Erika Hoffman became a bit concerned about her own state of mind after reading a series of articles about dementia, a memory-loss condition which afflicted her late father, and decided to take action.
What happened next was downright laughable.
A story Hoffman wrote — entitled, “You Smell That?” — leads off the second chapter of the recently-published “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Too Funny!” book, in a section called “I Can’t Believe I Did That.”
The story in the long-running “Chicken Soup” book series recounts a daily habit she developed during the COVID-19 pandemic of testing her sense of smell with cologne. Not normally a perfume wearer, she writes, she’d spritz some onto her arm during her seclusion at home and if she could detect the scent, she’d jubilantly announce to herself (and the family’s dachshunds), “Another day COVID-free!”
Hoffman eventually puts the cologne away after she’s vaccinated. But many months later, after reading a series of stories about dementia, she retrieves the bottle — a birthday gift given to her by friend Margaret de St. Aubin — out of concern that loss of smell is an early sign of memory loss and impaired judgment. After her father Henry’s experience with the condition, and reflecting on the subject of aging and brain function, Hoffman decides to test her olfactory abilities again with de St. Aubin’s gift.
The rest of the tale involves a magnifying glass, a bit of Italian, some fine print and a startling revelation about what she thought was “the nicest perfume I’d ever been given.”
The story is the 17th Hoffman has had published over the last dozen years in the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book series, which began in 1993 and now includes more than 250 titles. A new book is added to that list each month; more than 100 million books have been sold in the series so far and been translated into more than 40 languages. Nearly 30 years after the first “Chicken Soup” book was sold, the brand now includes a podcast, education programs, a line of pet food and films.
“Chicken Soup for the Soul: Too Funny!” is the third humor collection in the series and contains 101 true stories — written by people like Hoffman who lived through the experiences they’ve written about. The stories are described by the book’s publisher as “embarrassing, hilarious, and truly relatable.” Readers have given the book, which was published in April, a 4.9 (out of 5) star rating on Amazon.com, with reviewers describing it as “soul healing,” “hilarious” and “so funny and heartwarming.”
A retired educator,
now a writer
Hoffman and her husband, Byron, were married in 1977. They moved to Chatham County when he took a job here as an internist at the old Chatham Hospital. The couple was featured in a story in the April 12, 1979, edition of The Chatham News, just prior to their arrival in Siler City.
“I recall how welcoming the community was,” Hoffman said. “Byron and I had been living in Atlanta, where he attended medical school at Emory, and also did his residency in Atlanta.”
She said her husband’s family moved from Pennsylvania to Alamance County in the 1700s, so returning to this part of North Carolina was sort of a homecoming for him. He’s still practicing at the “new” Chatham Hospital, serving as co-medical director at UNC Primary Care’s facility in Siler City.
Hoffman was raised in New Jersey and met Byron while both were students at Duke University. After their marriage and move to Chatham, she taught English and first-year French at Jordan-Matthews High School and in other Chatham schools for about 10 years. Each of the four Hoffman children which followed were born in the old Chatham Hospital — where Byron worked — and attended school here.
She writes stories and essays while not entertaining some of her eight grandchildren. She began contributing during a transitional period at home — it was just before the last of her children moved out of the family’s home and about the time her father, who was struggling with memory issues, moved in.
“Because dad had dementia, I became house-bound caring for him,” she recalled. “Being confined, I started writing.”
Hoffman wrote what she knew. The first story she authored that was accepted appeared in a Chicken Soup anthology called “A Cup of Comfort for Families Touched by Alzheimer’s,” and her second was about children leaving for college.
These days, as a part of the “Chicken Soup” family, Hoffman keeps an eye on the Chicken Soup website — chickensoup.com — which lists upcoming book titles and deadlines. (Soon-to-publish editions will feature subjects such as “How stepping outside my comfort zone changed me,” “The advice that changed my life,” and “Crazy, eccentric, wacky, lovable, fun families.”)
“Usually, I have a personal story about whatever subject they suggest,” Hoffman said.
She sticks to the book series’ guidelines for submissions: “First, it must be true,” she said. “Secondly, it must be your story, not someone else’s. Of course, it must have a beginning, middle, and end that satisfies, and it must create some emotion in the reader, even if it’s just curiosity.”
Authors whose stories are published — stories are generally under 1,200 words — are paid $200 and get 10 free copies of the book in which their accepted story appears. Chicken Soup’s publisher has non-exclusive rights to the stories accepted, meaning that authors retain ownership of the story — but it can be used again in any future Chicken Soup book title or related product.
“Sometimes, I get feedback from my ‘Chicken Soup’ stories,” Hoffman said. “Once a man from Saudi Arabia wrote telling me he enjoyed my essay. More often, though, I get feedback from stories of mine that have been viewed on an ezine where the reader can leave a comment.”
All told, more than 400 of Hoffman’s works have been published in various forms — in regional magazines, inspirational venues, or ezines on the craft of writing.
“I’ve also penned travel pieces that have appeared in magazines like ‘Northwest’ or in ezines like ‘Raleigh and Co.,’” she said. “Sometimes, I’m assigned an article by ‘The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, which is a periodical for homeschooling parents.”
The Chicken Soup website receives hundreds of story submissions each day, so Hoffman considers herself a “prolific” author for the series. She typically submits one story, sometimes more, for most of the new titles the company announces. Only about one in 50 stories submitted is accepted for publication; she tends to focus on humorous stories, saying she’s not as skilled at sadder tales, even though she has experienced her share of sadness.
“Editors have said they like my humor,” she said. “They like my humorous, conversational-style pieces. I have more trouble writing things that are poignant.”
She’ll share stories orally with friends, sharing anecdotes and experiences.
“And if they laugh at it, I think it might be something that I could write up,” Hoffman said.
Writing doesn’t take long — maybe 30 minutes, maybe 90. Editing takes more time, but she tries not to overthink or overanalyze the finished product. She doesn’t write daily, but takes pen to paper when the notion strikes.
Right now, she’s waiting to hear about a few stories she’s submitted for upcoming “Chicken Soup” editions.
And her advice for aspiring writers who envision joining her as a “Chicken Soup” author?
“I would tell them not to be afraid of writing down a true story,” Hoffman said. “And just do it. Submit it without mulling it over too much. Don’t let anxiety squash your hopes. If you don’t succeed, just try, try again.”
Bill Horner III can be reached at email@example.com or @billthethird.