The Stories I Tell ~ from The Word Cellar

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

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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.


The Cost of War

Today on my front doorstep...

Kids: Trick or Treat!

Me: Happy Halloween! Okay, let's see... are you Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz? And you're death, or the grim reaper. And what about you? Tell me who you are.

Girl in an interesting mélange of camouflage and glitter: I'm an Army Diva!

Me: Wow. You're the first Army Diva I've seen.

Army Diva: There's another one, too.

add to kirtsy | 8:28 PM | 2 comments


Whispering Sweet Nothings

James, also known as The Husband, has a habit of talking out loud just as he starts to fall asleep. A lot of the time this consists of grunts and mumbles and surprised "huh!" sounds. But just as often, I get snippets of narrative that make me wish I could see inside his mind.

He freaked me out the first time this happened, since he sounded wide awake when he said, "Look at that guy in the yellow coat!"

Here are two of his most recent gems:

They got these chairs on the boat of life, next to the birthing and deathing sections.... Do you want to let the hot air balloons off from there?

It's going to be tough as pie to eat all the jovial cookie treats!

There's wisdom and profundity in these, I'm sure of it.

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add to kirtsy | 9:55 PM | 4 comments


Kinder Days

Since my last post was a little on the negative side, here's a rosier view of my childhood.

Age 4 or 5: I'm in Pre-school or Kindergarten, and we get to do great things like finger paint with pistachio pudding and play with a wooden train that's almost big enough to ride on. But little Shawn is not a happy camper. My compassionate side emerges early as I try to comfort this blubbery boy. Mrs. Oskin, my awesome teacher, tells my mom, "She can do more with him than I can."

Age 6: It's Christmas morning, the year before the truth came out about where all those presents really come from in the middle of the night. I desperately want a bike. I unwrap all of my presents, and while the colored pencils are nice, there is no bike in sight. My parents ask me to go out to the kitchen for something. And there, in all its shiny blue glory, is my bike, complete with a white plastic, wicker basket, streamers pouring out of the handlebars, and a jangly bell that let's you know I'm a-comin! It's! My! Bike! I can't contain my excitement and shout: "I knew he wouldn't forget!" God bless Santa.

Age 10: Mrs. Bradley, the hobbit-like librarian with a hookish nose and hawkish eyes, who routinely falls asleep in class, tells me about an essay contest. I can tell that she assumes I'll enter it. I assume I'll enter it, too. After all, I'm the brainy type and have proven that I play well with words. But I don't want to write this essay. The topic doesn't interest me. And that's when it happens: my first major epiphany. I suddenly realize that I don't have to write the essay if I don't want to. I feel overwhelmed and overjoyed by this revelation of autonomy. And from then on out, it's people's expectations be damned! I'm charting my own course and marching to my own drummer! Okay, so it's all that within the confines of a very well-behaved childhood. I became a rebel with a conscience and just enough fear to keep me from breaking out completely.

Unknown Age: My family vacationed in Ocean City, NJ almost every year of my childhood and adolescence. One afternoon, after eating pizza, a sno-cone, and some caramel corn, I ask for a funnel cake, sure that there's no way I'll get away with such gluttony and debauchery. My mom, in a serotonin-high probably brought on by the sea air (or the sugar), says okay. I can't believe my good fortune and say, "I love vacation! You let us have whatever we want!" Thinking back on it, my parents often went out of their way to give my brother and me what we wanted, from a backyard pool and summer vacations to countless music and dance lessons. I guess that makes up for the time they almost allowed me to have cosmetic surgery on my gigantic ears.

add to kirtsy | 1:12 AM | 1 comments


A Series of Unfortunate Events

What can you remember from childhood?

Age 4: I wake up. The hallway and bedrooms of our ranch house are dark. It feels like the middle of the night, but I have no way of knowing what time it really is. There are lights and voices and phone calls happening out in the kitchen and the living room. My parents are awake and something is wrong. My teenage cousin is coming to babysit me and my baby brother because my dad's father has had a heart attack. I can't really really remember Grandpap McGuiggan, but I slept with Muffin, the brown and white stuffed dog he gave me, until I went to college.

Age 6: I'm going to have an operation to remove my adenoids. Mom and Dad had originally signed me up for cosmetic surgery taken me to a doctor because I had a perpetual cold, but that first wacko doctor thought he should also perform cosmetic surgery on me because my ears stuck out so far from my head and they were afraid I'd be ridiculed at school. But the a second ear, nose, and throat doctor was more concerned with my constant stuffy nose thought that I'd be better served without the ear pinning. (Yay for second opinions!) It's the night before I go to the hospital in Pittsburgh. I walk around the house saying goodbye to things: Goodbye dining room. Goodbye couch. Goodbye little brother. While in the hospital I watch a video with Mr. Rogers explaining that I'll go to sleep for a little while and then I'll wake up after the operation. He was right. Of course he was. He's Mr. Rogers. Twelve years later, after a full school year of sore throats, I'll have another operation to remove my tonsils and wonder why they didn't just do it all at once. (Edited 10/20/07 after having dinner with my parents and finding out that I've been telling this story wrong all these years. Dad said, "We always called you 'Dumbo' with affection!" I was a lucky little girl.)

Age 7: My second grade teacher mocks me in front of the class when I say I don't know what street I live on. I DO know that I live on Harrison Avenue, but she didn't ask for my address or for the name of my avenue. She asked for my street. My friend Julie lives on Third Street, but I don't live on a Street. I live on an Avenue. This penchant for exactness will later drive my husband crazy.

Age 9: I make my mom talk to my third grade teacher because Amy H. was tested for the gifted program and I wasn't, even though I make better grades than her. I finally join the gifted program in sixth grade. Much later I realize that while Amy may have had average grades, this had absolutely nothing to do with her stellar intellect.

This post was inspired by this mighty blogger, this superhero, and this cheesy gal. I like this format and think I might play around with it -- especially since this sampling makes it sound like my childhood was full of nothing but grief, pain, humiliation, and frustration. I promise: I was a happy child and am well adjusted. My head finally caught up with my ears. But my nose was a source of contention in middle school.

Got a timeline? Share it in the comments!

add to kirtsy | 1:21 AM | 4 comments


Evolution of a Writer

Between a Rock and a Hard Place, September 2007

Somewhere along the line, I developed a literary hierarchy. It looked like this:

Magazine Articles
Newspaper Stories
Comic Books and Graphic Novels

Poetry topped the totem pole. Perhaps because it seemed so posh and high falutin' to my young mind, I thought it was the bee's knees of the written word. Maybe that's why I wrote a lot of poetry as a child and teenager. Was I aspiring to greatness? It's possible. But more probable is that adding line breaks and vague metaphors is a great way to jazz up pedestrian prose and purge all of that teenage angst. (My childhood poetry was less angsty and more cutesy. And it may have been better than the adolescent attempts. I was especially pleased when my award-winning "Five Little Flowers" poem made its way into an anthology during the fifth grade.)

I didn't write a lot of fiction. Short stories seemed like too much work, especially next to my admittedly anemic ideas of poetry. All those elements of plot, character, climax, and denouement just seemed like too much to dream up and keep organized. I internalized the idea that I wasn't a good enough writer, or creative enough person, to write short stories. And a novel? Surely you jest.

I submitted my angsty poems with my application to The Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts. I was rejected two years in a row, but my second attempt did get me a spot in the two-week-long, runner-up SHARE program (Summer Honors Arts Resident Experience). While there, I tentatively branched out into short stories. My group was given the word "heat" as a writing prompt. I wrote a short story about a homeless woman who had to warm herself in front of barrels of fire. Her luck finally turned and she got her own apartment -- which then burned to the ground.

While I usually steered clear of writing fiction, I read a lot of it. And I considered it to be superior to non-fiction. Even as recently as my 20's, I secretly scoffed at people who preferred to read non-fiction. I thought their minds and imaginations were inferior to those of us who had Literature Degrees. La-dee-da! Ironically, I considered fiction to be the "real stories." I wasn't interested in memoirs, most magazine or newspaper articles, or anything dealing with historical or actual events. And essays? I didn't know that was even a legitimate term. Who reads essays besides high school English teachers?

But oh how I love David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell -- both in print and on the radio. Give me an hour to listen to "This American Life" and I'm a happy camper. I dug Bill Bryson's witty insights after living in England for a year. One of the seminal influences of my adolescence was Robert Fulghum, author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It. I even crafted my high school graduation speech around one of Fulghum's essays called "Giants, Wizards, and Dwarfs." When I extolled the virtues of being an individual and asked, "Where do the mermaids stand?", I think I brought my French teacher to tears.

In my college creative writing class, the pieces I most liked writing -- and the ones that came easiest to me -- fell into the category of narrative essay. I loved capturing real people as characters, relaying tales of the real-life wackiness and poignant moments that surrounded me. There was my roommate who turned out to have schizophrenia; the time my teenage brother lectured me for using the word "shit" and told me -- an English major! -- that only people with limited vocabularies use swear words; and the moody nighttime walks I took with the brooding, clove-smoking actor I never ended up dating.

A few years ago I discovered the term "creative nonfiction" and things began to click. It was slowly dawning on me that my true passion for writing is non-fiction. I love the personal essay and was thrilled to find out that this was a valid form of expression. I never thought of myself as a journalist until I realized that I could tell real stories as stories: facts embedded within a narrative arc. The idea of "narrative journalism" moved journalism way up the totem pole for me.

Actually, I have to admit that my nice little construct has fallen apart. Poetry no longer seems better than journalism. Non-fiction is no longer sub-par to fiction. It took me a long time to uncover my writing strengths and passions. It's one of those obvious epiphanies that had me smacking my forward to say "Eureka!" and shaking my head to say "Duh!" all at the same time.

An interesting thing has happened now that I've embraced the non-fiction oeuvre: I want to write a novel.

For years I've thought about writing a novel. Mostly, I've thought that there was no way I'd ever write one. If short stories seemed fraught with dangerous elements like plot and character development, a novel was just out of the question. I mean, how on earth would I make up all that stuff?

I've read about novelists who say that their characters take on lives of their own, directing the plot with their actions. These writers say they often sit back and let the story go where the story must. I've long envied those writers. And never, ever thought I could be one of them.

Then I heard about NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month. One 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Sound insane? Yes. And I think I'm going to do it. The sheer lunacy of cramming that much fiction into one month means that my standards will have to go way down. The inner critic who would normally make me slave over a paragraph will just have to take a leave of absence while I bang out a shitty first draft.

That's the whole thrust of NaNoWriMo: To aim for quantity, not quality. And by so doing, to achieve something that might otherwise feel beyond our capabilities.

I have no plot. But according to Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, that's fine. I'm about one-quarter of the way through his book, No Plot? No Problem!. So far it hasn't helped me to overcome the no plot problem, but I'm hopeful. The novel writing experience starts on November 1, so I don't have that long to worry about it.

There's a small chance that I'll chicken out, but I think I owe it to myself to join the tens of thousands of others around the world who will be trying to write an average of 1,666.66 words each day. (Hm, that's rather an evil looking number...)

By announcing my intention here, I'm hoping some of my readers will offer their support and encouragement or even decide to join in and write their own slapdash novel next month. Oh, and I'm also open to plot or character suggestions. If you happen to have some lying about that you aren't going to use, please send them my way. Maybe they'll take on a life of their own and end up in my pages.

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add to kirtsy | 7:35 PM | 5 comments


Small is Beautiful

See that new button on the side of the page? Isn't it lovely? In a land where bigger is constantly touted as better, and size matters most in everything from McMansions to McMeals, it's nice to remember that small can be beautiful. And I'm not talking about in a good-things-come-in-small-packages-diamonds-are-forever kind of way. (Although good things often do come in small packages. But diamonds, while hearty, are not indestructible. But I digress...)

Inspired by their session at BlogHer '07, Rachelle Mee-Chapman (a.k.a. Magpie Girl) and Jen Lemen are reminding us that blogs (and other endeavors) don't have to be big to be beautiful. Behold the Small is Beautiful Manifesto:

  • We believe stories are valuable, no matter how many people read them.
  • We believe following your passion is more important that watching your site meter.
  • We believe in the handmade, the first try, the small start, and the good effort.
  • We believe that small is beautiful.

Find out who else is part of this little neighborhood, consider moving in yourself, and check out the Rachelle's Small is Beautiful Saturdays.

The Small Is Beautiful Manifesto

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add to kirtsy | 1:30 AM | 3 comments