The Writing Life: Beginnings, Pt. 1

My mom, a journalist, was talking with a friend. She beamed at my brother. “Charlie, he’s the writer of the family. And Annie? She’s…” Here, I felt my mom hesitate. Then, “Annie’s the athlete.”

My brother excelled in everything involving words—from composing song lyrics and essays to dominating Scrabble games and inserting witty comments into conversations at just the right moment. I played softball and ran track. And I rode my yellow Schwinn ten-speed down country roads stretching between corn and soybean fields, past herds of Black Angus cattle and silos filled with grain. The labels fit, though deep down, secretly, I wanted to be a writer, too.

Three years after Charlie graduated high school, I sat in Miss Thompson’s Senior English class. Miss Thompson told us we would keep a journal chronicling our senior year, creating at least five entries per week. We were to do more than write, however. We were to add our personal touch. Whether we complemented our written words with pasted-in photographs, news clippings and ticket stubs or accented them with watercolor backgrounds and meticulous calligraphy, the key to A-level work was creative expression.

She held up three examples of some of the best she’d ever seen—journals from past students whose work she adored. One was Charlie’s. I recognized it immediately, having gazed at it many times while he worked on it during his senior year. She passed them around for students to flip through. When Charlie’s came to me, I opened it, noting his handwriting—a combination of big printed letters and rounded cursive. The content mingled light humor and occasional sarcasm with spot-on descriptions of people and situations. For one page, he cut letters from newspapers to compose an amusing ransom note. I studied the pages, wishing I could copy his techniques. Then I passed it to the person behind me.

At the end of my senior year, Miss Thompson didn’t ask to keep my journal.

I ran track in spring that year, as I had since junior high, training for sprints and the long jump, reinforcing my status as the family athlete. After graduation, I worked during the summer as a copy person, running errands for editors at the newspaper where my dad worked.

I hated working in the city. I hated working into the night. I hated the sense of urgency and stress necessary to put out a daily paper. One time I had to drive the company car to fetch a photograph from a family whose son had been shot. I knocked on the door. They barely opened it. I introduced myself and said I was from the newspaper. They reached through the narrow opening and handed me his picture. I told them we would return it and flipped it around to be sure their address was printed on the back. It was. I don’t think they said one word. I said I was very sorry and thanked them for the photo. They nodded and shut the door. I hated invading their grief.

That fall, I started school at a Big Ten University. Not nearly good enough to compete on their elite sports teams, I lost my label. No more was I an athlete, though I did pedal my yellow Schwinn ten-speed across campus, weaving around students who were walking to class.

A couple of weeks into my freshman year, I showed up at a tall building where bored grad students served as advisors, looking over undergrad schedules to ensure that our class selections met each major’s requirements. We lined up single-file down a long hallway, waiting our turn. My randomly assigned college advisor asked about my major. Since I had no idea what to study, my mom and dad suggested journalism. I didn’t have any other ideas, so I’d been claiming to be a journalism major on all my school documents and blurted it out to the advisor. He wrote it down, scribbled on some paperwork, approved my class load, and sent me on my way.

He didn’t question my choices, so I was allowed to follow my brother’s suggestion to sign up for a 200-level survey of Shakespeare course the first semester of my freshman year. Charlie loved the class, especially the professor, Dr. Weber, and even though I was taking a sophomore-level class as a freshman, he assured me I’d be fine. My brother didn’t know that I’d only barely made sense of Macbeth in Miss Thompson’s high school English class. Charlie breezed through it.

In this Shakespeare course with Professor Weber, I would be reading several of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. The Internet didn’t exist to see what others had to say about the works, and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V wouldn’t release in theaters for four more years. I would be on my own to sort it all out.

The professor read off each name to take attendance. We were simply to answer “present.” The long process of hearing name after name, “present” after “present,” lulled the room to a restful state until he said in his crisp, faux-British accent, “Miss…Hopper.”

“Present,” I responded.

He pulled off his reading glasses, looked up at the room and squinted, trying to decide where among the 200 students in this lecture hall my voice originated. “Miss Hopper?”

I straightened up. “Yes?”

“Miss Hopper…are you by any chance related to Charlie Hopper?” Dr. Weber must have taught thousands of students over the years. I was four years younger than my brother who had already graduated. The entire lecture hall stared at me, surprised at this exchange interrupting the otherwise soporific administrative procedure. Turning crimson, I longed to dissolve into liquid form and slide down the steps unnoticed, but I remained solidly human and the professor waited for an answer, grinning, eager to hear my response.

I cleared my throat. “Yes, he’s my brother.”

“I thought so. Well, should we expect the same insightful observations?”

I swallowed. After a nervous laugh, I tried to manage the professor’s expectations. “Well, I’m not much like my brother.”

“I’m delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Hopper. I look forward to your participation in class.”

I started reading Shakespeare, but it sounded foreign. At the library, I checked out a fuzzy audio recording of each play in case hearing it read aloud would help me comprehend. It didn’t. I showed up to class confused. He called on me.

“Miss Hopper? What did you think of this passage?” I offered dismal, childish ideas—or nothing at all. Week after week, he kept assigning passages and I kept limping through the original language while slumped at the library or leaning over my dorm room desk. I rode my bike across campus, slipped into the lecture hall and sank into my chair hoping he’d forget about Charlie Hopper’s sister.

I scribbled copious notes and appreciated Dr. Weber’s lectures, but in almost every class he would ask for a response. I never offered anything original In fact, I usually offered nothing at all—certainly no insightful observations.

One day he pressed me. “What’s your opinion of this passage, Miss Hopper?”

“I…I’m sorry, but I don’t have an opinion.”

“You have no opinion at all?”

“No, sir.” I fiddled with my pen. Everyone was staring.

“You have no opinion, or you didn’t read it?”

I sat stunned. Mortified. He didn’t think I did the work, but that week I’d sat in a big leather chair in the student union, my eyes taking in every word, re-reading the section, underlining what might be important, but unable to piece together its power, its subtle insight into human nature, its themes and genius. In the lecture hall that day, I thought, I may not understand it, but I did read the passage, so I exclaimed defensively, “No, I read it!” Then I realized I couldn’t offer proof. Defeated, I mumbled, “I…I just don’t…have…an opinion.”

Normally an animated, engaging professor, Dr. Weber fell silent a moment, his neck muscles tightening. “How can you have no opinion if you’ve actually read it? If you read it, you should have something to say about it.”

But I didn’t. I didn’t understand the passage. I didn’t have anything to say. My brother was the writer. My brother was the reader-critic. My brother probably skipped the reading assignments and still made appropriate, witty, delightful comments. Dr. Weber kept expecting Charlie, but kept getting Annie.

Ashamed and stupid, I felt tears slide down each side of my nose. I couldn’t wipe them away without drawing even more attention. “I read it,” I repeated softly, “but I have nothing to say about the passage.” I looked down, now, away from Dr. Weber and the eyes of hundreds of classmates. I knew no one by name, but they all knew me: Charlie Hopper’s sister, the girl with nothing to say.

I stared at the lined pages of my spiral-bound notebook, where I had been taking notes on Dr. Weber’s lecture. A tear formed a perfect circle on the page where it dropped and was soaking through, warping my handwriting.

Read The Writing Life: Beginnings, Pt. 2

Photo by Nicola. Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post reprinted from Ann Kroeker, author of Not So Fast. Some names changed.




  1. says

    Ann, this is probably the most vulnerable thing I’ve ever seen you write. I just hurt through the whole piece.

    You made me think about my kids. My daughter is the obvious theater nerd, who excels there. But my son needs to follow his gifts into performance, too, but he won’t, because of his little sister. He leans more toward improv, stand-up. He’s sharp and quick on his feet. She’s better at interpreting a role. Both are valid forms of performance, just like both you and Charlie have valid writing gifts, just different in their expression. And you can edit, which, as Stephen King reminds us, is divine.

    • says

      Thank you for dropping in with such specific encouragement, willing to step into my past pain.

      Many years ago, a friend of mine said how her mom did something similar, bragging that she was the “funny” one and her sister was the “smart” one–implying, of course, that the funny girl wasn’t smart and the smart girl couldn’t be funny. Reality? Each of them is funny and smart, and each veers off with gifts that the other doesn’t have and both share other delightful traits and gifts.

      So I made a point with my own kids to encourage them to all explore interests, even if they overlap with a sibling’s. And then, wouldn’t you know, I took my middle daughter out for a one-on-one talk one time in the past year, and she got a little teary-eyed and said (I’m removing details and names), “I love to do X, but my older sister does X, too, and I love to do Y, but my younger sister does Y, too….I don’t have anything that’s *all mine*.” She wanted that separate, unique thing. She wanted to be the ONLY photographer or soccer player or whatever. So…sigh…I tried to let them share interests, but she wanted her own thing.

      As it turns out, she is turning out to be quite skillful in photography, and the others have let it drop to hobby level. I hope she continues to find her identity, too, but don’t be surprised if one day we read the Kroeker girls’ identity stories, and don’t be surprised to see them stop in the middle with a big, round teardrop, falling someplace poignant.

  2. L. L. Barkat says

    Well, now. I’m crying little tears of my own. Annie became Ann, the writer. She didn’t know that would happen. But look, here, it has.

  3. says

    oh this is soooo cool. because i know that you are a writer, but, what a story, what a story you tell…about passing the test, it even becomes our own test. we are all so unique, but the world needs us to be the-same-as…how else can we be put into a labeled box?

  4. says

    Oh my, oh my, miss Ann.

    Was that a pivot point, that single teardrop, in being and writing as Ann, not as someone’s sister? I do so want to know about the next step you took.



    • says

      Darlene, your words mean so much, understanding and feeling compassion for that Annie who was struggling to find herself. She did, as you know. She did find a writing voice, all her own.

      Reading your encouraging note and the others here compels me to be a voice of encouragement for every writer.

      My mom, Miss Thompson, Dr. Weber, and Charlie–none of them had any idea of the effect they had on me. At that point, I don’t think I’d confessed my secret longing to be a writer. And I was pretty proud of my brother’s journal. I just kind of wished mine could be as cool.

  5. says

    I can’t wait to follow your story. Your telling voice and writing voice draw me in. I am holding my breath as I place myself in your chair, your shoes, your steps. And you were hesitant to write memoir? You do it with passion and truth. Lovely friend. You have a gift.

  6. says

    See? And I assumed you were the born English major I never was, the one who came into the world eating and breathing Shakespeare and iambic pentameter. I am in such awe of your gift with language. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is such an encouragement.

    As I was reading this, I kept thinking about Edith Crawley of Downton Abbey, the middle sister who is forever overlooked. And what has dear Edith taken up?

    Writing. Of course :)

  7. says

    Ann, I was dumbstruck when I read it the first time. And now I find it here again…

    Can’t wait to see how it ends up. How do you do that—make me weepy and on the edge of my seat at the same time?

  8. says

    You know how much I love this piece – I’ve told you so. But I’m going to say it again, here, Annie: I LOVE THIS PIECE. And I love that you told this so exquisitely. Such talent, such grace, such a sweet sense of forgiveness for all those involved and for yourself, too. You are the best. That’s all I have to say.

    • says

      Oh, man, I don’t deserve this encouragement (but I’ll gladly receive it!). You are a gift, dropping in with these words. Thank you for stopping by twice, at my blog and here!

  9. Marcy Terwilliger says

    Ann, your a wonderful tender writer as I embraced what u wrote. Our journey was somewhat alike n life but mine was my sister, 3 years older & she was smart as a whip. She like Charlie was top of the class, smartest girl n the school. Then I came along getting her same teacher’s it was like “What happened 2 you?” I felt dumb, dumber than dumb, I would read it & never get it. I left that school, her following was my demise so I transferred 2 a Vocational School. I studied Art & managed 2 stay a “B” student. N my 30’s a doctor discovered a disorder I had & one little pill took care of everything & changed my entire life. Now I was able 2 remember everything I read. My sister went on 2 College for 4 years & never did a thing with it. I managed 4 years of Commercial & 2 years at another Art School. I ended up getting paid 4 shooting photo’s, selling my work, working in a High School Library, 3 Mortgage Companies & falling n love with writing. When I’m writing I am so happy. She won’t read my poems nor my stories. In the end Ann, only the strong survive. One day I’ll have my book, one day.

    • says

      Marcy, what a story! Thank you for sharing your own struggle of living in the shadow of your sister. I’m sorry she does not support you by reading your work. I have to say, my brother never meant to do any of that and feels bad–he had no idea; he was just living his life. I wish you could have her come around and know you by knowing your work, like my brother has kindly done by reading and complimenting and assigning that value to what I’ve done.

      I’m glad that you have found writing to be such a positive force in your life, and your art, too. You do seem strong and have built an impressive life. I’m so glad you no longer reside in the shadow of your sister and continue to move toward your goals.

  10. says

    Oh, I read this and felt every ache. I’m a younger sister, who (still?) thinks she isn’t the smart one.

    Your writing is exquisite. Flows like a meandering river, I could stop. Thank you for the risk.

  11. says

    This just made my heart ache. I was the silent one in high school. I never “got” the meaning in the poems or prose we read. And I still remember the red pen all over a college English lit paper I wrote on Beowulf where I found all kinds of spiritual application. I was so excited and proud of it. The instructor hated it… said I was digging for meaning that wasn’t there. But *I* saw it? Doesn’t that count for something?

    • says

      Yes, Sandra, in my opinion, your applications demonstrated that you read the text and were engaging with it. Maybe it wasn’t the kind of literary analysis the professor was looking for, but why squelch the thoughts of a young mind?

      I’m sorry you were discouraged at such a tender stage in your academic growth. I said to someone in an earlier comment that I still need a little help with obscure stuff, but if someone points it out and then I feel the veil lift from my eyes, I’m so grateful. I’d rather have the ability to spot it myself, but I love having insider knowledge. That makes me feel smart. :)

      Keep looking and taking risks and speaking up…don’t let the red-ink people get you down.

  12. says

    This is such a great reminder for me to see my grand children for who they are not for who I think they are. Each of our three boys are unique and they all learn differently. Our grand daughters are each different too, even the twins who are identical still are different people. They are not ‘identical’ in all things. Teachers and parents do a great disservice to young ones demanding or insisting they learn one certain way. Some are visual learners, some learn by hearing, some learn by doing. Some need all three. POWERFUL lessons shared in this very vulnerable writing. Thank you.

    • says

      Sharon, you sound like you will be an important voice in your grandchildren’s lives. I wrote letters to my grandmother who lived about two hours away. I remember dashing them off most of the time, but then one day deciding to take more time to really think through my letter, thoughtfully transitioning between paragraphs–I must have been in junior high, but I don’t really remember. The next time we visited her, she actually pulled out the letter and thanked me for it. She said when she read it, she couldn’t help thinking, “Looks like we could have another writer in the family.” My eyes must have popped open in surprise, for that was my secret wish. I held onto that statement for years. Grandma thought that maybe, just maybe, I could be a writer, too.

      I wrote her a lot more letters after that, too. :)

  13. says

    Wow, Ann. Just wow. This is an incredible piece of writing. And to know that you have overcome so much — insecurity, living in your brother’s shadow, fear — to become the stellar writer you are today. Wow. It makes me admire you even more (and I didn’t think that was possible!).

    • says

      Thank you, Michelle, for taking time to comment. I wrote this as Charity and I were preparing to lead The Writing Life Tweetspeak workshop. I think all of the participants found the process of looking back at their early writing days, when they first started to identify as a writer, to be a powerful time of reflection.

      I actually could go back and write some prequel-type material, before this era. Maybe I will.

  14. says

    Thank you for sharing this part of your story with us…my heart ached for you as I read…you are a gifted writer, and I am so grateful you are teaching our class along with Charity :)


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