Writer Julian Gough sits the Leaving Cert

One hour and 20 minutes for an instant essay. The writer tries it out, in longhand

 Author Julian Gough. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Author Julian Gough. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh


A word of warning: I am not the ideal exam-sitter. When I sat the actual Leaving Cert, I disagreed with the entire educational system, I argued with all the English paper questions, and I got a C.

Today, for the authentic experience of working intently among rows of others, I’m in Sankt Oberholtz, a Berlin cafe, and ground zero of the European tech scene.

I take out a pen. (I normally write first drafts on a laptop.) I look around; laptops, tablets, phones; no one else is writing on sheets of paper with a pen. (I do see one, neglected, paper notebook.)

I decide to go for the science fiction short story option, “ . . . inspired by the following quotation from text 2, ‘. . . a new beast, slouching towards us . . . the beautiful mutant’.”

After writing a single line, I realise my handwriting has grown entirely private. No one but me could possibly read it (no one ever has to). I slow down, drastically, till it’s almost legible. The toothpaste fallacy There’s an immediate problem. It isn’t the set of questions, which are terrific: thoughtful, wide ranging, open to creative interpretation. The problem is the idea that short stories can be squeezed out of us like toothpaste, or facts.

All Leaving Cert questions share this fundamental, underlying assumption: that the answers, after years of study, are already available to you, in your conscious mind, and can be delivered intact to the page. The unconscious does not exist, and has no role to play here. This works fine for physics and geography. The art of failure But real creative writing comes into being slowly, over many drafts, in an exhausting, exhilarating tennis match between conscious and unconscious. In art, you fail your way to success. The Leaving Cert, by taking a snapshot of the first hour of the creative process (the hour in which, in any original creative work I have ever done, I have been failing most thoroughly and joyously), shows that it does not begin to understand the creative process, and has not found a way to measure it.

As I write, a story does begin to emerge from the blizzard of arrows and erasures. As time gets tight, I skip the middle, and craft a kind of ending. By the time I’ve written that, I think I know what the story might be about, and I’m ready to go back and rewrite the beginning. But of course, you can’t go back.

Time up. What’s left on the page is the manure from which a story will eventually grow.

The beautiful lines we read, by Heaney or Yeats or Joyce or Beckett, were not written. They were rewritten, redrafted, restructured, perfected, over many days, and many drafts.

And part of what makes the final draft of a line by those lads so good is that they felt free to be as rough, as wrong, as free as they liked on their first draft.

To anyone who wants to become a creative writer, let me reassure you: your Leaving Cert English result will tell you about as much about your creative ability as would the Government’s careful, expensive, and detailed analysis of a sample, taken fresh that morning, of your stool.

  • Julian Gough has won the BBC National Short Story Award, and been shortlisted for other literary prizes (including this week’s Davy Byrnes Short Story Award). He is the author of three novels, two radio plays, a book of poetry, a UK number one Kindle single, and the narrative at the end of Time magazine’s Computer Game of the Year, Minecraft.



Here are a couple of extracts (which are somewhat more physically legible than the original handwritten versions), starting with the opening.

“A new beast, slouching towards us . . . the beautiful mutant.”

I was proud of my eyes, they were state of the art, and I didn’t want to lose them. But I hadn’t been paying my bills; and my provider wasn’t happy.

Suddenly all my friends switched off; talk, text, everything. A security ghost misted into place beside me on the traffic island, as I waited to cross Rosenthaler Strasse.

“We have a number of attractive financing plans,” she said, smiling, “Which might better suit your current income.”

“I don’t currently have an income,” I said.

“Exactly!” She smiled even wider, as though I’d said something really clever. The ghost had been optimised to appeal to me, to win me over, which was nice; later in the security cycle they were optimised to scare the shit out of you.

And, a couple of hundred words later: Then, among the fizz and hiss of the disapproving robot traffic, I heard the “ping!” of a bell.

“Dennis!” I said.

A bicycle wobbled to a halt beside me.

“Jade,” he said. “My dear, dear girl.”

I put an arm around his shoulder to steady him, and walked him to the pavement.

“I’ll get you a coffee,” I said. He frowned, blinked; I mimed sipping, little finger raised, and pointed to the open door of Sankt Oberholz. “Leave the bike there.”

Dennis didn’t even put up the stand, just let the bike fall back into the traffic. A copbot picked it up, put it on its stand on the pavement, and issued Dennis the standard fine and warning, while Dennis waved his hand at the cop like a man ineffectually trying to drive a wasp off an ice cream.

“Are you all right?” I said when I’d got Dennis safely inside, and bought us two coffees with some credit I’d hidden from the billbots.

He pulled a huge dirty grey earplug out of each ear, and put them in a pocket of his baggy trousers.

“What?” he said.

Of course, he didn’t have noise cancellation.

“You all right?” I said again.

“I’ve discovered how to make beer,” he said, and fell into a chair.

“At least I think it’s beer.”

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