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.


Self Reflection

The man behind me in line at the post office smells bad, like a combination of body odor, motor oil, and stale cigarettes. I try to stand as far away from him as possible without creeping out the guy in front of me. But suddenly the man behind me starts to talk, apparently to me. He makes some comments on having to wait in line and trying to have fun regardless. I smile vaguely and mumble an agreement. But of course he isn't done.

He launches into a seemingly random and convoluted story about how he had to lecture someone -- his son, I think -- on acting like a man. Being a man isn't something that happens right away, not even after you've been in the military, he tells me. But his daughter, she had a four-point-grade-average. And why? Because she worked hard. You gotta study and work hard. And learn to be a man. I'm not gonna do it for you.

The line moves forward, and I'm next. Someone else is talking loudly about a local ski resort, and suddenly the man behind me switches subjects and launches into a treatise on the place. They have free skiing this time of year, he says, to get you hooked so you'll come back and pay later. He says he worked there for five years. I ask him if he skis. He says no, and seems to see the humor in this. I can't help thinking he's making the whole thing up. But when I look online later, I find out that the resort is indeed running a free ski ticket special.

The conversation is confusing and makes me feel embarrassed, but now I'm too invested in it to just turn around and ignore the man. I tell myself that he's probably lonely, possibly homeless, and perhaps delusional. Maybe he doesn't even have a son or daughter. Or maybe he does, and they don't want anything to do with him.

I don't want to talk to him, but I tell myself that he's a person who deserves respect. And what harm can a bit of conversation do? But even as I'm trying to be magnanimous, I notice myself glancing at the faces of the people in line behind him, wondering if they think I'm there with him, or if they pity me for being the sucker who got roped into talking to him. Or even worse, maybe they're thinking how kind I am for taking pity on him. I catch myself caring what these strangers think of me, and I feel ashamed.

The mail clerk calls "Next!" and I walk away from the one-sided conversation, pausing just long enough to let the man finish his sentence. I get swept up in the details of my mail and lose all track of the man. I have no idea what kind of transaction he does or whether he leaves the post office before me.

I leave, thinking about how I tried my best to see this outcast as a real person. But I also know that I did it halfheartedly, with reservation, and a secret sense of accomplishment at being the sort of person who will pay attention to a dirty, rambling man. And then I feel shame at such watery pride. My attempt to be openhearted is a thin gruel that amounts to nothing more than self-righteousness. It's sour and unfulfilling.

I feel even worse a few minutes later during a phone call with a friend when I complain about the wait in the post office and the chatty, smelly man behind me. I treated him like half a man to his face and then scorned him in private.

What kind of a person does that make me?

It makes me the kind of person I dislike. I once lambasted a friend of my parents' who complained about the homeless people panhandling outside of his office. If they really wanted a job, he claimed, they could get one. I was baffled and hurt when my dad agreed with his friend. I reminded him of how many jobs he'd personally lost due to lay-offs and plant closings. There but for the grace of God, I said. I lectured my elders on how good people end up down-and-out due to circumstances that that they couldn't foresee and that we don't know.

These were the same lectures I gave myself ten years ago as a volunteer coordinator for a mobile soup kitchen. The program fed dozens of people each night on the streets of east London. I was fresh out of college, alone in a new country, and floundering in a role that lacked adequate management and supervision. I spent most of my time hiding out in the office, ordering supplies, creating newsletters, and making the monthly volunteer schedules. I went out on the van just a few times during my year with the program. I was afraid to interact with the homeless men and women, afraid to be on the streets at night, afraid that I would look afraid. I let that fear guide me, even though the interactions themselves were never very frightening. But I made myself the wizard behind the curtain, keeping both the volunteers and the clients at arm's length.

I'm uncomfortable around the homeless, the elderly, the disabled, the infirm, the incoherent. This makes me uncomfortable with myself. To make up for it, I acknowledge misfits in the post office. I always try to look homeless people in the eye. When they ask for money, I either give a little something or say, "Sorry, not today." I try to give them a small piece of the respect I've lost for myself, and in that way, try to regain it.

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add to kirtsy | 8:26 PM | 1 comments


Tell Your Story: An Interview with Jen Lee

The magical Jen Lee, photo by Jen Lemen
Some things I love:

  • new friends with old souls;

  • beautiful creative projects;

  • learning how to do something new; and

  • getting to the heart of a story.

This audio interview
that I did with the radiant Jen Lee envelops all four of these things. First of all, my lovely new friend Jen has a wise soul that practically glows with creativity. To create this interview, she taught me a thing or two about using Garage Band on my new Mac. But the best part of this little interview is getting to hear a piece of Jen's story, including how and why she created Don't Write: A Reluctant Journal and Solstice: Stories of Light in the Dark, two projects that are still available for purchase on her website. (Each are part of limited edition runs, so don't wait to order them!)

Treat yourself to a warm beverage, close your eyes, and allow yourself to soak in Jen's voice as she talks about having the courage to write and making our voices heard.

(Once you click through to the audio link, just click "Play" to listen to the interview online.)

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add to kirtsy | 12:07 AM | 4 comments


The Life of a Writer

me and my love, selves portrait; rockport, massachusetts, october 2008

Some Days

by Billy Collins

Some days I put the people in their places at the table,
bend their legs at the knees,
if they come with that feature,
and fix them into the tiny wooden chairs.

All afternoon they face one another,
the man in the brown suit,
the woman in the blue dress,
perfectly motionless, perfectly behaved.

But other days, I am the one
who is lifted up by the ribs,
then lowered into the dining room of a dollhouse
to sit with the others at the long table.

Very funny,
but how would you like it
if you never knew from one day to the next
if you were going to spend it

striding around like a vivid god,
your shoulders in the clouds,
or sitting down there amidst the wallpaper,
staring straight ahead with your little plastic face?

"Some Days" from Picnic, Lightning, by Billy Collins, © 1998. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Online source: Academy of American Poets,

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add to kirtsy | 11:52 PM | 1 comments


When things are quiet and messy

I know that it's been quiet around here lately. I've been rather quiet on other fronts, too. I'm not doing much writing beyond what my current paying projects require. I'm not happy about this. My mind feels dull and cluttered, much like the view from my kitchen window: a persistently overcast sky above a leaf strewn yard. Yes, things are grey and messy around here. Honestly, it's making me feel a bit bleak and hopeless. But I'm choosing to believe that this is the quiet before the creative storm.

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add to kirtsy | 1:08 AM | 6 comments


Christmas in November

Is this the earliest you've ever voted?
Me: This is the earliest I've ever done anything.

A few winters ago, I became keenly aware of my status as an adult when I complained about the snow. Up until then, I'd been more concerned with the magic and beauty a snowfall brings. Suddenly, I was a grown up bemoaning the other things that snow brings: shoveling, cleaning off cars, navigating icy streets. A small piece of my innocence and childhood was gone with that moment.

Today marks another adult milestone. I was more excited this election morning than I have been on a Christmas morning in years. Although to make the analogy more accurate, I suppose this morning was like going to sit on Santa's lap to tell him what I'd like for being a good responsible citizen all year. The equivalent of opening my present will come tonight (or possibly tomorrow) when the new president is announced. I'd just better not end up with a lump of coal in my stocking and a dud in the Whitehouse.

I was so excited to vote that I got up e-a-r-l-y and was at the polls before they opened at 7:00am. My husband had to go to work early, so we went together. If you look at the time stamp on my last blog post, you'll see that I didn't get much sleep. Well, actually, that time is misleading. I started the post around 11:00pm, but didn't publish it until after 1:00am and didn't go to bed until nearly 2:00. This is a normal night for me. Getting up before first light is not a normal morning. I felt like the little boy in that Disney commercial who says, "We're too excited to sleep!"

Now there's a very long day of w-a-i-t-i-n-g ahead of me. And as soon as this vanilla latte wears off, I may need a nap.

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add to kirtsy | 8:26 AM | 5 comments


Hello, my name is:

Awhile back, I wrote about my failed attempt to rename myself and the lingering desire to try it again. To sum up the original story: During my freshman year of college, I tried to add a vowel to the end of my name in hopes that it would make me stand out from the sea of Jenn's in my generation. Due to a friend's honest question and my timidity, it didn't stick.

But over the past year, I've realized that the name Jenna calls to me, beyond my desire to be different . There's something about it that appeals to me. I wondered if it could feel like home, but I wasn't sure I was ready to rename myself. In June, I wrote, "Names get into our being. They're part of the story we tell to ourselves and about ourselves. I don't know if I can cast aside Jenn or Jennifer for Jenna."

Three months after writing that, I decided to take Jenna out for a test run. I've always been fascinated with the idea of going to a place where nobody knows me and creating a new persona for myself; not because I'm ashamed of who I am in my "real" life, but because so often I get bogged down in who I'm expected to be. Or more accurately, who I'm accustomed to being, which, despite my best attempts to live authentically, does not always line up with who I really am or want to be.

So in September, I traveled to the woods of New Hampshire to meet more than 100 strangers at the Squam Art Workshops. I "knew" a few of the women there through blogging, but had met none of them in person and had never spoken with any of them on the phone. The extent of our interaction had been reading and commenting on each others' blogs and sharing an occasional email. It was as good a place as any for my name experiment.

Two months earlier, I trotted out my new name a few times while at BlogHer in San Francisco, but I had a hard time being consistent with it because I'd already met several of the people there. I wasn't completely ready to commit to that extra letter.

But for five days in New England, I said, "Hi, my name is Jenna." For five days, I heard people say, "Hey, Jenna...." and then realized they were talking to me. If I'm being completely honest, I felt like I was lying about my identity. It was just one tiny extra syllable on top of "Jenn," but I may as well have introduced myself as Mathilda. My own name sounded foreign to me.

And yet, I stuck with it during the whole retreat. I resisted the urge to abandon my experiment and fall back on the familiar. So now a whole group of people know me as Jenna. I told one of my closest and oldest friends about this experiment, and she admitted that she could never think of me as a Jenna. I understand that. The verdict is still out on whether or not I can.

Then today I read something that Karen Maezen Miller wrote on her blog:

Our mind is so swiftly conditioned to an acquired understanding of names and labels. Like all forms of delusion, we attach and identify erroneously with names when they are just tools. Identifying yourself with a certain name is like mistaking the fork for the food.

It reminds me of Popeye's famously jaunty song: I yam what I yam, and that's all that I yam.

I am Jennifer/Jennie/Jenn/Jenna Ann McGuiggan. Call me what you will, I'm still me. And that's all that I yam.

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add to kirtsy | 11:17 PM | 1 comments