The Close Heart of the Afterlife: life of a short story

I started writing “The Close Heart of the Afterlife” in 2014, the year before Harry died. It is narrated by a ghost who is drawn from the afterlife to help his twin brother cope with his wife’s downward spiral into Alzheimer’s. Told from both heaven and the earthly realm, the reader experiences the desperation accompanying a loved one’s cognitive decline.

The story grew from my experience with my late-husband Harry’s dementia. It was the hardest time in my life, in many ways harder than when my daughter was in jail for heroin use. Harder because there was no break from Harry’s cognitive demise. It was difficult watching the man I loved slip away.

One of the ways I coped was to write in my journal. The release I got from putting words on the electronic page helped me process my emotions. Some of my best stories have come from the words in my journal. I spin a painful or uplifting experience into a story. Following the 80/20 percent rule, these stories are only 20 percent fiction. This is true of this piece. I still cry when I read it.

I originally wrote about a wife caring for her husband who had dementia, based on my care of Harry. It was depressing, much like my journal below. There was nothing to hook the reader or keep them reading. So I used a trick Stephen King suggested in his book On Writing, to switch the gender roles of the characters. I tried this partly because I was afraid Harry might read the story and know it was about him. And he was in denial of his dementia. He thought the doctors were all wrong and he was fine. Hence, I reversed genders so the husband was the caregiver of his wife. It was still pretty sad and not very engaging. So I put it aside not intending to do anything with it. It was just too painful.

Until I read The Lovely Bones, which has one of the best descriptions of heaven I’ve ever read. The novel gave me the idea to add a brother from the grave. I decided to make the ghost the narrator and it worked.

I submitted my rewrite it to my writing critique group and got some great feedback. Although the dementia seemed real, the story was choppy. It had a lot of breaks with poor transitions and went back and forth in time. And didn’t hold their attention. I could not face the rewrite of the story because I didn’t want to think about that time in my life. I needed some distance from it.

Sunday I had some time and decided to take the story apart based on the feedback from my writing group pictured above. I moved scenes around and put them back together in a more chronological order. We work shopped it again Wednesday. The said they had a better sense of the wife’s dementia and were drawn into the characters relationship to make it more hard hitting and emotional.

Harry was a marketing writer and good at writing tag lines and titles so he came up with the title for the story before he died. I had told him a little about it, without telling him it was about him. So the story is very much Harry’s story. I hope my love for him shines through. My effort is a legacy to his brilliance, his talent, humor and love of language. I’m submitting it to literary magazines for publication, so hopefully you can read it soon.

This is the Harry I remember–our wedding day in 2003.

Following are thoughts from my journal when I started to lose the Harry that I loved due to his cognitive impairment. I have not shared these thoughts until today. My desperation in these honest words created “The Close Heart of the Afterlife.”

Harry’s decline started on August 8, 2011 after he had a seizure– I didn’t know it then but he was missing nearly a centimeter of his frontal lobes at that time. Brain damage from football concussions combined with alcohol abuse likely caused his dementia and seizures.

 Saturday, September 17, 2011

It is cold and rainy outside. I’m worried about Harry. Tuesday was a bad day. He had a bad episode with his seizure medication where he was so euphoric it was like he was on speed. He woke me up at 4 am telling me I couldn’t help him, that Doctor Yaremsetty couldn’t help him. His doctors were all wrong. He was a broken record, repeating over and over that no one would listen to him. He wouldn’t quit talking. He read the sports scores and the articles from the paper aloud to me. I cried several times. I went out on the deck and just stared off into the yard.

Finally I called Yaaremsetty and got his meds switched.

It has been so much pressure on me since Harry’s seizure. He is just in denial that he should be on seizure meds. He’s scared and drinking too much. I don’t have a job and I’m worried Harry will lose his job. How can he keep it when he sleeps until 11 am, works an hour or two, then takes another nap?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I’m still worried about Harry. He fell asleep while I cooked eggs. I guess it is his seizure meds making him so tired. He was up again at 3 am. I hope he’ll be able to work tomorrow.

Monday, September 19, 2011

I don’t know what to do. Harry is really off. He is forgetting things. Has mood swings and concentration problems. I think he has dementia. 

He woke me up at 1 am and then at 6 am. He doesn’t remember talking with me either time. He’s scared about his meds. He keeps saying he doesn’t understand why he’s being treated like he has seizures every day instead of once every decade. I’m really concerned something is wrong with him like Alzheimer’s.

I got him up at 9:30 for work. I made him an egg sandwich and brought it up to his office. He came downstairs, saying he couldn’t remember how to put his password in and work. He didn’t know I’d made him an egg and brought it up to him. He went back to bed without eating or logging into work.

I have a call into Yaramsetty. I’m afraid it is not just the meds that is the problem.

What do I do? Even if I find a job will I be able to work with Harry in this state? What if Harry loses his job because he’s not working? We won’t have insurance if he’s not working.

He is sleeping during the day and has insomnia at night. He says biting comments to me. Says I don’t understand him and then the next minute he apologizes and says how much he loves me. I don’t think I can live with him through this.

If he would at least let me sleep at night, it would be helpful. I just feel groggy and drugged out all the time.

Should I look into hiring someone to care for him?

Should I look for a job? Will I be able to work? At least I would have something to do to occupy my time.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I am going out of my mind. Harry is sick to his stomach. I got home around 3 pm after swimming and lunch with Cathy. He said he was going to take a nap. He’s been coughing and sleeping since I got home. It is depressing trying to watch TV while he’s sleeping. I feel trapped.

I talked to Cathy about Harry and realize how miserable I am. Harry is sick or verbally abusive most of the time.

I think the 100 mg of Zoloft is too strong. I think I’ll try 50 mg tomorrow.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Harry was vomiting all night. Finally about 4 am he took an Adivan and was able to sleep. I feel exhausted. Dumping his puke bowl and trying to make him comfortable. I feel really bad for Harry and am worried about his health.

I have lunch with Anne at noon. I wanted to get some resumes out before that but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’m just too tired.

Harry ate an English muffin and is now sleeping. I certainly hope he feels better. I have not had an entire night’s sleep since Harry’s seizure. I’ll try 50 mg of Zoloft today and see how I feel.

I feel so confused, or maybe lost is a better word. For the first time in my adult life I am jobless. I have no direction, no schedule, no sense of purpose that a job would give me.

 

Payback Is a Bitch — Surprise Publication

I was searching on Google and was pleasantly surprised to find my story “Payback is a Bitch” published in The Coil Magazine October, 18, 2018. I love the photograph they chose of the woman pointing the gun–it’s perfect.

The Coil is the fiction magazine under Alternating Current Press. It is a daily literary magazine that publishes up to four pieces a day. They say on the Alternating Current Press web site they pay a tiny token for all the pieces they accept. I had submitted the story to Leah Angstman for Alternating Current Press back in June of 2013. I have changed emails since 2013, so that’s likely why I never got notification of publication or received payment. I know Leah from my late husband Harry Calhoun’s poetry publication days. I am honored to be published in a magazine he would have loved.

I wrote to the fiction editor at The Coil yesterday thanking him for the publication and asked him to update my bio and photo. The bio is very out of date–has me listed as an educational constant, which I haven’t done in years. I work for Measurement Incorporated now, developing educational tests. The photo in the piece is an old one from probably back in 2013 when Harry was sick and I was exhausted from teaching and taking care of him. It’s not my best look. I’ve since change my hair color from the blond to my natural brunette, or medium ash brown from the dye bottle.

See my previous blog post about the life of a story that I wrote about “Payback is a Bitch” when it was accepted by Lana Station Quarterly back in 2010.

Writing and eating dog food

I have decided to take the plunge and revamp the young adult novel I finished back in 2008. It’s been twelve years since I looked at the word doc. I will need to take the novel apart and put the strongest parts back together. In 2008, when I thought it was finished, I shopped it around to agents and got 23 rejections. Now I see why. Katharine’s voice is not there. The narrator tells events about Katharine through most of the story. There are also point of view and voice issues and too much inner thoughts. The first chapter is not strong, not enough of a hook. So I have my work cut out for me. Because it will be a new story, I’m changing the title from Dr. Ziegawart’s War to Mysteries of Katharine because it is her story and not the evil wizard’s. I have a four-day weekend that will give me some time to get started.

As I get into writing again combined with working from home, I’m not doing a good job of eating healthy. I don’t cook for myself. Back in May I got into a good rhythm of eating small meals throughout the day, but I didn’t stick with it. I need to go back to doing meal prep on Sundays. I keep thinking since I work from home I will cook during the weekdays, but I don’t do it. Last week I ate cheese and crackers, junk food and pizza because it seemed like to much effort to go to Harris Teeter to buy ingredients to cook just for myself. And the scale shows it. So, in an effort to eat healthier, I am going back to cooking for the week on Sundays like I did when I worked in the office.

Yesterday, I told my mom I had just cooked the Turkey, Rice And Veggie Mix shown in the picture from a recipe for dog food I found online. Mom said, “Why don’t you write a blog post about that.” So here goes.

I couldn’t sleep Saturday night, really early Sunday morning, after waking up from a vivid dream on a road trip with my grandson where we having fun hanging out and exploring. It’s been a year since he passed. It hit me hard when I woke and realized it was only a dream and he’s gone. I had dreams like this of both my daughter and my husband for years after they passed. Missing Erik, I found myself wide awake. Since I’d been thinking of switching Dutch’s food to a lower calorie version, I spent some time scrolling the Web for ideas. The vet says he is too heavy at 70 pounds. He was only 58 pounds when I adopted him in November. I ran across this Web site: Kiss Kibble Goodbye: Homemade Dog Food Recipes. There are some lucky dogs out there that eat better than many people. The recipes looked so good I decided to make two of them for me. I modified the recipes slightly for human consumption, mainly adding spices. I made Beef Stew, Doggie Style as well as the Turkey and Rice dish. I shared both with Dutch and he thinks they are pretty good. I’ve got leftovers in the freezer as well as this week’s meals.

This reminds me of when I was teaching science in Hillsborough, NC. My then husband, my daughter and I had just moved to NC. We didn’t have much money. So my ex made a soup he called dog food. It had three ingredients: hamburger, chicken broth and noodles. It went a long way toward feeding a family of three. I’m glad I don’t have to live on a teacher’s salary now.

I look forward to spending the weekend cooking, writing, walking and swimming. My July 4 holiday will be different than most. I have no family here and will celebrate by writing and reading some young adult novels to help me get into a thirteen-year-old’s voice. I know in order to be a good writer I need to read, read, read in the genre I write. First, I’m going to polish and submit a couple of short stories before attacking the novel. I love first draft writing. The editing and polishing are painful for me so I sit on stories instead of sending them out into the world.

And in order to boost my immune system I need to get outside and get vitamin D and exercise. I have been doing social distanced swimming since June 1. And grateful to be able to swim since gyms are still closed in North Carolina. Each swimmer reserves their own lane ahead of time and swims alone in the lane. The locker room is not open, so swimmers make do by putting clothes back on over dripping suits or changing in one of the two changing rooms.

 

 

Growing up at age 57

Dutch with his gingerbread toy

The best thing I did for myself this year was to adopt Dutch on my birthday in November. He is a sweet, five-year-old Lab-shepherd mix, weighing in at 70 pounds. On March 26, when the president of the educational testing company I work for emailed us, saying that our salary would be cut 20 percent due to many states expecting minimal or no testing, I sat on the living room rug with Dutch. I hugged him and cried for a long time. Fear. Anger. I was mad at the Corona virus, at the government for shutting down, at my company.

I knew I could not pay my bills on the reduced salary. It was a struggle to live on my full salary. I had options, but that night sitting on the floor with Dutch, I did not know what they were. I was isolated from the world, living alone, and working from home. Dutch had no idea what was wrong, but he licked my tears and was content to lay on the floor while I cried. My company has since gotten a PPP award and our salaries are restored. But on March 26, I felt helpless, as many of us have, due to the Covid-19 -shelter-in-place.

Now I realize that pandemic that I was so angry at months ago is responsible getting me out of my shell. It is hard to imagine that good could come from this disease, but it has helped bring me out of the isolation I experienced for years. You might ask how being shut in alone would help with isolation.

I talked to my therapist yesterday for a half hour about just that. (Yes, I see a therapist and believe everyone should.). I told him that at age 57, I believe I have finally grown up. He said, “That’s great. Many people never do.” And while he may have been joking because he uses humor as part of his therapy, I it rings true. Why else would people react with such appalling behavior during this pandemic.

My therapist says the lack connections with people forced me to reach out and reconnect to the people in my life.  I talk to my mom twice a day now. This has helped me so much. I started calling Mom because I was worried about her living alone in South St. Louis, near Ferguson. This is an area where Corona cases are high. She lives in a retirement home where no visitors were allowed and at least one person there died from Covid. So I called her every other day or so. Then I found myself calling Mom every day and then twice a day. But I wasn’t calling anymore because I was worried about her, I needed to talk. And she enjoys my calls. She lives in a one room apartment with only herself for company.

I also reconnected with two of my sisters who live in San Diego. We have a weekly Sunday evening call. I hadn’t been close to them in years. I reached out to friends I hadn’t seen in months and some years. Now I drive to see a friend who lives out in the country every other week or so. We sit on lawn chairs and talk. Sometimes Dutch comes and plays with her dog.

I also contacted members of my former critique group. We’ve started meeting virtually—what a huge difference this has made in my life. I am inspired to write again. They helped me polish my story “Personal Best,” which I submitted yesterday to literary magazines. My first submission since 2013. The happiness the simple act of pressing send gave me is indescribable. I have not written anything other than educational articles and test questions from the time my late husband Harry got sick in 2011 until now. Here are a few lines from the story:

A couple walks by holding hands. For the first time in two years, I don’t feel envy, anger, or annoyance to see them together. “I am happy. I’m alone. But I’m okay.”

There are parallels in my life to Maria’s in the story. I loosely based her character on me. In my real life, it took me five years after my husband’s death, not two, to be able to watch happy couples and not tear up. Maria in my story healed faster than I did. She experienced a tragedy that cost her everything, much like my own losses. She struggled with addiction and despair but was helped by the enduring spirit of her daughter. I believe my daughter and husband have influenced my life from their heaven. I feel them in the decisions I make.

 

 

I’m back and writing fiction again

I am reviving this blog and will be posting regularly about my writing life and overcoming loss.

My last post here was Dec 30, 2010, ten years ago. I cannot believe I let so much time pass. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine I could have written during that time because I lost my daughter, husband and grandson several years apart. Much like David, in my story “Good Game,” I was sinking into despair and grief. I would like to take you on my journey back to writing and living.

A Facebook memory popped up on June 14, where I had written that I was excited that “Good Game” would appear in the July, 2013, issue of Thunder Sandwich. That was the last story I wrote until recently. I had a dream a few days later about my father who passed away in 2007. I believe he was sending me a message of hope and encouraging me toward writing again.

It is fitting to discuss “Good Game” today, on Father’s Day, because David’s character was inspired by my father. In the story, David was a professional bicyclist until an accident changed his life. Paralyzed and sinking into despair, he had to learn to live on two wheels. Again. With the help of his service dog and the enduring spirit of his father.

The character David was a composite of my friend, Jim, who was in a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident, and my father. David’s dog was inspired by my late husband and my black lab, Alex. Now, I see a parallel to David’s life and my own. I could not have known back in 2010 when I wrote the story that I would experience the loss of three important people in my life. Or that a dog, my dog Dutch, would play an important role in my recovery.

“Good Game” took a long journey into publication. After being a finalist the 2011 Eric Hoffer Award, it was rejected by 23 magazines before finding its way to print. It was finally the featured story in the September online issue of go read your lunch: http://www.goreadyourlunch.com/2013/09/goodgame.html.

Back in 2010 when I wrote the story, I was proud of it. It was by far my best work. Now reading it ten years later, I see that could have made the story better. First person is hard to write well because we are limited by only the thoughts and emotions of the first-person narrator.  I could have made the story stronger if I brought the reader into the story instead of telling them about David’s experiences. There are a lot of “I” and “my” in the piece.

This is a great article from Now Novel on how to wtite in first person: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/first-person-narrative-7-tips/

I think my current work in process will be even better, due to my writing critique group who help me learn as a writer. The story, “Personal Best,” is an autobiographical piece based on recovering from loss through strength training and exercise. Like “Good Game,” there is a supernatural element.

I am ready to start submitting for the first time in eight years. I feel so blessed to be writing again.

Goodbye

As my blog posts become more infrequent, I realize that it is time for me to take another hiatus from blogging –maybe temporary, but most likely permanent. When I started this blog back in September of 2006, I intended to post about science education as my career up to that point had been as a science teacher.  Then as I finished my first young adult novel and began work on a short story collection and a new novel, my posts turned toward the process of writing fiction .

Now I find my time so taken up by my day job as a educational test developer that I have little energy to devote to my fiction writing or blogging, so I will say goodbye for now. I will update my Web site frequently, so check there for more information.

Here’s to finding balance and the happiness it brings!

Trina

Time flies faster as we age

Update: 6/25/20 Pig in a Poke Magazine is no longer active.

Alex barks, strains and emits a low growl that increases in volume. I know that growl. All ninety pounds of black lab rear up, testing the strength of his leather leash and the power of my grip. Too late I see a German shepherd looping toward us. My blood sounds loudly in my ears like waves crashing a rocky shore.

The large dog’s owner stands in his yard, makes no attempt to corral his dog, even while Alex continues growling and lunging. I make a futile attempt to drag Alex away.

“Gizmo is friendly,” the man says. He is actually smiling.

“My dog is not!” I yell. Alex is a rescue dog and even three years after we adopted him, he is still aggressive toward other dogs.

Hanging onto the plastic bag of poop I captured from earlier in the walk with my left hand, I jerk Alex’s leash with my right hand. It is like trying to drag a tank. Struggling to keep my footing, I wonder why I am still clutching the bag of poop like it was solid gold. I throw down the bag, grasp Alex’s leash with both hands, while using my body to block Gizmo.

Dragging ninety pounds of a Labrador in the opposite direction he wants to go is impossible. So as the laws of physics decree, I tumble face forward. Eat gravel. Fortunately, the bag of poop cushions my fall. I am astonished that I’m still holding the leash. This is only a small victory because at the end of his leash Alex has Gizmo by the throat.

In a daze, aware of an ache in my knees and blood dripping from my chin, nearly overpowered by the stench of dog shit clinging to my shirt, I stand up. I grab both of Alex’s back legs, hauling him off the larger German shepherd. I hope Gizmo’s owner is right about the friendly bit, because if Gizmo attacks me, I’ll have to let go of Alex and run.

I notice Alex’s legs are bloody either from my cut lip or Gizmo’s teeth.

Gizmo’s owner runs up–a little late for the party. He grabs Gizmo’s collar and drags his dog away muttering “Sorry . . . so sorry.” He doesn’t look back, doesn’t ask if Alex or I needed help.

“You’ve got to keep your dog on a leash, man!” I yell and mutter, “Asshole.”

I wipe blood from my mouth. My upper lip is split where it had lost the battle with the gravel, but at least I didn’t break any teeth. I pull Alex to the side of the road on wobbly legs. “Sit,” I command. He does. How nice. What a model citizen.

I sit on the curb. Tears run down my cheeks and I am aware that I’m shaking. I wipe the moisture away with my hand. The smell of dog shit grows stronger and I realize I’ve just smeared the stuff on my face. I wipe my hands off on the grass and then check Alex for injuries. No blood in his teeth or on his tongue. He must have only gotten Gizmo’s fur. I couldn’t find any cuts on him either. He is lucky.

I am not. My knees hurt. Both are scraped. I brush off my knees, smearing brown stripes down my legs. It could only be dog shit. I fume, cursing Gizmo’s owner. I’m a mile from home. I’ll have to walk back covered in dog excrement. Angry, and, I admit, embarrassed, I curse myself for not bringing my cell phone. I stand up. Or at least try to. My legs don’t hold. I sit hard on the curb, probably adding a bruise on my bum to my other injuries.

 

My grandmother said that time passes more and more quickly as we age. I didn’t understand her words when I was twenty and she was still alive. Now with my 48th birthday approaching, I understand. It seems like only a minute has passed since that day in July when Alex made Gizmo’s acquaintance. I was walking Alex early in the mornings then to avoid the brutal Carolina summer heat. Now, when I walk Alex in the early morning–in a route that takes us nowhere near Gizmo’s home–it is still dark and I’ve traded the shorts and tanks I wore this summer for gloves, a hat and an insulated sweat suit. Now I’m suddenly crunching acorns under my feet and the leaves remaining on the trees have traded their greens for the colors of autumn.

Likewise, time seems to be flying by faster the harder I work at my day job. I have put in hard hours for months at the testing company where I develop science questions. Hard because the project is massive: 30,000 questions. And hard because we have been understaffed. At first the challenge was enough. But, now I want more. As the company gears up with additional staff, I am ready to take a lesser role.

I thought by now I would have made some progress on  THE RIPPER. Instead four months have passed without me opening the Word doc containing the novel. Likewise I have sent out no story submissions. Life is passing me by.

But it took a coworker to help me see how fast. I mentioned that I am the fiction editor of Pig in a Poke to a new manager and he asked me to send him a link to the magazine. When he e-mailed me that he was reading my blog, I was embarrassed. My last blog post was over a month ago.

I’ve started a new writing project that I think will help me get back on track. I am only in the contemplating stage. I’ve made notes and am thinking about how the story will come together. It will take a close up look at how dissociative identify disorder (DID) affects a woman, her relationships and her children. It is different from anything I’ve done so far. I’m excited to get started, which should motivate me to work on it.

I think THE RIPPER novel will take the back burner for now. The characters have grown cold. I think part of the reason I had lost momentum for my writing is that I couldn’t get excited about Rosa’s character.

 

Pig in a Poke update:

Harry has 11 poets lined up for the January issue. I have accepted three stories, but am considering several others. I am still deciding on a few stories sent in as far back as September. If you haven’t gotten a rejection it means I think your story has merit and may place it in the January issue. I have sent rejection letters to all those I know I won’t use. I’m going to try to read all the submissions by next weekend so I can reply to writers.

Yesterday I read ten stories, rejected two and am considering the others. I have 21 more to read before I make my final decision. I plan to read 10 more today and the rest next weekend. The good news is that the quality of stories I am receiving for the Pig is high. I think this last round of submissions is the best I’ve received. But, the high quality makes it tough for me because I will have to reject stories that are good.

Issue #3 of Pig in a Poke now alive and oinking!

Update: 6/25/20 Pig in a Poke Magazine is no longer active.

Pig in a Poke, issue #3, is live today … enjoy!

The third time’s a charm, and Pig in a Poke is charmed to be here. And we hope you’re charmed by the great lineup of poets (fiction writers and essayists) we have for you. I still can’t believe the amazing writers we’ve managed to attract, and Trina and I are grateful for that. As always, we try to put pearls of superb writing in our swinish sty. I think that once again we’ve put together a good mixture of poetry, fiction and some fine literary essays. Trina and I are proud to call this our magazine. A Pig in a Poke it is, because you might never know what you’re getting, but you know it’s going to be good.”  Harry Calhoun, editor.

Harry Calhoun, a.k.a. my husband, edits the poetry and I, a.k.a. Trina Allen, have picked out the stories and laid out the pages. The two of us have pretty much collaborated on choosing the essays.  Not only is there new talent here — new to the Pig, that is — but for this issue we asked several writers to submit stories including Christina Hoag, Lynne Barrett, Anne Woodman and Mark Howell.

I do hope you’ll drop by, give a read, spread the word, and maybe donate to the cause. Let me know what you think.

http://www.piginpoke.com/ currentissue.html

The lineup for this issue includes:

Poetry by

A.D. Winans

Tim Peeler

Robert Demaree

Louis McKee

Lyn Lifshin

Karla Huston

Donal Mahoney

Michael L. Newell

Corey Cook

Doug Draime

Sandy Benitez

M.P. Powers

Mather Schneider

Carol Lynn Grellas

Luis Berriozabal

Fiction by:

Jane Banning

Lynne Barrett

Christina Hoag

Mark Howell

Thomas Sullivan

Laura Garrison

Laurence Klavan

Michael L. Newell

Nathaniel Tower

Essays by:

Anne Woodman

Michael L. Newell

Amanda LaPergola

As always, quality stuff all around . Drop in and wallow a while in the Pig sty … it’s not a bad place to be! Thanks in advance for your support.

Poetry by

A.D. Winans

Tim Peeler

Robert Demaree

Louis McKee

Lyn Lifshin

Karla Huston

Donal Mahoney

Michael L. Newell

Corey Cook

Doug Draime

Sandy Benitez

M.P. Powers

Mather Schneider

Carol Lynn Grellas

Luis Berriozabal

Fiction by:

Jane Banning

Lynne Barrett

Christina Hoag

Mark Howell

Thomas Sullivan

Laura Garrison

Laurence Klavan

Michael L. Newell

Nathaniel Tower

Essays by:

Anne Woodman

Michael L. Newell

Amanda LaPergola

The wheels on the bus go round and round

Update: 6/25/20 Pig in a Poke Magazine is no longer active.

When one foot is precariously on the tight rope and the other in the air, life has a way of knocking that one steady foot off the tightrope and destroying any semblance of balance. So it was yesterday when I left for work an hour early. Having skipped my morning walk, I planned to walk after work–the weather has been so beautiful in the afternoons. I was less than a mile from the house when my daughter called from New York with an emergency. I ended up turning the car around and heading to the post office, spending that extra hour overnighting a money order to my daughter.

I didn’t want to alarm Harry at work first thing on a Monday by telling him about the crisis, so I didn’t call him. Instead, he called me about an hour after I arrived wanting to know if I’d spent a lot of money on his upcoming birthday. He’d seen the large withdrawal from our checking account. Needless to say I didn’t have a very productive morning at work.

Life has threatened my balance in other areas as well. I didn’t know back in March when Harry and I first talked about editing a literary magazine how much work it would be. (If I had, I would still have agreed to start up the magazine). Nor did I know I would resign from Measurement Inc. in May and then come back as a regular employee in August. I had walked away from my day job, intending to finish my novel in progress, submit my short story collection to publishers, and do some freelance critiquing to bring in some cash. It didn’t work out quite that way. I found I hated being home all day with no schedule. And I missed my coworkers after I resigned. I also like the independence having a steady pay check gives me.

So, I’ve had to do some shuffling with my schedule. It takes up a lot of my free time reading the stories for Pig in a Poke. I have 19 yet to read for the October issue. I do have the luxury of reading them right up until October 1. Because I am the Web site developer, I can post a story five minutes after I accept it. However, it also means that I have the work of laying out all of the pages in “the Pig.”

I love to read, so I guess being a fiction editor is a perfect second job for me. Some very talented writers have submitted their work, which makes my job easier and rewarding. I have to admit that I’ve also read some very bad writing. There doesn’t seem to be much in the middle. The stories tend to be excellent or, well. Not. I tend to scan through a story after downloading it, not really reading it carefully, just seeing what it’s about. Then I write the title, author, and length on my tracking spreadsheet while I’m thinking about the story. Next, I download and scan the next one. After I’ve scanned and recorded 5 or 6 stories, I go back and carefully read each one.

The rejects I know from the scan, but I still try to read each with an open mind to see if there is anything there. I usually find my first impression was right. If I reject a story it likely just didn’t hook me in to make me want to read past the first few paragraphs. Or it was overly long–stories over 3,000 words are hard for me to like, or it just wasn’t right for the magazine. Erotica, romance, or children’s lit will not be accepted for “the Pig.” I get all three. Guess I should put more detail into the submission guidelines to save myself some work. I recently received a story titled “Got a Spare Dick,” which was actually humorous, just not right for the magazine.

There are always exceptions, of course. If I’ve accepted several humorous stories, I won’t need another for that issue, for example. Or if I already have 3 or 4 very heavy stories, I don’t want another.

Most of the stories that I’ve accepted for Pig in a Poke I knew I would take after scanning the first few paragraphs and for sure after reading the first few pages. These stories drew me in and kept me reading. I always read a story more than once to be sure it really has what I want–an emotional pull. But, it really is pretty black and white for me. I either like a story or I don’t.

But. I haven’t opened the Word doc containing my novel in weeks. I just can’t seem to find the motivation to work on it after developing test questions all day. And there’s always another submission from Pig in a Poke to read, or dishes to do, or paperwork to get together for refinancing the house. My novel in progress just seems to come last. I never used to feel that way about my writing. I guess I’m getting as much satisfaction from reading other people’s stories as I used to get from writing my own.

And the wheels on the bus go round and round.

Luna Station, the Pig, and Harry Calhoun

Update: 6/25/20 Pig in a Poke MagazineP is no longer active.

Luna Station Quarterly

Read a short story based on the characters from my novel in progress on Luna Station Quarterly, a magazine focused on genre fiction as written by women. In “Payback is a bitch,” when a personal tragedy costs Detective Rosa Wolfe everything–her marriage, her career, and her badge–she returns to the streets she once patrolled, finding satisfaction in high-payoff vengeance for hire. Read more on a previous post. I am pleased that “Payback” is currently the story of the week.

Pig in a Poke

We’re ramping up for issue 3 on October 1. Harry has chosen the poems and essays. He is excited about the line up. I confess that I’ve gotten behind in replying to the story submissions writers have sent to Pig in a Poke magazine. If you sent me a story and I haven’t yet responded, I’m still considering it. I have made the choice to return to Measurement Inc as a regular Monday – Friday employee. Therefore, my time for reviewing fiction is now limited to nights and weekends. I’m wondering how I am going to get the pages up by October 1. Maybe sleep is overrated.

Any Web developers interested in converting Word documents to HTML on a nearly voluntary basis? I could use some help. Contact me if you want to be part of “the Pig.”

Meet Harry Calhoun at the NC Writers Network Raleigh Region Open Mic Night at PoetrySpark

On Sept 17 from 8-11 pm Harry will be reading some of his poetry

Location:Isaac Hunter’s Tavern on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh