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.
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! 😛