddenly. He hadn’t been ill, but his heart just stopped, like a light going off. He’d gone through his usual routine of visiting the grandchildren before going home to make a cup of tea, light a cigarette, and read the newspaper on his laptop. My uncle and my sister found him sitting on the sofa the next morning, the computer still on his lap, his mug of tea on the floor next to him. My brother, who’s a paramedic, sees this quite often – people who look like they’ve just fallen asleep in their chair. It’s not a bad way to go, I suppose, and I’m glad he wasn’t with any of the grandchildren when it happened, or behind the wheel of his car. Love and grief, as I wrote in my first column, have been the main catalysts to big changes in my life – if you can’t be changed by these things what hope is there that change is possible at all? Even though the decision to live in Lisbon had already been made, my dad’s death confirmed for me that I was doing the right thing in taking the risk.
For the past year or so I’ve been writing about my mum and dad, on and off, and my relationship to them now they’re both gone. The writing was prompted by a number of things all coming together. I have a framed photograph from my parents’ wedding that sits on my desk – it’s my favourite picture of them – and I had started to make some notes on it before my dad died; a meditative interrogation on why I liked it so much and what it was saying to me. I had also been reading Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, in which he meditates on a photograph of his recently deceased mother, and I found myself forming a deep connection with that text, not only in terms of what it says, but how Barthes expresses himself with a mixture of the personal and the theoretical.
I also found that, when I was writing about my parents, I had a strange and perturbing physical reaction, which was that I really wanted to go to sleep. I would sit at my computer fighting to keep my eyes open as they became heavier and heavier, fighting it and fighting it, and winning, usually, but it would exhaust me. I stumbled across an article in The Atlantic by Elijah Wolfson, in which he talks about his own impulse to sleep as a reaction to stress or conflict. He explains that it’s an aspect of what is known in psychology as Learned Helplessness – a response to feeling a lack of control over a particular situation. Sleep, in such cases, is not necessarily an avoidance technique, but can also be a way of enabling the body to process difficult memories and emotions, but my own feeling was that my body was trying to shut me down in order to shut me up, and I had to resist that.
It seems odd that, in the face of fear, one reaction might be to lie down and accept whatever comes, rather than turning away from it or trying to change it. Theories of learned helplessness were developed in the 1970s via a series of experiments carried out on some dogs who, when a bell was rung, were subjected to electric shocks. After a while, the dogs accepted what was happening to them and became passive when the bell rang, lying down in resigned acceptance. All they had to do was jump over a small fence and they’d escape the shocks, but they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do it. In his article Wolfson writes, ‘…many of the adults I spoke with all mentioned childhood anxiety stemming from uncontrollable situations…If, at a very early stage in development, a living thing comes to understand that it is helpless in the face of the world’s forces, it will continue to perceive a lack of control, and therefore actually become helpless, no matter if the context changes.’ This explained a lot for me about why I was reacting in this way to writing about my parents. It’s also the case that writing about learned helplessness, writing the words you are now reading, actually brings about that same response. I can feel it now, trying to make me close my eyes, trying to shut me down…
…but I won’t let it. I do many small things at this point: get up out of my chair and do a simple domestic task – washing the dishes, making the bed, sweeping the floor – each with a satisfying end point; walk around my study in circles; pick up a book and read something; go on the internet, Spotify, Facebook; take a quick trip to the local supermarket. All of these are meant to generate some energy that combats the sleepiness that I refuse to give in to. My writing gets done but it’s strung out over a longer period of time because all of this activity has to be factored in. At the same time, the tiredness becomes a useful indicator of something important occurring – the emotion I’m feeling, the situation I’m in, must be significant if I’m swept up by a sudden wave of tiredness. I have to try to recognise where this feeling is coming from, what it’s about. Creating a narrative, telling a story, is a form of taking control, of attempting to combat that learned helplessness and the fear underlying it, but it’s only the first step.
Given that notion of learned helplessness stemming from childhood anxiety, the narrative I have created around my own experience goes like this: when I was a boy, I realised that I fancied other boys. At the same time, before I knew what this meant, or what to call myself, I knew this was wrong. I knew this was wrong because of what was going on around me at school, the things being said around me, about sissies and puffs and queers, even though I didn’t understand what those things were. I was helpless in the face of this because I couldn’t stop my attraction towards other boys, but what I could do was hide it in order to be accepted. I suffered the same things many closeted young people suffer, and at the root is fear. I can quite clearly remember telling myself, when I was a teenager, that I would never tell anyone my true feelings, that I would carry on pretending, that I could get married, have kids, be a dad, and ignore the desire I felt for other men. It was simply a matter of will, of control. It was another death that shocked me out of the closet, at the age of 23 – my friend Graeme, who’d faced much speculation about his own sexuality when we were at university, killed himself. I didn’t want to go the same way as him.
Mourning: a cruel country where I am no longer afraid – Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary.
Our experiences of love and grief are both subjective and universal – I think that’s how art works, how someone from the other side of the world, or from hundreds of years ago, can express for you exactly how you feel, right here and now. My experience of grief has been very different from that of Barthes for his mother; he was immediately devastated, he felt very deeply whereas I was numbed out of feeling and, as a result, it’s taking a long time to process.
The dogs in those 1970s experiments could be cured of their learned helplessness if someone took hold of them and moved their limbs for them, physically walked them through the act of jumping over the fence. After a few times they’d eventually jump over it themselves when the bell rang, to escape the electric shock. Their learned helplessness was not so ingrained that it couldn’t be overcome. I realise that, by using Roland Barthes’ texts and his own experience when writing about my parents, he’s effectively walking me through the process of feeling, of grieving, of writing – moving my limbs for me until I’m able to jump the fence on my own. Rather than being anxious about that, or worrying that I’m not feeling ‘properly,’ I can be grateful for the fact that I feel less alone, and, as a result, less afraid.
One thing about learned helplessness is that, while you can overcome it in particular situations, it may persist as a response to emotional difficulties. There are strategies that involve identifying the source of negative feelings and using positive affirmation to change those negative beliefs. It’s hard work, a long-term project that entails conscious effort, and enduring setbacks. It’s very like writing in that respect and can make you feel like a constant beginner – but I am learning. I’ve learned that I’m not helpless and have grown to recognise a strength in me that refuses to give in, that keeps me coming back to my work, and, in those moments when I am filled with doubt, I reassure myself of that. That resolve and my ambition for my writing wobbles sometimes, but is never extinguished.
I’m changing my writing practice to minimise distraction and increase my focus. This involves working less on my computer and much more on pen and paper, typing things up only as a later stage of editing rather than at the beginning of the process. I’ve always loved the physical act of writing, my biro looping and striding across the page; it feels very real, much freer and more playful. I like to think my whole body is involved in the writing this way, something I can visualise to keep my energy up if I need to. It takes me back to when I first fell in love with writing, the pre-computer days of my childhood and through to my time at university where writing meant re-writing, by hand, over and over again, polishing and editing as I went. I’m flexing those physical and mental muscles once more, and it feels good. I’m also increasingly working outside – in cafés or the park – and leaving my phone at home. After the initial separation anxiety passed I quickly realise how few emails and messages need to be addressed immediately and that sense of liberation has added to my energy reserves.
My experience as a frightened, closeted, gay boy, formed me, for better or worse, and created my learned helplessness. I can’t change that and it wasn’t my fault. The feelings it generates can be as much rocket fuel as quicksand. I am learning to let go of the things I can’t control, by facing up to them and accepting them. When those negative feelings flash by you can take away their power to upset you, or annoy you, to obstruct and tire you, by sweeping them out of your mind with a positive, affirming statement (I talk to myself a lot when I’m working anyway, so I might as well put it to good use), which refreshes and re-energises.
Above all, it’s in the writing that, for me, all of this gets thought through and sorted out. The forming, shaping, narrativising and articulation involved are all ways of taking charge. Issues may not get fully resolved, but you can take steps in that direction. The difficulty is in believing that, keeping the faith, showing up for work day after day when you feel no one cares but you. On good days, the best days, I feel like writing is my superpower, enabling me to leap over tall fences. The great paradox, I have discovered, is that writing is the answer to the problems of writing.
Published: October 28th, 2014