When I was a teenager and preparing for my Leaving Certificate, my main focus was getting accepted into Art College. Most of the first term in sixth year was taken up preparing artwork. After submitting my portfolio and successfully going through the interview process I was offered a place in the NCAD. As the selection happened three months before my exams were due to be taken, it made me somewhat complacent and lazy. I decided to drop down from honours English to pass. It was a decision that would haunt me for several years.
All through my twenties and well into my thirties, I had a recurring nightmare. The dream I had was always the same. I would wake the morning of English Leaving Certificate paper two and suddenly realise that I hadn't been attending class and I hadn't studied any of the prescribed poetry and prose. I would walk into the exam feeling frustrated and panicked and as the paper was being handed out I'd wake up.
The reality back in 1983 was that because I had been studying the honours course for two years I felt that I didn't really know the pass syllabus well enough. Changing at such a late stage meant that I didn't do well in the exam. I lacked confidence with paper two because I really didn't enjoy discussing the poetry and prose that we had to study. I never saw the point in debating Macbeth's character or tearing the structure of a poem apart. But I thoroughly enjoyed essay writing. Reading a book was pure pleasure in my mind and to analyse it took the fun out of the process. I read a lot as a child and often wished I could be certain characters. Books fed my wild imagination and the way I enjoyed to look at the world. In school however I felt that the discussions we had in class were pointless because how could we truly know what the author or poet was saying. It is up to the reader to take whatever they chose from a poem or a book.
I have since met many writers and journalists who have found it difficult to get down to writing a novel, a process that I found happened naturally and organically. I have tried to figure out why this is. The only conclusion I can arrive at is a comparison with my own third-level experience. Having successfully completed my studies at third level in Art and Design I remain overly critical of my own visual artwork and the reason for this is because I spent so long studying and teaching the subject. This may be because I feel I can never achieve the level of perfection that an artwork requires to be considered truly good in my eyes. However as an artist I yearned to throw myself into a creative process to express myself but visual art was not an option.
It wasn't until several years later while I was pregnant with my daughter that I felt an uncontrollable urge to write. Shortly after she was born I started to write but I did it organically and cast aside all that I had learned in the classroom. I often feel that her presence set my voice free and sometimes refer to her as my muse. While writing I wasn't restricted by the structures and confines of grammar because I didn't have a teacher waiting to correct me and it didn't stop the creative flow. Ignorance is bliss sometimes and in a creative process you have a better chance of success if you can find your flow.
I've been told by editors that many of the best known author's books are a nightmare to edit as they make tons of mistakes. This makes me feel much better and strengthens my case to go with the flow when in the creative process. English is the subject we use most after we leave school, not just because it is the language we communicate with but everything we do requires reading and writing.
So if I had the chance to sit the Leaving Certificate English paper again would I do it differently? The answer is definitely no. I thank that recurring Leaving-Cert-Exam dream for waking me up. My first novel was published in 2008, seven books later and I haven't had the nightmare since.
*Michelle Jackson's novel Six Postcards Home is available in good bookshops. All her titles are on www.amazon.co.uk for more information see www.michellejackson.ie