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
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.