One Day at a Time by Evan Kingston (Guest Post)

This Series is about the challenges writers face while working a day job and trying to make it as a writer.

Today’s post is from Evan Kingston. He lives in St. Paul, MN. He runs the frozen department in a grocery store, writes literary romantic comedies, and maintains The Oldest Jokes in the World, a blog about the relationship between humor and literature. He is currently the Fiction Editor for Red Bird Chapbooks.

writers-series-evan

Over the past year, I’ve received dozens of correspondences from agents and publishers regarding my first novel, Half Drunk. There’ve been short emails, letters on gorgeous stationary, and messily photocopied half-sheets; many have mentioned “the current state of the publishing industry” while others have taken a kind moment to draw attention to “the many admirable qualities” in my work. But they’ve all said, “No, we’re not interested in your novel.”

I usually read them right after I come home from my morning shift at the grocery store, when I check my mailbox and inbox before heading out to the library to write for the afternoon. And with each one I get, I can’t help but wonder why I don’t just stay home, to relax and/or wallow. It seems, for a moment, like giving up would be easier.

I worked hard for a long time on Half Drunk. The novel was my MFA thesis, and I composed its five drafts over the course of four years, workshopping it through a half-dozen classes before concentrating on it one-on-one for a year with my incredible advisor, Sheila O’Connor. In part, each rejection feels like a rejection of the time I spent on it, a letter letting me know all those lonely hours in the library were wastes of sunny days.

Even worse, they sometimes feel like rejections of a whole part of my life. A literary romantic comedy about addiction and recovery, Half Drunk is based loosely on my struggles with alcoholism. In detail, the connection to my real life is very loose: the plot involves magical strains of marijuana I’ve never smoked, a villainous rapper named Dr.MC I’ve never fought, and a 100 ft bike jump into the Mississippi River I’ve, thankfully, never jumped.

But the larger themes—my exploration of how we finds the strength to change our lives within those parts of ourselves that are ultimately immutable—are some of the few things I have from the drunken years of my early twenties that are worth sharing. At my most despairing, the rejection letters feel like a refutation of those hard earned lessons.

They really make me wonder why I even bother. But even when I can’t think of a good reason to, I go to the library and write anyway. I don’t need an answer; all I need to do is think of the alternative.

In my early twenties, I didn’t have a daily writing routine and regularly excused myself from the few commitments I made for myself. As I’d worked my way through a BA, my binge drinking grew steadily worse, but rarely so bad that it interfered with my class assignments. The moment I graduated, though, I stopped writing and took up drinking like it was my calling. I considered myself a writer, but was less interested in actually writing than in acting like I thought a writer should act: sometimes vain, sometimes depressed—but always drunk.

When I did manage enough time between hangovers and buzzes to sit down at my desk, I mostly just scribbled notes for novels I was sure would prove my genius once I found a little more time. Whenever I forced myself to make the time, I tortured a few sentences—dissecting and reassembling them with slightly different punctuation, just to change it back and see how it would feel if the main character had a different name—until, unable to find the perfection I thought would let me move on to the next paragraph, I quit to the bar. Once there, I drank until I could forget the work I should be doing so I could more easily brag about being a writer (though I often overshot and blacked everything out completely).

As fun as I tried to make it all look, I was miserable. I wouldn’t change, though, because I wanted something to change me: I told myself I would start a new short story once a magazine accepted the one I’d written as an undergrad; I would cut back on my drinking once I found a nice girlfriend; I would finish the first chapter of my masterpiece once inspiration hit me with a better first line. Chalk it up to addiction or immaturity, but I just couldn’t understand that no girl would want me until I sobered up or that I’d never know what the right first line was until I’d written through the first chapter, all the way to the end of the book.

I hope it doesn’t ruin the end of Half Drunk for you, but through a series of personal events I still don’t fully understand or remember, I finally quit drinking. In part, I think I realized I needed to be sober to make it through the school—but then I also remember looking forward to how much more authority my drunken rants would hold with an MFA behind them. It was more than just school: I’d thought of a hundred good reasons to quit over the years, and various friends had plied me with a dozen more, but I never lasted more than a few weeks. I’m still not sure why this time stuck. It involved a strength I was sure I didn’t have—a strength I still think isn’t my own—so all I can say is that God helped me, and besides that, I just tried to stay sober one day at a time.

As it is one of the few activities I’ve tried that is as hard as quitting drinking, I try to think about writing the same way. The part that is under my control is showing up to the page every day and doing the work. Whenever I skip a few days in a row, I can’t help but feel like I’m blacking out my chance to be great, rejecting myself before anyone else has the chance to. I know I can’t just wait for something to happen to me that will change my work into something publishable. All I can do is study my craft and be as present, honest, and exacting as possible every day.

I believe that, as with my will for sobriety, the inspiration that will make my work great needs to come from something greater than me, something ultimately out of my control.

In any event, it is totally out of the control of publishers and agents, so I don’t let what they have to say keep me from doing my part. They have their own part to play, and hopefully, one day, that will involve writing me checks instead of rejection letters. But I can only reach that day by writing one day at a time.


Also read: Writers Series: “Writing for a Living” by Amanda Fanger

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Drugstore Cowboy

I met your father on a Saturday night in the middle of the road. He said he appreciated me coming out to talk with him. I said it was no big deal. When I coaxed him back to the sidewalk outside the coffee shop that we had exited minutes before, he pressed his forehead to the coffee shop’s glass window and flipped off the young employee behind the counter inside. He said, That fucking cock-sucker. I told your father not to worry about him. He’s just some kid making eight bucks an hour. The moisture from your father’s breath spread for an instant like a yellow rose. Then disappeared.

A few minutes before, I was inside, sitting with my friends on the leather couches playing cards, and your father sat down at a table across from us. He was eating a bagel. He started smoking and the employee came over and told him to put it out. Your father dropped the cigarette in an empty coffee cup. Then the employee said, You’re eighty-sixed man. You have to go now. I remember someone saying, I’ll kick your fucking ass, but I don’t remember if it was the young employee with the fuzzy moustache or your father with his muddied boots and blue jeans and a white pull over. Maybe they both said it. I told your father that we should go outside and smoke a cigarette together. That’s how I met him.

Your father said that when he was young he used to come to this coffee shop, but it wasn’t a coffee shop then. It was a drugstore. He asked me if I’d seen Drugstore Cowboy. He said the movie was filmed right here, and he pointed at the drugstore that’s now a coffee shop and then flipped off the employee inside. He said, That mother fucker. He asked me where I was from. He said that when he was kid he saw a guy’s brains get splattered at this cross walk. The guy was walking across the street and a car came and pow. He said he saw his brains get splattered.

I asked your father what he did for a living. He shook his head and said he used to make a hundred and fifty-thousand a year, seventy-five taxable income. He asked me where I was from and said he really appreciated me coming out here and saying hey. He asked me if I wanted a cigarette.

He said, The Portland music scene, let me tell you, it is happening. You are right in the fucking middle of it. He asked me where I was from. He said he really appreciated me coming out here to talk with him. He asked me what I did. I said I went to school, worked at a church. He asked me if I was Mormon. I said I wasn’t. He said, My ex-wife is Mormon. I have four kids. Here let me show you. He pulled out his wallet and set down two pictures side by side.

Your father said he had four kids and he didn’t care if you were straight or gay or whatever. He asked me if I was gay and I said no I wasn’t and he said, Because I’d still talk with you if you were. He said his oldest daughter was dating a girl. And his oldest boy played the guitar. He said the Portland music scene is the place to be. That his son’s band would be playing after the opening band next week. I asked your father if he went to your concerts. He said he tried to make most of them. He said that you’re six foot nine and play the guitar. I asked him if you played basketball. He said, Shit, no. Shit. No he didn’t. He said you used to wear a shirt that said, “I Don’t Play Basketball”.

He said he got lit tonight. He said he appreciated me coming out to talk with him. He said that when he was a kid he saw a guy’s brains get splattered right here on this street. And for the first time that night your father was quiet. He looked at the ground. Around us drunk girls were stumbling home as the bars were closing. Some were smoking outside and talking on their cell phones. Inside the coffee shop my friends were sitting in the couches and sometimes I could hear them laughing through the glass. I thought your father was going to cry the way he was looking at the ground all silent. When he lifted his head he pointed across the street at a bar and said there’s lots of fresh pussy over there.

I’m sorry your father is an alcoholic. I’m sorry if he was never around. I’m sorry you couldn’t be there the night I met him to see how much he loved you and how much he was sorry. Sometimes when you return to the pain you can start to heal. Like returning to scene of an accident just to be sure that the man’s brains aren’t still splattered on the pavement, that the bloodstains are washed away, that the street is safe to cross.

Sometimes it isn’t safe at all.