The Stories I Tell ~ from The Word Cellar

Stories. Anecdotes. A free round of words for everyone!

My Photo
Location: Pennsylvania, United States

I love stories. I'm the one at social functions with a dozen new anecdotes. But I worry about hogging the conversation. Sometimes I tell myself that I'll be quiet and let others do the talking. But no matter how hard I try, my stories insist on bursting out! Here I can let my stories (the classics that I tell again and again, as well as new ones that unfold along the way) run free. I'm a professional writer and editor, and sole proprietor of The Word Cellar. I write for a variety of publications and clients on everything from green buildings and nuclear reactors to entrepreneurship and the arts. If you need words written, edited, or enlivened, I can help. Contact me.


I Know How to Read

~~Hiding Behind Pages ~~
(photo idea inspired by Melissa)

When people find out that I was an English major in college and am now a freelance writer, eventually they ask me the questions I dread most:

~~What's your favorite book?
~~Who's your favorite author?

And I just freeze up. Completely. My mind goes blank and I can't remember a single character, plot, author, or title. It's really embarrassing. I'm all: "Uhhhhhh.......What's a book? Eh? Reading? That sounds interesting. Perchance I will try it one day."

There's a little tip: If you're ever in an intellectual bind, and, like me, fear looking stupid, throw in words like perchance, ergo, hitherto, and, as a last resort, blimey! The first three will help you to feign (another good word) intellect. The people who aren't quite as smart as you just may be impressed. Those who are smarter than you will see through your ruse (good one!). But no matter -- they wouldn't have been impressed no matter what you did.

As for "blimey," well, it works best when talking to Americans. It can make you sound like you're well-acquainted with British culture, which automatically makes you sound smarter. (If you can use the accent, all the better! You can say anything in a British accent and it sounds posh. Try it: "I hurt my nose whilst picking it." See?) Just don't use "blimey" when talking to an actual British person. They'll know you're a fake. And whatever you do, do not try the faux English accent with a real life Brit. At the very least they'll point a bony finger at you and chuckle condescendingly. At the most, they'll call you Dick van Dyke. And that just hurts.

All this to say that I do my best to avoid conversations about books and such. But then my friend Allyson had to go and tag me with a meme about characters. I'm totally freaked out about it. Then my friend Melissa went ahead and answered the call to meme! So now I have no choice but to respond. Otherwise I look like a chicken. Which is only slightly better than looking stupid, so I'll take my chances.

So far, everyone is naming book characters. I guess those are the rules. But I'm going to use movies, too. After all, they started out as written screenplays, right? So I'm making the execu-blog decision that I can include all characters, regardless of medium. I'm supposed to pick three, but I'm wimping out at two.


1. Characters I wish were real so I could meet them:

a. Aslan from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Critics, cynics, scholars, and snobs can knock themselves out arguing whether or not C.S. Lewis meant Aslan to represent God or Christ or not. For me, I haven't come across a better representation of a saviour. Aslan makes me feel safe and loved and protected in a way that makes me wish I could cuddle a real lion.

b. Lloyd Dobler from "Say Anything": The trench coat is a bit dated, but Lloyd is still my man. After all, "To know Lloyd Dobler is to love him." And don't we all feel like we know Lloyd Dobler? Boombox and all?

2. Characters I'd like to be:

a. Anne from Anne of Green Gables: Despite hardships, Anne lives a life full of joy and wonder -- which I keep trying to figure out how to do. And I'm not even an orphan. Plus, I'd like to have red hair (like Megan Follows).

b. Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice: I considered listing this dashing man in the section above, but that's been done. Sure, it'd be great to meet Mr. Dracy, but I think maybe I'd like to be Mr. Darcy. I'd get to be rich, handsome, and full of brooding and good intentions. Plus, I'd get the beautiful and free-spirited Elizabeth Bennet as my spouse. (Okay, maybe I'd really rather be Lizzie, but it's interesting to think about being the male character for once.)

3. Characters that frighten me:

a. Anyone in Wuthering Heights: I admit that I don't remember much of this book, except for the soul-crushing sense of desperation, isolation, and depression. I have no idea how it ends at the moment, and I don't care. I just remember wondering what the hell was wrong with poor Emily Brontë.

b. Si and Am, the Siamese cats in "The Lady and the Tramp": Maybe it's that sinister song they sing, but these are some seriously creepy cats. I was afraid of cats for a good portion of my life, and I blame Disney.

Okay, my list feels a bit paltry. From reading it, you'd think I haven't read very much hitherto. So I'm finally going to start something that I've been meaning to do for a long time: make a cheat sheet. I'm going to compile a list of the books I read and include notes about characters, plots, and what I liked/disliked. And then I'll memorize a few of them, so I'll have a handy-dandy answer when anyone asks me these dreaded questions. And that, my friends, will make me look really well-read. Blimey!


add to kirtsy | 12:52 AM | 3 comments


My First Trip to NYC (3rd 1st)

[Stephanie over at Cool People I Know (whom I found via Jen Lemen) has tagged her readers to jump in on her meme and provide a list of five firsts. This is my third first. Read the others here.]

The first time I visited New York City, I forgot about the Statue of Liberty.

A carfull of friends decided to drive from our beach house in Ocean City, NJ to NYC. We were there as part of a summer program of learning, fellowship, and discipleship. A bunch of college students from different schools, learning to live, play, work, cook, eat, pray, worship, and study together. It was like MTV's Real World for Christians: less hot tub debauchery and more Bible study.

Saturdays were our free time, so five of us piled into one car and made the 2.5 hour car trip to the city that never sleeps.

I don't remember what I expected to see or do in New York. I don't think I had many preconceived notions. At this point in my life, I hadn't traveled much and had never lived in a large city. I was just excited about the idea of New York.

As we approached the city and drove across a bridge, I looked across the backseat and out the driver's side window. There, in the distance, rising up out of the water, small but unmistakable, was the Statue of Liberty.

"Look!" I cried. "It's the Statue of Liberty!"

From the joy and awe in my voice, you would have thought I'd been waiting my whole life to see this landmark, as if I were an avid tourist, or a hungry immigrant.

The sheer surprise and happiness of seeing the Statue of Liberty caught me off-guard. It's not that I'd been looking forward to seeing it. It's that I had completely forgotten about its existence.

Lady Liberty is practically synonymous with the Big Apple. Yet I hadn't included it in my mental checklist of things to see while in New York. But there it was. Big -- and real -- as life. Here was this famous icon and I was seeing it in person, with my own eyes.

At that moment I felt like I was living life for once, rather than life living me. I can't explain how, but seeing the statue reminded me that the world is full of possibilities, even when we don't see them coming.

I thought of this story last weekend while I was in New York City for the ASJA writer's conference. I looked out of my hotel window on the 34th Floor and saw a large, silver gargoyle two buildings over.

As I was walking back to my hotel one day, I saw the building with the gargoyles on it and noticed how shiny it was. Suddenly I heard little orphan Annie proclaiming, "You'll stay up till this dump shines like the top of the Chrysler building." It was the Chrysler Building I'd seen from my window! I had the same feeling of recognition that I'd had 11 years earlier when I "discovered" the Statue of Liberty.

I'm looking for obvious monuments. The things in my life that are always there, whether I see them or not. The signposts that reassure me that whether I remember them or not, they stand strong and solid, ready to delight me.

Labels: , , ,

add to kirtsy | 6:50 PM | 0 comments


He's got a million of 'em, folks

What I overheard in Times Square on Sunday:

Guy to two girls: Hey, watch out -- dog shit!

[Girls jump aside, but there is no shit.]

Guy: What are you doing tonight? I mean what are we doing tonight?

[Girls giggle and keep walking.]

Guy: Hey, do you like skinny white guys?

For more snippets of New York conversation, visit Overheard in New York.

Labels: , ,

add to kirtsy | 2:31 PM | 1 comments


Lentil Soup

As friends and regular readers will know, my cats have had some kidney problems since the whole Menu Foods pet food recall. This has required me to collect multiple urine samples for lab tests. (Keep reading. It gets funny. Honest.)

Have you ever tried to get pee from cats? No? Then let me school you.

First you empty out their litter boxes and separate the cats. Hours later, you realize that these cats are no suckers and will not use an empty litter box. They need something to dig in, dammit!

Next you shred some glossy newspaper inserts and put the festive confetti in the litter boxes. It looks pretty. And it works the first time around. Success!

The next time you need a sample you try the same shredded paper trick. Hours later you realize that the cats subscribe to the worldview of: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." They will not pee on shredded paper. They will, however, nestle down into the litter box, get all com-fer-tuh-buhls and look at you smugly, as if to say: "Ah, this is a nice new place to nap. Look at me. I'm lying down, not peeing."

You also begin to marvel at their ability to hold out for over 12 hours. This is determination, people.

So you decide to try a new vet-approved option: Lentils. Theses little legumes mimic the look and texture of kitty litter but won't absorb the sample. (If you get there in time, that is.)

You put 16 ounces of lentils in the litter box. Your 15-pound cat scoffs at this attempt to fool him. Eventually you add another 64 ounces of lentils to the box and he succumbs to the illusion.

The next time you need a sample, you think, "Hey, no problem. I'm a cat-urine-collecting-pro! All I need are five bags of lentils per cat." So you send your husband to the store to buy 10 bags of lentils.

At the checkout counter the clerk says, "Looks like somebody is making soup!"

Sort of. Lentil and pee soup! Hahahah! (how could I resist?)

You follow protocol: Separate cats; empty litter boxes; fill boxes with lentils. The next morning, Gatwick the Catwick decides that he's really had enough of this and pees in his bed. The boy has never peed anywhere before but in the litter box. But today he decides that he'd rather pee in a cardboard box with a blanket than set foot on your stupid lentils! This act of defiance leaves you both angry. You pick him up to show him the litter box and he scratches your arm tyring to get away from the offending lentils!

Finally, as an act of contrition and in an attempt to make up with his frustrated and exhausted owner, the cat pees in the damn lentils. You use a plastic syringe or eyedropper to collect the sample.

Of course, two cats won't pee at the same time. And samples need to be less than eight hours old. So sometimes you make the 50-minute round trip to the vet's office twice per round of samples.

And you can't bring yourself to make lentil soup for at least a month.

Labels: , ,

add to kirtsy | 5:32 PM | 2 comments

Mom Better Get on the Ball

Heard through my open window as a little boy ran down my street:

"I'm sorry. My mom forgot to cook my dinner. She's gonna cook it a little longer."

Labels: ,

add to kirtsy | 5:18 PM | 0 comments


Two Types of Value

In my last post I pondered what it means to value yourself enough to align your talents and desires with your actions. Part of what got me thinking about all of this was a post called Get a Real Job from Chris Garret on New Media .

Chris writes about people who think that blogging in particular – and writing in general – are not "real" jobs and are not worthy of real compensation. He asks, "Do people feel writing and getting rewarded for it is ripping people off in some way?" Here are my two cents from the comments section off that post:

I recently read an analogy comparing publishing a blog to publishing your very own newspaper. I think this type of comparison can be helpful for people who are new to blogging or unsure of its purpose and value. It's easier to "get" blogging when it's compared to a form of traditional media (like a newspaper, newsletter, or magazine), at least as a starting point. And it's given me a new perspective on how to approach my own blog. I'm building a list of ideas of regular and special features, types of content, ways to generate interactivity with readers, and how to monetize all of these efforts. I blog because I love to tell stories, but it’s also part of my business. I like the connection of passion and profit.

As far as people undervaluing blogging, it's the same with writing in most forms. I think that this pervasive attitude is also what makes some freelancers work for so little. Too many writers embrace the "starving artist" mindset, are simply desperate for work-any-work-at-any-price, or are just not very good writers. When I first started freelancing, I had to constantly remind myself that I was running a business and needed to value my talents and services appropriately. After all, if I didn't value them, others wouldn't. I always knew this in a business sense, but it took awhile to know it with every fiber of my being – in other words, to be able to quote my rates without secretly cringing. For awhile, I kept thinking, "Who pays for this shit?" It’s not that I thought my work was crappy. But I marveled that people would pay good money for something that came so easily to me. Then again, I pay people to mow my lawn and do my taxes – two areas outside of my own expertise. The moral of the story: People will pay for what they want/need. Which we all knew already.

Since I write for a living, both kinds of valuation – personal and profitable – are important to me.

What do you value in yourself? Does it also have value in the marketplace? I'm not suggesting that money should be the only motivator for using our talents. But too often we overlook opportunities to benefit from doing what we love. We all have gifts and we all need money to live. Why shouldn't the two overlap?

What do you love to do? What are your hobbies? Are there people who want the end product but don't want to do the work to get it? Would they be willing to pay you to do the work?

Labels: , ,

add to kirtsy | 5:04 PM | 0 comments


Choose Symmetry

This blog is about stories, anecdotes, snippets of conversation, what have you. [What will you have?] It's a bunch of writing by someone who makes her living as a writer. As such, I think a lot about words, the nature of writing, and what it means to be a writer.

I've been creating stories and writing for most of my life. I started freelancing about four years ago and after much hand-wringing, finally took the big entrepreneurial plunge and quit my "real" job last summer. So now, when people ask me what I "do," I'm forced to say: "I'm a writer."

What an scandalous thing to admit out loud! I'm a writer. I write things. That's what I do. I'm a writer.

I still feel slightly embarrassed and shocked when I say it. I secretly fear that people will see through me; will think that I'm a poseur; will discover that I used to write poetry full of teenage angst; will somehow get ahold of my journals and unearth my ability to write total drivel about the same stuff over and over and over again.

About five years ago I began a quest to figure out what I'm supposed to be now that I'm apparently a grownup. I took the advice of a career coach and asked the people I love what they thought about me and my talents. Ever single one of them told me some variation on the following: I'm creative, a born story teller, and good with words.

I saw a theme emerging and tried to reconcile it with the snide comments of my inner insecurity. So I went back and read some of my poetry (post-teenage-angst period), short stories, narratives, and college papers. I discovered that I still liked some of the first three and was astounded by the latter. I read these complex ideas about T.S. Eliot's poetry, theories of pedagogy and literary criticism, and imagery in Shakespeare's The Tempest. And then I realized that I was responsible for these things. I thought them, researched them, and wrote them. I impressed myself.

We don't impress ourselves enough. The bad stuff is easier to believe. (Yes, that's a line from "Pretty Woman.") We all should have more moments to feel proud and even in-awe of ourselves. I'm not advocating conceit, but rather a type of self-love that opens us up to possibilities. If you can't remember the last time you impressed yourself, start doing what you love. Then -- and this is crucial-- turn off your inner critic. It's too easy to compare ourselves to our peers and our heroes. We should allow ourselves to feel pride and accomplishment.

At some point during all of my seeking I had an obvious epiphany: I'm a writer.


That's when I realized I'd forgotten that I like to write, have some skill in it, and could use it to my advantage.

Someone recently described me as an artist. This was the first time we'd met. She said it more than once in a single conversation, even though I had not referred to myself that way. I'd gone so far as to say that I'm a freelance writer. But artist? That's even more outlandish than writer. But I loved hearing it. Me as an artist. How preposterous! How pretentious! To be the thing I most secretly want to be. And then to say it out loud for all to hear. The audacity!

We should all be so audacious.

I'm learning to name myself and my desires for what they are; to claim them with no show of arrogance or delusion. To allow myself to be -- and to become -- what I want to be. I have so much to learn and so many ways to grow. I'm finally mature enough to recognize my need for improvement without discounting my achievements

I've read that people with symmetrical facial features are judged to be more attractive than those with unsymmetrical features. How beautiful my life would be if I aligned my dreams with my actions. How lovely I would be if I were full of symmetry.

Labels: , ,

add to kirtsy | 1:15 PM | 2 comments


How to Choose

Me: "The package gives us options. Do you want to make ultra-vibrant colored eggs; regular colored eggs; or pastel eggs?"

James: "What's the difference?"

Me: "You use vinegar for the bright eggs, lemon juice for the medium ones, and water for the pastels."

James: "Which do you want?"

Me: "I don't care. Do you have a preference?"


James: "...I like the smell of vinegar."

Labels: , ,

add to kirtsy | 8:13 PM | 4 comments


All Around the World

Hello, my name is Jennifer, and I'm a Google Analytics-holic.

About a month ago I installed this free tracking program on my blog and my website and am now addicted to checking it. Obsessively. Like way too often.

As my traffic has increased, so has my obsession. I've been working on building a readership by doing all those little things that the blogperts (my new word for blog experts -- do you think it will catch on?) recommend: posting frequently, reading other blogs and making worthwhile comments on them, and simply telling people about my blog. And whaddya know? It's working! That's why they're the blogperts. (I don't think it will catch on. It reminds me too much of the word pervert for some reason.)

I'm dizzy with excitement when I look at the map of visitors to this blog.
In addition to visitors from all over the U.S., folks from Argentina (Córdoba), Australia (Jordanville and Boondall), Canada (North Vancouver), China (Changchun and Foshan), Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo), and Morocco (Aït Hammou) have been here! It's like a little global village, people. But I'm going to have to have a serious emailing-to with my friends from England. Where are they? The U.K. needs some representation, Claire. [If I missed your country or got something incorrect, please don't be mad. Just say hello in the comments section.]

I also discovered that Betsy, a fellow cupcake-lover and no longer just some girl, has added me to her blogroll. I don't know how she found me, but I'm flattered.

Don't worry -- I don't know who my visitors are. I'm not going to start stalking or calling you. The only thing I can see is your city and country of origin. So please, if you're visiting for the first time or are a regular lurker, join the conversation, even if it's just to introduce yourself. I'm also open to suggestions for this blog, on everything from content to design. In fact, I'm hoping to better integrate my website and blog in a few months, complete with a snazzy new design. Get in now if you have an opinion.

But if you really prefer to read quietly, that's good, too. I'm just really glad you're here. Welcome, world!

add to kirtsy | 2:11 PM | 2 comments


My First Tofu (2nd 1st)

[Stephanie over at Cool People I Know (whom I found via Jen Lemen) has tagged her readers to jump in on her meme and provide a list of five firsts. This is my second first. Read the others here.]

The first time I ate tofu I thought it was cheese. Until I tasted it. You know that feeling when you watch someone drinking a glass of cola or iced tea or orange juice and you take a sip of your water or milk or V8 and you're shocked and confused by the discordant taste sensation? My first tofu was like that, only much worse. The pale little cubes on the cafeteria line looked like cheese. And I love cheese. But this was a piece of plain, mushy tofu.

After that I thought I hated tofu. Two nights ago I had a really bad tofu stir-fry that reminded me how much I thought I hated it. But I know that tofu is a lot like vegetables: People think they hate them because they've never had them cooked well. My dad claims to hate all cooked vegetables beyond corn and potatoes. But last Christmas when I sauteed green beans with olive oil and toasted almonds, he decided to try a few. "These don't taste like green beans," he said. I said that he was probably comparing them to the canned variety he'd had in the past. "No," he said. "These don't taste at all like green beans."

For me, good tofu doesn't taste at all like tofu, which, let's face it, has a serious consistency issue and no flavor when it's by itself. But silken tofu adds an interesting consistency and slightly nutty flavor to fruit smoothies. In hot and sour soup, the tofu takes on the lovely tangy flavors of the broth. And I love a good stir-fried tofu when it's crispy outside and silky inside, like the Coconut Curry Vegetables or Vegetarian Ma Po Tofu from P. F. Chang's China Bistro.

My question to you: Tofu or not tofu?

Labels: , ,

add to kirtsy | 11:54 AM | 2 comments


My First Short Story (1st 1st)

Stephanie over at Cool People I Know (whom I found via Jen Lemen) has tagged her readers to jump in on her meme and provide a list of five firsts. Read the others here.

Here's my first first: My First Short Story.

Drawn when I was just a few months shy of six years old, my first short story featured a man-eating dinosaur, weird weather, a wonky-shaped house, and two little boys. Here are the pictures, accompanied by the descriptions I told my mom, which I took from the journal she kept.

September 27, 1981
Jenny drew these pictures and put the book together by herself. The following is what she said the story is.

Page 1: Person is afraid of the dinosaur.

Page 2: Now the dinosaur is eating the person.

Page 3: This is the little boy's brother. He is digging in the sand. It is sunny and suddenly it starts to rain. He is sad because the dinosaur ate his brother.

Page 4: Mother and Father are sad at home because their child is gone.

Page 5: Boy in dinosaur's stomach. Little boy is sad. The other things in dinosaur are bones.

Page 6: Boy got out of dinosaur and is happy. Dinosaur is sad and lost his appetite.

I have no idea why I wrote about a dinosaur eating a little boy on the beach. My interest in dinosaurs never really developed, but I am quite fond of the seashore. I wonder if I was worried about the safety of my little brother, who would have been two years old at the time. I came a long way from my initial disappointment and indifference when he first wrecked my only-child status. Here's an excerpt from my mom's journal on the day he was born:

October 10, 1979
When Denny told Jenny that she had a baby brother, she cried and said, "I wanted a baby sister, not a brother." In about half an hour she changed her mind and said a baby brother is O.K.

More firsts to come.

What are some of yours?

Labels: ,

add to kirtsy | 6:32 PM | 2 comments