How Failure Made Me Who I Am

Like most writers, I have been sculpted by failure far more than success.

One failure in particular has always hurt me, because it was the first.

It was only tonight, here in 2020, when I was in the middle of judging a writing competition myself, that I reflected on this failure and realised it may not have been what I thought it was.

I’ll set the scene, Sophia Petrillo style. Picture it: Sicily, 1912.

Or, more accurately, picture it: Geraldton, 2000. An eleven-year-old Holden Sheppard submits a short story to a writing competition for the first time in his life. It was an original mystery/detective story in the style of Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books I was devouring from the primary school library at the time.

I had, at this point, been actively writing in my spare time for three years. There was almost nothing emotional or powerful about any of my writing, but the mechanics were pretty solid for a boy of my age. I knew I was a capable writer and that it was one of my strengths.

I wrote my piece, and even drew a small illustration of the story’s crime scene on the bottom of one of the pages. This was twenty years ago, so nothing was digital – hard copy was the only option – and this wasn’t the adult world of publishing, this was primary school, so everything was also handwritten.

I can’t remember what the competition was, but I know it was only for young writers, and I think it was across the whole of Western Australia.

A while later, the competition results were being announced with the stories entered being put on display at the Geraldton Regional Library. I went to the library and hunted excitedly for my story on the display. Had I won? Had I been placed second or third, or highly commended?

I had not.

My story not get any kind of placing or recognition whatsoever.

Worse, what I remember is seeing my story with a number written on it in pencil. From memory, it was #125.

I remember, vividly, feeling sick with disappointment. I have a vague recollection of one of the library staff telling me and my mother that there were something like six hundred entries. I have a much sharper recollection of all the adults present looking at me with what felt very much like schadenfreude. I felt it like a wave of psychic energy. Kid thinks he’s some kind of writing genius, huh? That’ll take him down a peg or two.

I felt deeply embarrassed. I called myself a writer and had been working towards that for three years, only to have my first public attempt at writing deemed, effectively, a piece of shit, in front of my family, and the teachers and parents at the school, and my peers, who could all publicly see where my story had ended up. A hundred-and-twenty-fifth? What humiliation.

And amid that sense of shame was a sense of anger and injustice. Okay, maybe my story wasn’t good enough to win, I thought, but it was not a-hundred-and-twenty-fifth level bad. Was it?

Like any writer who cops a rejection, I wondered what I had done wrong. Was it the illustration that made the judges think I was just a dumb kid? Maybe it was supposed to be typed and printed instead of handwritten? Was my story just too derivative of Donald J. Sobol’s style? I hadn’t plundered his characters or stories: I had written an original piece, just following the same structure and stylings of those (dated) detective stories. Was it because I had set the story in America? Did the judges only want Aussie stories?

There was another fear that plagued me. I wondered if the judges thought I had plagiarised the piece, either by copying an existing story or having an adult write it for me.

The reason this was a fear of mine is that I was accused of it around the same time.

At the start of Year 7, our entire class was given a spelling test called the South Australian Spelling Test. We had to spell seventy words. They started out very simple and grew increasingly difficult.

A few days or weeks later, we were given our results. The mark out of seventy came with a corresponding score of what spelling age you were at. We were almost all eleven years old, so the idea was if you got a score that said your spelling age was 9 or 10, you were below average. 11 would be normal. 12 or over meant above average.

Our teacher – who was new to the school – handed back the tests in reverse order of success; that is, the lowest scoring student got their test results back first. I can’t remember if the teacher announced the scores aloud as he did this, but it’s quite possible, and likely, given what came next.

My test came back last: I had achieved the highest score. 69/70. I only spelled one word wrong. My spelling age was the maximum possible, which was listed as “greater than 15 years 6 months”.

I felt pretty good about this, until the teacher rounded on me in front of the entire class.

“You cheated,” he snarled. And it was a snarl.

“No, I didn’t,” I replied, absolutely horrified to have a teacher mad at me. I was a painfully obedient child in primary school, oppressively perfectionistic.

“You did. You cheated on this test.”

I denied it again. In fact, I had to deny it several times. I felt sick. This forty-year-old man was furious, almost seething, and hell bent on attacking a scrawny eleven-year-old nerd. I had never experienced anything like this from any adult before. Teachers usually liked me because I was both smart and well-behaved.

“I didn’t cheat. I would never cheat,” I told him meekly.

The other students – surprisingly, some of the worst-behaved students who would, on any normal day, give me shit for being a square – stood up for me.

“He didn’t cheat. He’s just really good at spelling. He’s smart.”

Our teacher wasn’t having a bar of it. “You’ve obviously done this test before and that’s how you knew how to spell the words,” he sneered. “But you got one wrong, didn’t you? Embarrassing.” He grinned down at me savagely. “How embarrassing for you.”

He threw this particular insult at me because the one word I misspelled was “embarrassing”. I spelled it with only one ‘r’. I have never spelled it wrong again in my life.

I offered one more denial of having cheated, and he concluded by threatening me that he was going to tell my parents at the upcoming parent-teacher interviews. And when those interviews rolled around, he did, too. My mother countered by letting him know that I was a bookish, intelligent kid. He still refused to believe me or her.

I learned a lot that day. I learned that teachers don’t always care about their students. I learned that adults can be petty and jealous. I learned that even when you are telling the truth, some people will refuse to believe you.

And I learned that sometimes, people in positions of power will be downright cunts to you, as that teacher was to me, and they will get away with it scot-free, because life is sometimes unfair.

I bring this story up in the context of that short story rejection for two reasons.

Firstly, because it illustrates why I was paranoid enough to wonder if the competition judges, like my teacher, had assumed I’d cheated, or plagiarised my story. Did they seethe at this well-crafted story? “How dare he! He obviously cheated! A-hundred-and-twenty-fifth place for him!”

Secondly, I guess it illustrates why I expected to have ranked a little higher than a-hundred-and-twenty-fifth. I was an intelligent kid and an exceptional writer for my age range. I had already written a whole “book” (it was sixty pages) in 1999, so I knew I had some level of ability. I could accept not being first, or in the top ten, but to score so crushingly low amid a field of peers my own age just hurt.

But that lesson from that cunt teacher – that adults can be cruel to children, and life can be unfair – actually helped me.

All writers think we have talent. It is how we get up in the morning and write, because we believe in our hearts that we have the ability to tell stories, and tell them well. From our very beginnings, it is fundamental to our craft that we have a tiny kernel of belief that we are actually good at this. If we didn’t, we would never pick up a pen in the first place.

At eleven, I thought I was talented, and perhaps even I knew I was, but it was not recognised in that competition. Maybe that particular story just wasn’t as shit-hot as I thought. Maybe it was just shit. Maybe there were a hundred and twenty four more talented child writers in my age bracket in WA that year(?!).

Or maybe there weren’t. It was tonight, as I was judging a young writers competition myself, that I not only smiled at the full-circle moment, but also realised how strange it was for judges to rank as far down as one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth. Most competitions I’ve judged, we judges decide on a longlist or shortlist, but that’s never more than say twelve or fifteen entries. It would take forever to do a detailed ranking beyond that. In light of this, I find it hard to imagine that all six hundred of those entries back in 2000 were individually ranked. Tonight, it occurred to me that the number scrawled in pencil on my entry was simply its number: entry number 125. I had a laugh about this with my husband, but then immediately went back to being quite sure it was indeed a ranking, because writer egos are like this: the self-doubt usually wins out.

In any case, it’s ancient history, and I’ll never know why I ranked so badly in that competition, and I still, to this day, feel sore and cheated by it – unduly screwed over.

But what I am proud of is how this failure shaped me. I did feel hurt, and yes, it was embarrassing.

But I didn’t stop writing.

That first rejection, the sinking-through-the-floor moment of standing in that library and trying to politely smile as I discovered, in front of others, that I sucked, only made me work harder towards becoming a better writer. I trained so hard. I read voraciously to get a sense of how published books sounded. I wrote more stories in my exercise books, and then began to post them online to an audience, who gave me invaluable feedback on how I could improve. I routinely studied the dictionary and thesaurus to expand my vocabulary and challenged myself to use those new words in my stories. I decided I would not stop until I had the recognition I craved.

It would be a long road ahead. Five years of hard work until I scored second place in the Randolph Stow Young Writers Award. Nine years until my first short story was published in a literary journal. Seventeen years until I won my first writing-related award. And nineteen years until my first book was finally published.

There have been many more rejections since that first one, and as a ratio, many more rejections than successes, even now. But that first rejection – and that first cruelty – hardened me in a way that helped me, and shaped me into the man I am today.

I’m thinking about the young people who entered this competition I’ve just finished judging. I wonder if the winners will go on to be writers. I would certainly encourage them to do so, heartily, if it’s something they want. But did the winners in the year 2000 go on to become published writers? I don’t know who they were or what they ended up doing. But I do know that the boy who landed at a dismal #125 was the one who was driven enough to make it in the long run.

I wonder if there is a teenage writer in this competition I’ve just judged who didn’t make the shortlist. One who wants to be a writer more than anything, one who will be devastated to have missed out, who will spend years wondering why they weren’t good enough, or thinking me cruel for having overlooked their talent.

If there is, I hope this rejection lights a fire in them like it did me. I know now that we learn more from being burnt than we do from being congratulated.

And while the flower that blooms in a fertilised garden is beautiful, the one that grows out of ashes is unstoppable.

Holden

PS. Although I did entertain the notion of naming my Year 7 teacher in this blog post, I won’t. I’m not really interested in revenge and besides that, I don’t need revenge because I feel like I won the first time. I was the calm, rational kid who didn’t do anything wrong, and he was the bullying adult who was not only deeply in the wrong but, objectively, a cunt of a human being. I will leave it to the universe to give him some solid karma.

Plus, to be frank, I’m pretty sure the only reason he lost his shit at me was because he got a lower score on that spelling test than an eleven-year-old boy. How embarrassing for him! 😛

Is Twitter Toxic?

Okay, so I’m going to start this with a disclaimer: I totally love Twitter.

I didn’t used to be such a fan. When I first started using the microblogging platform in 2014, I really didn’t get it. I was naturally inclined to be a private person anyway, so the idea of sharing every infinitesimal thought with a bunch of strangers didn’t just jar with my world view – it was also a vulnerable act. To the uninitiated (me), it also just seemed like a giant waste of time.

Thankfully, I decided to give it another go in 2016, and I am so glad I did. What I discovered was that there is an incredible community of writers and readers on Twitter who are happy to support each other. I always worried that I wouldn’t be able to do enough to reciprocate in supporting fellow authors, which kept me from interacting for a long time. Like, if someone asks me to read their work, I start wondering when the hell I will be able to fit that into my schedule and panic that I won’t be able to.

But I’ve found Twitter’s writing hashtags to be replete with fellow writers who are similarly time-poor and exhausted, but also aspirational, driven and optimistic.

We don’t all necessarily have time to read each other’s work. But we chat, like office workers around a water cooler (or these days, one of those lightning-fast hot/cold taps they install at the sink). We relate the struggles of our day jobs and the challenges we face with our writing. We favourite, we retweet, we reply to each other and celebrate one another’s achievements and successes.

As an indie author, Twitter is a nice place to be. I’m stoked I gave it another shot, because I really enjoy interacting with the new people I’ve met through Twitter.

So, why would I suggest in the title of this post that Twitter could be toxic?

Well, not every corner of Twitter is such a cool little oasis in the middle of the Sahara.

Some hashtags are nicer than others.

Some segments of the community are nicer than others.

And, unfortunately, some segments of the Twittersphere are really bloody negative places to be.

They’re the rest of the Sahara: fiery swarms of hellish heat and fury; sand that burns your feet and stings your eyes; chilling, icy wind that cuts your skin at night.

An article on Vulture by writer and journo Kat Rosenfield got a lot of people in the writing and publishing sector talking about Twitter culture this week.

Rosenfield’s article “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter” discussed the phenomenon of mostly adult users subjecting new YA novels to some pretty nasty critiques.

No, critiques is the wrong word. Critiques are useful and are written with the author, the reader, and culture in mind. The idea is to provide a critical assessment of the book and its’ worth and contribution to the literary canon.

Toxic_Spikes_Move_Game
TOXIC SPIKES: Still probably hurts less than people being mean on Twitter.

What Rosenfield identified – and linked to – were not critiques.

They were actions by some pretty nasty activists – nay, professional bullies.

These people are mostly activists concerned with the typical angles of cultural Marxist critique: gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ability.

While those discussions about representation and portrayal are so important, and valid, and happen all over the internet and in discourse in various forms (and rightly so!), these particular activists have taken it to another level.

Rosenfield talks about “callout culture” on Twitter. Users will scour new novels for the slightest indication of content that could be deemed offensive to anyone in any way, then decide to shame, blacklist and pile-on the poor author who has finally got their novel published. (Or in some cases, before they’ve even read it – they’re just assuming it might be offensive in some ridiculously confected way.)

The stuff described is basically mob mentality stuff: angry adult activists – universally on the left – band together to slam the author into oblivion. They callout and shame publicly; they tweet and retweet; they jump on Goodreads and Amazon and wherever else and give a slew of one-star reviews to attempt to annihilate the author and short-circuit their success.

I mean, this is nasty shit.

I really valued Rosenfield’s article, because this phenomenon is probably the worst trend in the literary community in the last decade.

There is now such a toxic culture online of not just shouting down ideas you don’t like, but actively seeking to destroy the reputation and name of both the offending book and the author, too.

I believe literary criticism – and, along with it, cultural criticism – should always be fostered and discussions about representation are valid and needed and must continue.

But this trend goes far beyond reasoned critiques or discourse: it is schoolyard bullying ramped up to eleven.

This kind of toxic callout culture is anti-art and anti-fiction, quite frankly.

toxic britney
This whole time, maybe Britney was just trying to warn us about Twitter.

As both a reader and an author, this has a chilling effect. The literary agent quoted in this article who says ‘spare yourself’ is quite astute. Most halfway decent people avoid these cruel, destructive pile-ons like the plague to save themselves. Sadly, this only means that the campaigns of hate and bullying come to completely dominate the discourse.

It’s a really disturbing trend, but I feel like Rosenfield’s article – and the ensuing online response to it – is a promising sign that people are recognising this toxic culture more and more.

I think it is important for all of us, as readers and writers, to speak our mind and say our piece. We must keep doing this.

We must also treat each other like human beings. We should engage in challenging dialogue when we disagree, but ultimately respect one another.

We should strive to be creators, not destroyers.

Holden