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.


Saturday Sayings: Moonlight & Melody

"moonlight on our shoulders" by egroj

"Because of your melodic nature, the moonlight never misses an appointment."

(from a fortune cookie)


add to kirtsy | 8:27 PM | 4 comments


Practical Kindness (update on Jen Ballantyne)

Last month I wrote about Jen Ballantyne, a woman who is living bravely and honestly with stage-four colon cancer and the knowledge that she may have fewer than three years to live. One visit to her blog and you realize that Jen, also known as Jenni, tells it like it is: the fear, the pain, the confusion, and yes, even the joy.

In my last post about Jenni, I wrote about the "doctrine of substituted love" and encouraged us to bear her burdens of fear and pain. I truly believe that such metaphysical efforts translate into physical results. But it's good to go beyond the mystical and into the tangible realm. Several wonderful women, Bella at Beyond the Map,Meg Casey, and Jen Lemen are orgainizing a practical way that you can help Jenni. They are working to set up an eBay auction. A PayPal donations system is already in place. (See the donate button in the sidebar.) The money will be used to help pay for Jenni's treatment and those forms of care and pain management that will not be covered by insurance, such as acupuncture, massage, and naturopathy. The funds will also help to create a trust for her six-year-old son. These are things Jenni desperately needs, but can't afford. This is help she won't ever ask for, because she is too worried about everyone else. Get the full details on how you can help here. Donated items for the auction are being accepted until April 18, 2008. I'll post an update when the auction goes live.

A friend recently asked me how blogging ties in with my business as a freelance writer and editor. I said that this blog is a place for me to write regularly and showcase my writing style to my potential clients. Some posts, like this one, are more personal than others. Then again, even my essay-like posts usually revolve around a personal topic.

In many ways, I'm not very good at separating out the personal and the professional. My husband, who has mastered his emotions in a way that I sometimes envy and sometimes pity, reminds me that certain things are "just business." And while I try to take this to heart, that's just the problem -- I take things to heart.

I work and play with words because I love them. I tell stories -- yours, mine, and others -- because I love them -- the stories and the people in them. When I edit a manuscript for a client, I want that book to be its absolute best. I take it personally. When I write an article for a publication, I want readers to care about the issues. When I post on this blog, I want to connect with you.

Where does the personal end and the professional begin? For me, the line blurs a little more each day.

So if you're new to this blog and wonder why I'm posting about the story of a woman with colon cancer in Australia, it's because I truly believe that we're all interconnected. Our stories matter, because ultimately, they're all part of one larger story. And I always invite you to tell yours in the comments.

photo credit: icy beauty by josef.stuefer

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add to kirtsy | 2:09 AM | 2 comments


Lean Into the Wind

Last Thursday, the sky was blue, the air warm, the wind strong. I put on a new pair of black workout pants with hot pink racing stripes and set out on a walk around the neighborhood. I moved quickly, pushing my feet against the pavement, my body against the wind, my mind against distractions. I don't exercise enough, and this was my chance to burn some of the calories that accumulate while I sit in front of a computer all day.

Step-step-step! Walk-walk-walk! Push-push-push!

And then suddenly, somewhere on Danbury Drive, I remembered the pleasure of just walking. I used to just walk all the time: On hot summer streets as a teenager, with no escape from the small-town high school dramas in which I starred, looking for some privacy beyond my bedroom walls. Around my small, green, safe college campus, alone or with a friend, in-between classes or late at night with a clove cigarette. In London, to the outdoor market or in public squares, trying to blend in with the crowds, lonely, and desperate to make a connection. I used to just walk.

Now, I suit up, head out, stare ahead. I try to maximize my effort, combine my exercise and relaxation into one multi-tasking jaunt. I'll stop and smell the roses, but I'd better break a sweat along the way.

But on Thursday, I slowed down and just walked. I felt the wind blowing hard against my front, pushing against me. Instead of trying to power through it, I let it wash over me. When I dropped my own resistance, the wind became just another element in the landscape surrounding me. I turned a corner and the wind was now at my back, pushing me forward ever so slightly. I turned another and it swept over my face, making my ears cold and blowing my hair this way and that. And still, I just walked. I slowed down, uncoiled, and did an extra lap around Quincy and Brattleboro just for the joy of it.

In all life lessons, symbols, and metaphors, the leap from the particular to the universal is inexact. What does it mean if I tell you that on Thursday I learned to lean into the wind? Should I spell it out with musings on "accepting what is" or "going with the flow"? I can link to this useful little post by Seth Godin about solving problems by leaning into them. Or should I leave it up to you to find the meaning in that phrase: lean into the wind?

I walk every day, even if it's just around my house. I should walk more. I want to walk more. It's easy, natural, thoughtless. Walking is a kind of meditation. And yet, some days, it feels so difficult. Sometimes my body is tired, my legs feel out of sync with the rest of me, and every movement forward requires great effort, as if I've never walked before or have been walking for a lifetime without end. Walking feels herky-jerky, cumbersome, laborious. On those days, I just want to sit, exhausted and still, resting all the parts of me. But resting turns into something else, and soon my mind is doing all the walking, frantically rushing from this problem to that worry. It's on those days that I remember to go out and just walk. And on the best days, everything flows.

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add to kirtsy | 2:39 AM | 4 comments


Unmasking Ourselves

photo by exfordy

This is determination: Leaving at 4:00am to drive five and a half hours for a weekend with someone you've only met once. That's what my new friend Lisa, the head Nerdy Renegade herself, did last Friday. After planning to arrive on Saturday, we changed plans so Lisa could make it from Dayton to Greensburg without getting stuck in the blizzard that buried Ohio.

Lisa and I found each other last year in the world wide web of blogging. And then last July, on the first day of BlogHer in Chicago, as I was walking from the breakfast buffet to my seat, I heard a woman say, "Nerdy Renegade News." I whipped around, precariously balancing my coffee and mini-muffins, and said: "Nerdy Renegade News?! Are you Lisa from Ohio? I'm Jennifer from The Word Cellar!"

A few moments of squealing and hello-ing ensued, only to be cut short by the start of the morning seminar. A bit later, at a breakout session, I walked into the room and spied Lisa next to an empty seat. I sat down and assured her that I wasn't stalking her. We hit it off immediately, giggling like tweens over our blog crush across the room.

We continued to stay in touch by reading and commenting on each other's blogs and emailing every so often. Finally, Lisa suggested that we arrange a road trip to take our friendship to the next level: from virtual to physical. (And yes, I realize that sounds weird. And no, it wasn't like that. Even though while we were making dinner together one night, I exclaimed: "This must be what it's like to have a wife!" Ask any woman and she'll tell you that she really could use a wife.)

The most surprising part of the weekend was how easy it all was. I've been seeking new opportunities for friendship and community for at least a year, but always had this idea in the back of my head that I'm too old to be making new friends. I felt like it would just be too much work to meet new people and start from scratch.

This weekend I remembered that making new friends doesn't feel like work. Meeting business contacts, networking, and schmoozing -- those can feel like work. Falling into a friendship with a kindred spirit feels more like play.

Another interesting thing about making new friends as an adult is that it frees you from expectations. My friends from my younger years know me like we're family. Those long-term relationships can have a wonderful sense of intimacy and comfort. But there's also an unconscious, self-imposed rule to conform to a specific role. I don't mean that they foist their expectations upon me. I mean that it's easy for me to fall into the familiar patterns of our friendship; to stick to the script; to be the same old person.

But as we grow and evolve, we don't always know how to share these changes with the people who've known us to be this or that. If we're not careful, we stop being ourselves -- our current and up-to-date selves -- around the people who've known us the longest.

And there's a bonus with new friends: They're blank slates! They haven't already heard my favorite stories a dozen times. Which means they don't secretly roll their eyes when I pull out my stock anecdotes. And trust me, I have a lot of them. (Stick around here long enough and you can roll your eyes at me, too!)

I'm grateful for the new friends I'm making through blogging, as well as the ones who've known me for years. Each shows me a different side of myself, and I'm learning to be authentic with both sets.

(And now all you former Girl Scouts, please sing along with me:
Make new friends, but keep the old;
One is silver and the other's gold.
I don't agree with assigning precious metal status to friendships, but gosh it's a catchy tune. Now, let's do it in a round!)

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add to kirtsy | 9:51 PM | 5 comments


What Makes a Good Novel?

photo by a trying youth

Back in November, I lost my mind and decided to participate in NaBloPoMo and NaNoWriMo. Now, NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, wasn't too bad. I went a little batty trying to come up with a new blog post every day, but I did it.

NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, was a different story. The goal was to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, with quantity trumping quality. I made it to 4,626 words. Which is exactly 4,626 more than I'd written before NaNoWriMo, so I'm considering it a success.

Some interesting characters sprouted up in those nine pages, and I may go back and see what they're up to. There's Anna, an American living in London. And Ian, a Scottish guy who sells puppets in Covent Garden. I know, the puppet thing is weird. I have no idea where it came from.

To gear up for NaNoWriMo, I bought No Plot? No Problem!, written by the event's founder, Chris Baty. He suggests creating two lists to help figure out a vague plot direction. The first list is what makes a good novel, and the second is what makes a boring or depressing novel. Of course, these are completely personal and need not be based on anything more than an inkling, a whim, or a fancy.

Like the puppets, I was surprised at what appeared on my lists.

What Makes a Good Novel

  • Strong plot (a page turner)
  • Interesting characters
  • Relationships
  • Satisfying, happy endings
  • The feeling that I could live in the novel’s world (and do live there while I’m reading it)
  • English setting
  • Good (but not extensive) descriptions
  • The passage of seasons
  • Believable dialogue
  • Intellectual pursuits
  • Intersections of multiple story lines
  • A sense of mystery and intrigue
  • Romance and true love
  • Unexpected connections
  • Drama
  • Comedy

What Makes a Boring or Depressing Novel

  • Long-winded passages of description of scenery and setting, especially if it involves directional attributes like north, south, east, or west
  • Too much death
  • Industrial topics
  • Obviousness
  • Adventure stories of man vs. nature
  • Anything set in a jungle
  • Plots with such a wide scope and so many characters that I need a legend to keep it all straight
  • Heavy historical perspective
  • Most detective mysteries
  • Ghosts, demons, and monsters
  • Violence
  • Bad character names
  • Ugliness
Reading over these lists again, I can see there are no hard and fast rules for my preferences. I've enjoyed a few historical and adventure stories in my time. And sometimes a happy, satisfying ending feels too cliché.

What would be on your lists? Where would you put the puppets?

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add to kirtsy | 1:23 AM | 5 comments


Monday Mood Lifter

Need something to lift the Monday blues? Take two of these and call me in the morning.

"We are the ones that we've been waiting for."

"In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything that's false about hope."

"Nothing can stand in the way of the power of million of voices calling for change."

"Yes we can."

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add to kirtsy | 1:58 AM | 1 comments


Letter to My Body

My Dear Body,

Oh the times we've had! Do you remember when...

Birth: We came out mooning the world! Our poor, petite mother was forced to give birth to a breach baby. We came out butt-first, which was a good indicator of how we'd relate to authority and being told what to do later in life.

Age 4: Remember when we had to drink that thick, pink stuff and stand on a little moving platform at the hospital, after complaining of tummy aches? Yeah, that was weird. Dad later discovered us drinking water out of the bathroom sink stopper. And that explained a lot.

Age 6: Until we had our adenoids removed, we couldn't really smell anything. But after the operation, it was like a whole new world. Manure was a big first. Remember that time we drove past the farms on the way to Aunt Mid's house and asked, "What's that smell?" Mom and Dad said, "It's the cows." And we said, "I don't like the cows!"

Age 8: Ohmygosh! Remember our Strawberry Shortcake bike? The one with the training wheels, pink and white streamer handles, and the plastic, white wicker basket? It was so fun when Dad took us to the parking lot below our house and taught us to ride. We even got good enough to take off the training wheels. And it's true what they say: You never forget. We got on a bike recently after a 15-year hiatus. And it was still fun -- legs pumping, wind in our hair, laughing all the way!

Age 10: We rushed around the rink on white roller skates, feeling the stale air blow past our face. For brief moments, it was like flying -- all to songs like "What's Love Got to Do with It?" by Tina Turner. Indeed, we didn't know.

Age 11: We were tall. Until sixth grade. Then everyone -- boys especially -- started to catch up with us. We were no longer one of the tallest kids in the class. And our friends started to call us the Incredible Shrinking Woman. That was funny. (It wasn't so funny when they changed it to the Incredible Shrinking Slut because we had so many friends who were boys. How could we be a slut? We hadn't even kissed a boy!)

Age 12: Tristan, our childhood sweetheart, finally kissed us! It tingled, didn't it? And he didn't seem to mind our braces, even though we felt self-conscious about them. When he finally French kissed us some time later, we instinctively knew that he was doing it wrong. After all, if you're going to use your tongue, it should do more than just lie there like a dead fish, right?

Age 13: Ah, this was the start of the ankle issues. Remember? We walked past Angela on the way to gym class. She was hobbling down the steps with her crutches. We thought to ourself, "I wonder what it's like to be on crutches." We were a little naive and thought it might be kind of fun. Half an hour later we were sitting on the cold basketball court, crying and grasping our ankle while the other girls kept running around us. That layup went wrong and we ended up with a nasty sprain that put us on crutches for two weeks. (That was our first lesson in the power of thoughts to become things.)

Age 14: We sprained the other ankle and ended up on crutches for another two weeks. This time we were running away from a boy for a prank we were pulling. We overestimated our ability to take the steps in a flying leap. Jumping six at a time was a bit much.

Age 16: About this time we learned the intoxicating effects of alcohol. And boys.

Age 18: This was the summer we had our tonsils removed after being sick every month of our senior year of high school. We'd just finished a big research paper on sleep and grilled the anesthesiologist about how the anesthesia compared to different phases of sleep. He said he didn't know. We worried about his professional expertise.

Age 25: Weight, which we've always considered an issue, suddenly got much harder at the quarter-century mark. Maybe it was the birth control pills, or possibly the effects of sitting at an office job for two years. Even now we wonder where these hips came from.

Age 31: We overcame a huge fear and started going to the gym. We finally understood all that blather about endorphines and energy from exercise. (Isn't it about time we got back to that?)

It's been a whily-twirly ride, Body. Sometimes we remember too much of the bad. And sometimes we're much too hard on the way we look. Let's look in the mirror and say "Beautiful!" Let's give thanks that all our parts still work. Let's dance in the living room more often, feel the warmth of the sun on our skin, savor the taste of fresh cherries. Let's give yoga another chance. Let's be strong and confident and sexy. Let's focus on pleasure, not decadence. Let's look forward to looking back on another 32 years of living together.

Your Mind & Spirit

This post is part of BlogHer's Letter to My Body Initiative.

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add to kirtsy | 7:19 PM | 3 comments