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! 😛

After A Year Like This One I’ll Need a Good Whole 16 Months Alone

Nothing turned out the way I thought it would.

When I created my author Facebook page in September 2016, I wrote something vaguely aspirational in the “bio” section:

2017 and 2018 promise to be big years for my writing career, and I can’t wait to share this journey with you all.

I actually had nothing to back that up apart from hope and determination. I wrote those words because I desperately wanted 2017 and 2018 to be big years. I’d lost my job and I’d decided to really give my writing a go, so I thought “I am going to make them big years”.

But what I envisaged wasn’t what happened. I thought 2017 would be the year I signed my YA Fantasy novel to an agent and publisher and it would be published in 2018. Then I’d keep writing that series and be known as a fantasy author. Things took a different path, which I’ve spoken about before: that fantasy novel went in the drawer, I wrote  Invisible Boys instead, and the rest is history – although I guess that history is still very much in the making.

My point is, my 2017 and 2018 weren’t what I had planned. Most of what’s happened in my life hasn’t actually gone to plan. My career and writing plans only seem to come through about 50% of the time, and all the other times, they go off the rails spectacularly.

holden sheppard jan 2018 summer shot
Taking a moment to myself in January 2018, before Sydney, and Varuna, and the rocketship that was 2018 took off.

And yet, every year at this time, I find myself in the same reflective, pensive, generally optimistic mood: ready to survey the trophies and carnage of the previous 365 days, and ready to foolishly make plans for the following calendar year. This year, I go in with eyes open to the fallibility of my plans, but who gives a damn – I have fun doing this, and it helps motivate me. Maybe the only reason I achieve those 50% of my goals is because I commit to them each New Year’s Eve? Who knows?

So, this is my reflection on 2018 and my look ahead to 2019.

And holy crap, what a year 2018 was.

This time last year I posted about how I was just proud to still be breathing after having exhumed past trauma to write Invisible Boys. The title of that post was drawn from Green Day’s 2016 song “Still Breathing”, which is about sobriety and recovery and staying alive, and I love it.

This year’s post title is also drawn from a song, because music is my go-to for processing how I think and feel, much more so than reading. The past few days, I’ve been humming (and occasionally singing, despite the pain inflicted on my boyfriend’s ears) a rare song known as “After A Year Like This One” from my favourite musical artist, Alanis Morissette. She wrote the song in late 1996 at the end of a phenomenally hectic two years touring for Jagged Little Pill, performed it live once and then to my knowledge never played it again, but the lyrics have been swimming to the forefront of my mind for days now:

After a year like this one I’m surprised I do not hate your guts

And, after a year like this one I’m surprised I still love music just as much

After a year like this one I’m surprised I did not eat my arm

And, after a year like this one I’m sorry if I’m not cordial to everyone

I think the reason these lyrics keep resonating with me is because I’ve never had a year like 2018 before, and at this point, I’m basically just permanently surprised about the whole thing.

In my experience, we usually don’t get a proper perspective on what’s happened to us until years down the track; when the storm is still raging, or the confetti still falling, it’s harder to make sense of anything. I expect in 2028 I’ll have a slightly clearer view of what this year really represented – but of course in 2028 I’ll be 40 (insert screaming face emoji) so let’s all do our best to not think about that, please.

What I do know, here in the present moment, is that 2018 feels like a breakout year for my writing career, and I think that will still be a true observation ten years from now. It was the year I forced myself to push against social anxiety and go to events, to meet people online and in person, to be a part of projects, to promote myself and my work more than I’ve ever had the confidence to. It was a year of holding my breath from March to November, while I waited to see if submitting my novel to the Hungerford Award would pay off or not. It was an incredibly lucky and elated moment when it actually won.

So, first, here’s the good shit that happened in 2018 – the highlights:

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My residency at Varuna in January this year was a big highlight – pictured here in Katoomba, NSW with fellow writer and Varuna alum, Miranda Luby

  • Varuna: I undertook a writing residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, in the Blue Mountains in NSW – which, as I wrote at the time, I will never forget.
  • Sydney: Bf and I went there for the 1st time & celebrated our 10 year anniversary.
  • Alanis Morissette: Saw her live for the first time; fanboyish blog post here.
  • Acting: I acted in a play called “The Second Woman” as part of Perth International Arts Festival – an awesome experience that reminded me how much I love acting.
  • Writer buds: I joined the Perth tribe of the #5amwritersclub on Twitter – it made me more productive as a writer and I count these people as my buddies.
  • Bright Lights, No City: I told my story thanks to this Centre for Stories project.
  • Journo: I had my first commissioned journalistic article published by Ten Daily.
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll: Saw one of my favourite bands, Jet, play live at Metro City.
  • I Turned 30: Actually not as bad as I had catastrophised.
  • Wedding Plans: We set a date for our wedding in 2019 and starting planning.
  • Griffith Review: My novella POSTER BOY was announced as one of five winners of the 2018 Novella Project, was published in Griffith Review and launched in Perth
  • Festival: I attended my first writers festival – the ASSF 2018 – as a guest author.
  • Hungerford Award: My novel INVISIBLE BOYS was shortlisted for, and then won, the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award.

It’s a bit staggering to see the weight of all these things lined up in a row, especially since there’s loads of things I missed off this list. No wonder 2018 felt so hectic all the time!

holden alanis - Copy
Seeing Alanis Morissette live in Sydney!

And there was stuff beyond the highlights that kept me busy. I don’t like to dwell too long on the bad shit – but at the same time, I want to acknowledge it. Reeling off a year’s worth of achievements is misleading and incomplete if I don’t also put in the context. It paints a picture that everything in 2018 was sunshine and blowjobs and the truth is there were big downs that came with the ups.

Despite being an amazing breakout year, 2018 was also really tough. I struggled to make ends meet and worked too many jobs, most of them casual or contract-based, so there was no job security or certainty and I was constantly stressed about money. I struggled to fit everything in. I felt burnt out a lot of the time and rarely made any time for myself. I got lots of rejections for my writing. I didn’t finish my next novel, which I had aimed to do by September. I had interpersonal ups and downs, plus some family relationships fell to pieces, which hurt a lot. My mental health had its usual ups and downs – I had anxiety and panic attacks, plus the bog-standard self-loathing that seems to accompany me everywhere, plus a couple of drinking relapses, and of course the constant self-doubt that every writer has (and I am learning that publication and awards do little to tune these doubts out!).

But I never get to the end of a year feeling defeated. Exhausted, yes, but defeated, never. 2019 represents a chance for lots more good shit to happen. Bad shit will happen, too, but I’ll roll with what comes. The good shit will make it worthwhile.

Hungerford with Brad
Winning the Hungerford was a massive highlight – not just of 2018, but of life! Pictured here with City of Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt.

And it’s hard to feel defeated when a lifelong dream is coming true. After years of hard work, my first novel is about to be published in October 2019. The year ahead is going to be incredibly exciting, and probably more hectic than 2018 was. But it’s the kind of busy that will be fulfilling and thrilling all the way through, so I’m pumped to get stuck into the year ahead.

My goals and major things to look forward to in 2019 are:

  1. Finish the edits on Invisible Boys.
  2. Finish my next novel.
  3. Get married.
  4. Go on honeymoon.
  5. Launch and promote Invisible Boys.

That isn’t a very long list, but each of those items is enormous and will take a huge chunk of time – so that’s enough for now.

I’d also really love to push beyond my own comfort zone and try some new things in 2019 – what those will be, I don’t yet know, but I think it would be great for my confidence to do stuff that I am not good at, and just do it for fun. I’ll see how this shapes up as the year begins.

The final lines of Alanis Morissette’s song “After A Year Like This One” are:

After a year like this one I’ll need a good whole sixteen months alone

And, after a year like this one I think I’ll make the west coast beaches my new home

I seriously relate to this. After a year like 2018 – with both the ups and downs – part of me wants to find a quaint log cabin in an alpine forest somewhere and curl up in a ball beside a fireplace. Or maybe escape for a year to a little town on the coast of Mexico or Hawaii and just wake up on the beach each morning. A random fantasy, but enticing when I’ve spent so much time driving myself hard.

Alanis did end up taking sixteen months off, or thereabouts. She fled to India, cocooned herself in anonymity and later wrote a hit song about it. But of course, this was after she had done the album release and world tour.

I haven’t released my book yet.

I haven’t done the tour.

The hard work has to come before the rest. And this year, though it was hard work, wasn’t actually the job I set out to do. This year, and everything leading up to it, was really me putting together my CV, pounding the pavement, going to metaphorical job interviews. I’ve now landed my dream job, and the hard work begins on Monday at 9am.

hard work
Training for the hard work ahead.

So, despite my longing for a break, 2019 won’t be the time to slow down. It will be a year on turbo mode; feet on accelerators and sometimes arms out the window. I have a huge amount of work spread out ahead of me: a long, glittering, potholey road to run down that will be exhilarating and will keep me busy for 2019 and probably a big chunk of 2020, too.

So that’s my focus for now. In my wannabe rockstar terms, it’s now time to drop my album and do the tour. And once that’s done, some time in 2020, I’ll give myself a holiday.

But first, hard yakka. I think I’m in for another year like this one.

Here goes everything.

Holden

thank u

PS. Thanks to each of you for being a part of my journey this year. It’s been probably the most unexpected joy of 2018 to have connected with so many like-minded readers and writers and supporters. I’d love to hear what your goals and dreams and resolutions for 2019 are, too – let me know in the comments below or on social media! Wishing you all an awesome 2019 – full of ups and downs and everything in between. 🙂

The Most Violent Word in My Vocabulary

That I put too much pressure on myself is not new information.

In fact, this is one of the oldest things I know about myself. My own expectations of what I should be achieving have shackled a yoke to my shoulders since I was a boy.

It’s the reason I took on five casual jobs last year, and subsequently burned out.

It’s why, a few years back, I made the reckless decision to complete an Honours degree in Writing whilst also doing a Diploma in French and a professional certificate simultaneously, alongside four day jobs. This was the workaholic version of sitting at a table in a burning house and saying, “Guys, I’m fine. This is fine.”

And I can track this kind of learned behaviour back a long way. It’s why I had a massive meltdown in the first few weeks of year twelve: I was trying to overachieve, and take on every opportunity that came my way, and it was utterly unsustainable.

It’s easy to look back on a bright (if slightly neurotic) sixteen-year-old boy and tell him to chill the fuck out, but at the time it wasn’t such an easy task, because I kept telling myself I should be doing more … and I still am.

In fact, the word “should” has always been the most violent word in my vocabulary, especially when I apply it self-reflexively.

I tell myself I should be:

  • More determined.
  • More disciplined.
  • More hard-working.
  • More successful.
  • More celebrated.
  • More productive.

The last one is the real kicker. It’s actually impossible to satisfy my expectations of how productive I should be, because every second I spend Tweeting, or at the gym, or napping, or playing video games, is a second my brain tells me I could have been writing. There is always more I could be doing.

Somehow, my poor brain got snared on a belief at a young age, and I still haven’t ripped the hook out of my bleeding mouth.

The belief is:

If you aren’t as productive as possible, you are not good enough as a human being.

Recently, I’ve realised just how common this self-flagellating behaviour is among fellow writers. A fellow Perth-based author was recently on Twitter having a mild freakout about her own (perceived) lack of productivity. Having just finished a novel a couple of months ago, she felt like she was not really a “writer” anymore because she hadn’t written anything since. She was promptly reassured by many, including myself, that this was totally normal, which was encouraging to see – and emblematic of the supportive culture among authors.

What struck me about this, though, was how very easy it is for me to be kind to another writer, and how hard it is to be kind to myself.

I have a good sense of what expectations are reasonable for an author and what is too much –but when it comes to my own career, I am a tyrant. Nothing I do is good enough. Even amazing steps forward in my career only delight me briefly, and then it’s back to, “Well, what have you achieved lately?”

Sometimes I feel like if I don’t achieve anything substantial – meaning I receive external validation in some way – in any given week, it was a failed week. If a whole month of this goes by, I am a failed author.

This showed up most recently when I did my writing residency at Varuna. The weight of expectations I placed on myself to churn out absolutely phenomenal writing and make shitloads of progress on my third novel was extraordinary, and so cruel.

And it’s happened since I returned home, too. Even though I know my calendar is particularly rammed until June, leaving me incredibly time poor, I’m still riding myself like a meth-fuelled jockey. I should be making faster progress on my third novel. I should be writing some new short stories and submit them to journals and competitions. I should release something new as an e-book. I should blog more frequently.

Should, should, should. Same old mantra.

perfectionism

In one way, it’s heartening to know, via Twitter, that so many other authors are going through these same inner struggles.

But in another way, it’s tragic, because it means we are all being so fucking hard on ourselves.

So, what am I going to do about it?

Well, I already know how to be kind to other authors, so I’m going to make sure I keep doing that. The big challenge ahead of me is to start being nice to myself. To ease the pressure off a little, and be happy with excellence instead of perceived (and unattainable) perfection.

I will never, ever be as productive as I want to be in my mind. I am a human being. I will get busy, and I will get tired, and sometimes what I want to do won’t always be realistic, or reasonable, or kind. Some days, I’m going to get home from work and will be in that general “fuck the world, I’m not doing anything else all night” mood. I think this is okay sometimes.

So I’m going to replace the word “should” with the word “want to”, and use that as the test of whether or not I ought to proceed with something.

Will I continue working hard on my third novel? Of course, but because I want to, not because I feel I must. My ambition and my drive won’t falter, but I’m going to make sure my self-care ranks as just as important as my goals. It will be an eternal balancing act, and I’m sure I’ll fuck it up several times as I learn my way.

But, eventually, I should get it right.

Holden

The Parting of the Ways

Whenever I speak to someone about something I’ve written, I am always at pains to point out that it is fiction and therefore totally made up.

Sometimes – like with works of epic fantasy – it’s easier for people to swallow: I don’t usually need to break a sweat trying to convince someone I am not a warrior mage from Dervine, for instance.

But when you write contemporary YA – which is the genre/category of my upcoming novel – the line between the characters of fiction and the author who brought them into being becomes blurry.

All novels are, by their nature and definition, works of fiction – but there’s no denying that they also serve to crystallise many fragments of the author. It may be elements of our psyche, our history, our politics or our worldview, but some hidden shards of us end up in the final product, like tiny cracked eggshells accidentally sprinkled into the pudding.

The degree to which this happens varies from author to author, novel to novel.

I’ve recently been poring over my printed manuscript, going over some notes from the editor and immersing myself in the novel’s aura, and today a quote came to me from the abyss.

Okay, it was from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but “abyss” had more gravitas.

Towards the end of that book [SPOILER ALERT, if you’re 17 years behind …], in the penultimate chapter titled “The Parting of the Ways”, Harry is forced to recount the trauma of what just happened to him at the end of the Triwizard Tournament. He’s witnessed Cedric being murdered in front of him; witnessed the spectral reincarnation of his dead parents for a cruel, infinitesimal moment; and seen the Dark Lord rise again.

In short, he’s had a bloody shit night out and the thought of talking about it is too painful.

When I first read this novel at age twelve, there was a line from this chapter that stood out to me. In subsequent years, as I’ve attempted to recover from some of the trauma I’ve put myself through in life, that line has glowed in my mind with the ferocity of a lightning bolt-shaped scar:

“Once or twice, Sirius made a noise as though about to say something, his hand still tight on Harry’s shoulder, but Dumbledore raised his hand to stop him, and Harry was glad of this, because it was easier to keep going now he had started. It was even a relief; he felt almost as though something poisonous was being extracted from him; it was costing him every bit of determination he had to keep talking, yet he sensed that once he had finished, he would feel better.”

The part in bold is what resonates with me, now, as I look at the mess of papers that constitutes my manuscript’s current draft.

I had the same feeling when I started writing this book: that something toxic was being extracted from my blood; with each sentence I pounded out on the keyboard, a few more drops of latent venom leaked out of my veins, slowing filling the vial.

Acidic pain.

Boiling rage.

Noxious regret.

Caustic shame.

It finally escaped my body and became contained in its own vessel: the manuscript that sits before me now, marked in editor’s pencil and illuminated by the afternoon sunlight.

Yes, it’s entirely fictional. The characters are made up, and so is the story. It will be read, first and foremost, as a tale. But the themes this novel tackles are so close to the bone that I drew plenty on my own past in fleshing out some elements.

My writing process for this novel reflects Harry’s experience and exhaustion, too. I had to plumb some deep reserves of determination to keep writing when I was so shattered, but I knew that once I finished, I would feel better.

I do feel better now.

Moreover, writing this book represented a Parting of the Ways of my own. That vial full of poisonous venom has left my body and is contained in the manuscript now. Now that it’s outside of me at last, I can see it more clearly. I can experiment with it. I can open it and close it. I can hold it in my hands and feel its weight.

My task now is to make some final touches and then send it into the world, where my work can, I hope, serve as balm for others whose skin right now is as burnt and raw as mine once was.

Holden