3 books forming Chicago Literary Hall of Fame logo
3 books forming Chicago Literary Hall of Fame logo

Don Evans: The Whole Story Minus Most of It

I have a canned bio, ready to go at a moment’s notice. I usually glance at it, maybe customize it for the occasion or add a quick update, and then send. It’s written in the third person, as though some highly impressed neutral party has internalized my life and been completely, head-over-heels won over. Maybe a publicist, or a publisher. A biographer, or a critic. Who knows? But whoever wrote those amazingly flattering words sure thinks highly of Donald G. Evans.

Mine goes something like this:

“Donald G. Evans is the Founding Executive Editor of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, author of the novel Good Money After Bad, and editor of a Chicago Cubs anthology Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting Till Next Year. His short story collection, An Off-White Christmas, will be published in 2018. He’s been listed four times in the Newcity Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago feature, and received the Chicago Writers Association's Spirit Award for lifetime achievement. He serves on various boards and committees, including as a program committee member of the American Writers Museum, and a selector for the annual Harold Washington Literary Award.”

These DIY bios give a glimpse into what the literary life is like for most of us. We’ve never made the bestseller list or won the National Book Award; our books have not been made into movies starring Christian Grey and Dakota Johnson; we don’t get whisked around the country on promotional tours. We don’t even have anybody to write our author bios. If we HAD won the Pulitzer Prize, say, our bios would be a lot shorter: Don Evans is a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer. Period. But failing that, we pad. We work in the term “award-winning,” along with a listing of our publications and the phrase, “including such journals as…” to suggest that there just wasn’t enough space to mention Paris Review and Harper’s.

The Author Bio rings especially insincere when, as is often the case, the moderator or emcee goes on stage and reads the paragraph verbatim. In which case, the moderator pretends to recite laudatory background information he’d thought of (or at least assembled) on his own, whilst really using a presumably objective script ghost written by me, the subject of said laudatory introduction. Meanwhile, I usually stand off to the side of the podium, or sit in the front seat, feigning humility and painting a look on my face that says, “Oh, go on! No!! Too much!!!”

Early on—I had to be barely twenty—I wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. Not write like Ernest Hemingway. Be Ernest Hemingway. I thought being a writer meant getting tanked in all kinds of exotic locales, hobnobbing with starlets, hooking marlins, smoking Cuban cigars, spying on foreign operatives, hanging late with talented friends who’d all been on the cover of Time.

“Marilyn,” I would say. “Make me a mojito and come over here and sit on my lap. Tomorrow morning is work, but tonight we play.”

I never properly considered, oh: hangovers, rejection slips, money. God love me, I didn’t know what I was really getting into.

Now—decades beyond any real sense that I could make, or even wanted, that kind of life—I just like to finish really good stories. I don’t really like to write really great stories. Writing is hard. It’s time consuming. There are hours and days that go nowhere. During the process, there are only the occasional whiffs of success, and it makes for dull party banter. “Going great.” “Working on a novel.” “I got an agent.” You can’t pull out a printer copy of your chapter and say, “Glad you asked: listen to THIS dazzling sentence.”

I do like starting stories, maybe because that part comes easily. And I do like exploring, which is a large part of it. Just as I like to read from a spectrum of literature—from sad and serious, to fun and frivolous—I like to go where my writing mood takes me. In fact, my early fantasies about writing were almost all connected to travel. I figured I could write anywhere, by which I meant everywhere, and each new place I experienced would worm its way into my fiction. Over the course of my five decades, I have gotten to go places—a lot of places, really. The writing, though, is always best upon returning—the amount of good work I’ve accomplished preening on a balcony overlooking the Andaman Sea fills maybe a small drawer. Sometimes writing is like being hunkered down with a serious illness from which doctors say you might but might not recover. I could do the radiation and die anyway. Or should I skip the radiation and spend the rest of my days relatively okay but wondering if I couldn’t have done more?

Writing is a self-conscious act, and the young Don Evans wanted to be loved for his genius, his comic timing, his creativity. Maybe I still want that, but not really. I want people to think I’m a worthy husband, father, son, and friend. I want to be known as somebody who made the lives of others better, happier. Somebody who helped foster community. As I craft my epitaph, I want my writing to fit in there somewhere, but only as a larger part of my narrative. Maybe, simply, I want my tombstone to read, “Don Evans: Good Guy.”

What I’ve learned, over the years, is the opposite of what I instinctively thought was true: writing is a self-congratulatory act. Outside praise (and criticism) can be interesting, even illuminating, but it doesn’t change the essential truth of the work itself. Any even modestly good writer must know, for him or herself, what they’ve accomplished, if anything.

Not that it wouldn’t be absolutely fantastic to show up at a high school reunion with a bestseller in one hand and a Man Booker Award in the other.

Writing is the way that I contribute to a community I love, the way I participate in the world. The most important evolution in my approach toward literature is in knowing that my part in it is miniscule. I love and believe in literature more and more as time goes by, but I’ve long since stopped loving and believing that I was the epicenter of it. The Ernest Hemingway Model requires a great deal of self-focus and disallows generosity, much less reverence, toward the incredible, diverse world of stories and those who craft them.

So while my manufactured bio is technically all true, it’s not the truth. Nor are the Don Evans Is Really Fucking Unbelievable blurbs pasted onto my book jackets and website. This is another somewhat obligatory and unpleasant act of self-marketing in which the author—ME—collects and even solicits positive comments, ignoring, of course, anything resembling criticism. There is deceit via omission. The honest companion to my Praise for Donald G. Evans section would read:

  • “Your interest in Playboy is appreciated.” The Editors, Playboy.
  • “we know how much effort went into this submission…” The Editors, Alaska Quarterly Review.
  • “thanks for your courtesy…” The North American Review
  • “Please feel encouraged…” The Iowa Review
  • “Thank you.” The New Yorker
  • “Congratulate yourself.” The Heekin Group Foundation
  • “I enjoyed this a lot. Please submit in the future. (upcoming theme: Dog)” Vignette
  • “I write to inform you that the 1996 winner of the James Jones First Novel Fellowship is Greg Herbek…” Patricia B. Heaman, Wilkes University.
  • “it is impossible for us to comment on the work, although we know it might be helpful.” The Editorial Staff, American Short Fiction
  • “A fine piece of writing but too literary for our tastes.” Speculative Fiction

I took rejection, as well as acceptance, personally for a while, and then moved on. I’m too busy to read about myself, and I don’t enjoy it. I like to interact with people and don’t mind talking about my work in the right setting. But I find a lot of what we consider necessary evils to be….well, not necessary. Of course, writers who do those things well, and who do them aggressively, tend to get better agents, publishers, sell more books, and so forth. I’m not saying I’m above prostituting myself for success. Just that I’m a picky prostitute.

Hannah Jennings Design