My Name Is Not Anna Steidel—But Her Name Is On My Wall
There is an award in my office that does not belong to me.
On the day after a snowstorm, I had been hunting around for used VHS tapes of corny ’80s movies to watch back in my room when I saw Anna Steidel’s plaque on a shelf.
It cost one dollar. I liked the look of it. And soon, it was mine.
I told my friends that I wanted to hang it on the wall above my desk as a joke. Obviously, I was not Anna Steidel. The Baltimore County Republican Central Committee had not congratulated me for anything (especially not a year before I was born). It would be a little goof—a minor irony, like my roommate’s T-shirts.
Hanging beside the shelf of impressive hardcover novels that I hadn’t read but had spent my summer’s savings on, it was like a silent promise to myself: Someday I’d earn a plaque of my own.
Maybe there are writers who start out with supreme self-assurance at their own talents—but I don’t think I’ve ever met one. The most successful writers, who manage to get themselves to sit down day after day and keep pressing on, are not blessed from on high with genius abilities. No, they’ve just figured out little ways of fooling themselves out of their doubts.
“It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel,” observes Zadie Smith, in one essay. “The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.”
And this applies just as much when you’re starting your tenth novel as it does when you’re sitting down to write your very first short story.
Anna Steidel’s plaque was my first attempt at conning myself into believing I would get there someday, and—it worked. I moved the plaque from that dorm room to the next and the next. After graduation, I came to New York City and hung the plaque up in my first apartment near my writing desk.
By this time I had begun finishing stories and mailing them out to magazines, and so now I had something new to put up on the wall: a single nail where I could hang up the little rejection slips that were steadily returning. I had stolen this idea of confidently displaying my rejections, and making them their own part of the writing process, from Stephen King, who’d described his own nail full of rejections in his book On Writing: “By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”
It’s a playful way of co-opting the idea of failure: The rejection slip becomes not a discouragement but an encouragement. After all, you can’t keep getting rejected if you’re not still trying—and it can serve as a nice reminder that even Stephen King ended up with a spike’s worth.
For me, the nail and the plaque balanced each other out—the pile of little failures to the right, the hope I had in eventual success there on the left.
A few years later, when I got my first teaching job, I put the plaque up in my campus office, and I have since hung it in every office at every place I’ve ever taught. At the start of the pandemic, I made a point to bring it home to hang it in my study.
No one’s ever noticed it—or if they have, they haven’t asked about it. It remains a kind of lucky charm, a little in-joke with myself.
It is a way of remembering that time when I embarked on this path. That twenty years later, I have read those books I lined up in my dorm room.
Well, nearly all of them.
Well, nearly all of most of them.
And I even earned an award or two of my own to hang beside them.
Still, I can’t take Anna’s down.
And the trouble is that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to feel strange about it.
That kind of irony no longer does for me what it did when I was seventeen. In fact, it more often bugs the hell out of me.
In a workshop once, I sat across the table all semester from a guy who wore a crisp green John Deere tractor cap every day to class. He’d grown up in Brooklyn, had gone to an Ivy League school, and the perfectly uncreased cap had clearly never been worn in any kind of tractor-ready setting. I was willing to bet its occupant had never been in one either.
And the trouble is that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to feel strange about it.
It was ironic—hinging on the clear visual understanding that this was not a country boy, and worse, that he thought someone who would sincerely wear that hat was worthy of mockery.
Lately I have found myself feeling nervous that someone will notice the plaque, and I won’t be able to explain why I ever thought it was so funny. It’s begun to feel like I have my own tractor cap on. Like I’ve appropriated something that isn’t mine.
Today I teach my students about the dangers of certain kinds of irony—that the humor behind my wearing a T-shirt from a bail bondsman relies on it being obvious at a glance that I, a nerdy white college student, had never been to jail and did not generally have to worry about being locked up under flimsy or nonexistent pretexts by the whim of the police. It was only funny to be advertising the number of a bail bondsman because I would almost certainly never need to call him.
That is to say, wearing the shirt, and having it be read as “funny,” is all contingent on layers of privilege that I’d never have thought twice about back in my Salvation Army days.
In this same spirit, I’ve slowly come to wonder about my plaque, and who Anna Steidel was. What is a Devereux Award anyway? What valor of hers, exactly, have I been stealing all these years? Has hanging it in my office like a precious trophy been, in some way, a way of silently mocking her, as my classmate once mocked those who’d really ride around on a John Deere?
These questions, and others, were on my mind last month as I typed her name into Google for the first time in twenty years.
I learned that Anna Steidel is buried in the Loudon Park Cemetery in West Baltimore in a family plot. Several entries from the 1940 census showed that she lived in the Fifteenth Ward of Baltimore with her older sister Frances Stuckey and her brother-in-law Victor. I learned that Anna had three siblings who all died young: Leonard (thirty-three), Eleanor (twenty-four), and Elizabeth (twenty-one). Anna outlived everyone, by a good clip, making it to eighty-eight. She was the last to be buried there.
By this point my writerly instincts were kicking in. All this time I’d had the plaque on my wall as part of my own story, never thinking that it held a story of its own. It was right there in front of me, just waiting. What’s it like to outlive all your siblings by more than fifty years? Was it uncommon for a woman like Anna at that time to never get married? It’s questions like these that make a character start to come to life and help the story begin to sing inside your head.
Along with mentioning she’d lived with Victor and Frances, Anna’s obituary also described her as the “dear great-aunt”of “Barbara, Susan and Michael Stuckey.”
Of these, I could only find a “Barb” Stuckey, now a food writer and an executive vice president at a food laboratory near San Francisco.
After much stalling, I sent a polite inquiry and hoped for the best.
Barb responded later that same day, cc’ing her sister Susan, now Zosha, an English professor at nearby Towson University. They confirmed that Anna was, indeed, their great-aunt. Fortunately, Barb seemed to appreciatemy interest in understanding the story behind the plaque. A writer herself, she understood the way that curiosity takes hold of us, and how those questions live inside us until they can be shaped into narrative. She agreed to help answer some questions if she could.
I had a million: What kind of life did Anna live? How did she die? What association did she have with the Republican Central Committee?
But all Barb could tell me was that, when it came to her great-aunt, who passed away when she was still fairly young, she had “more hypotheses than facts.” She did not elaborate about what these hypotheses were, and I haven’t heard from her since.
Zosha added that their aunt had been very conservative, and that they’d disagreed on many issues. (Dr. Zosha Stuckey, as I should call her, is a researcher interested in histories of social justice and has written a book about the abuse of patients in nineteenth-century asylums.) Zosha did add one more detail: that her Great-Aunt Anna also attended the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art. She said she’d heard her aunt was an average artist, but a very charitable person. Anna’s obituary had asked for donations to be left with the Grace & Hope Mission in downtown Baltimore—a soup kitchen located not far from “The Block,” where many of the city’s strip clubs are located. At this point I might have continued my sleuthing: called MICA or the Republican Central Committee of Baltimore or even other local historians. But I didn’t.
In the end, I’m not a journalist, but a novelist. And some twenty years after hanging Anna’s plaque up on that dorm room wall, I’ve started to recognize the feeling of when I’ve done enough research and the time has come to allow my imagination to take over.
I’ve been trying, I realize, to create some kind of character out of Anna—to form a definitive version of her, out of the myriad imagined possibilities. Because if I knew her story, then I could honor it in some way—in the only way I know how to, really, which is to write it. Then, on some sunny future day, when someone comes into my office and points at the plaque and asks why it has the name of a strange woman on it, I’ll be able to say that it’s something for a story I’m working on and leave it at that.
Turning the snow day in the Salvation Army and the random encounter with that one-dollar Devereux Award into the first chapter of something much longer, a story of lives intertwining across time and space—my favorite kind. And so an image of Anna Steidel forms in my mind for the first time in twenty years: a small, churchgoing woman, walking down South Gay Street in Baltimore in the late sixties. I try to picture her in all sincerity, moving lightly through the scene, trying help the homeless, chatting with the sex workers and the police as she is walking down to the harbor. Thinking about how she’d paint the busy city scene, if she had her brushes handy . . .
Who knows what this plaque meant to Anna Steidel, once? Maybe it hung proudly in her home. Maybe she chucked the thing out the minute they gave it to her.
All I know is that, to me, it is a prized possession. A link to the past that can’t be taken down; a prize that must continually be re-earned. If it began its life with me as a poor irony, it has now become something richer in sincerity. It remains hanging, not six inches from my head right now, as I write this sentence. It means more to me still than any award I’ve actually earned in the last twenty years—because I had it in the very beginning. Because I carried it along the journey with precisely this hope: that twenty years from then, I’d be sitting under it, at six in the morning, tapping away at the keys—quietly, so my children won’t wake up and come looking for breakfast before I can finish.
My advice to you, dear writers, is this—reach for sincerity over irony, every day. Wear those rejections like the badge of honor that they are, but also, hang a little promise to yourself somewhere. Look at it often. Believe that it will be there when you finish your very first novel and your very last poem. Ask it often: What’s the story that lives inside?
It’s yours, so long as you endeavor to treat it well.
Kristopher Jansma is the author of the novel Why We Came to the City and the winner of the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Award for Fiction. His first novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, received an Honorable Mention for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award. He has written for The New York Times, Alaska Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, ZYZZVA, The Believer, and more. He is the Director of Creative Writing and an Associate Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz College. Find more at www.kristopherjansma.com.