Invited to reflect on the tenth anniversary of the publication of Tinkers, I find myself first thinking about the five years between finishing the manuscript and publishing it, which often felt like wandering in the wilderness but proved to be the time during which I really learned to write.
Agents and publishers took a pass on Tinkers when it first went around. Most of their rejections were boilerplate form letters. Some were more specific and gave reasons why the book was unpublishable. Pondering them, usually briefly, before I tossed them into the trash, I found not only that I disagreed with every one of them, but that in aggregate they described exactly the kind of writing I did not like to read or want to write. So, I rejected the rejection letters.
My wonderful writing teachers, Marilynne Robinson and Elizabeth McCracken, always urged never to confuse publishing with writing, that they were two very different things. I took the rejection of Tinkers by the market to mean that if I meant to continue, it was possible that I would be a writer who wrote but did not publish. Rejection, then, freed me from thinking about publishing.
At first, of course, it didn’t feel a thing like freedom. I despaired at what I thought of as my fatally quaint and antique interest in and capacity for lyric pastoral, for birchbark metaphysics. But really, I’d been given the privilege of working my way out of the self-consciousness that comes from evaluating one’s natural artistic inclinations against prevailing conceit and fashion and into the self-awareness that makes for intellectual and aesthetic autonomy.
The more I worked, the closer I approached the qualities of imagination and beauty I found in my favorite books, the ones that made me want to write in the first place. I came to think of the work as more or less transcendentalist, since so many of my favorite writers came out of that tradition: Emerson, Melville, Dickinson, Sarah Orne Jewett, even Faulkner, even, maybe especially, Shakespeare (the last two of whom usually are not thought of as transcendentalists, but I claim them nonetheless!). Prevalent among their works is the privileging of our common humanity by virtue of examining and describing common human experience while forbearing any impulse to explain it.Writing and its integrity took on more and more of the qualities I loved most about reading books: solitude, quiet, introspection, the unparalleled and gracious sense of my imagination firing and filling with beauty.
I studied and practiced how to bring aesthetic pressure to bear on the English language to describe experience. That led to paying finer and more sustained attention to the experience of experience, of consciousness, really, in order to compose better and better descriptions of it—like being in an icy, brittle barn at dusk, cold and tired and smelling the hay and hearing an owl in the loft and finding your father weeping in an empty stall.
As I wrote, I read and reread. I consulted a copy of the huge, sumptuous, full-sized Oxford English Dictionary, too—invaluable, because, lowering into and exploring its vast reaches (take compass, canteen, and luxuriate, whenever the chance arises), it was thrilling to discover how many usages are cited from the works of writers like John Wycliffe, William Langland, William Tyndale, Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, the great-great-uncles of the transcendentalists and the very creators of modern literary English, which I took as affirmations sounding back through the far reaches of the language itself that I was heading in a good direction.
I kept writing increasingly intricate, miniaturist passages devoted to rendering the quality of light as the sun lowers through the bare trees in the woods north of Boston on a late November afternoon, to how grass is woven into a bird’s nest, to bizarre inventories of household knickknacks arranged by kind in the drawers of a peddler’s cart, and the unpublishable manuscript of Tinkers piled up and boiled down and piled up again while I learned by default the full value of being alone with the work and the words.
Writing and its integrity took on more and more of the qualities I loved most about reading books: solitude, quiet, introspection, the unparalleled and gracious sense of my imagination firing and filling with beauty. The din of the market and publication muted, consciousness itself came into finer, deeper resolution. It emerged from behind veils of noise, left them farther and farther behind, and precipitated into language. I don’t mean I “discovered myself.” Few things interest me less than myself as a subject for my writing. But few things interest me more than the experience of being a “self” and portraying the experiences of selfhood through literary characters composed of words.
Claims that the self and language do not exist are analogous to a fundamentalist baker claiming Beethoven’s sonatas don’t exist because they can’t be played on an oven. Or that this person doesn’t exist because the soul she feels she possesses can’t be a property of a brain, which is no more than an ornate wad of offal. Such claims are the purview of dim wits thrashing in the shallows of thought, at best. At worst, they are the latest recrudescence of age-old violent bigotry, eugenics trading its cranial calipers for an MRI machine.
Unfortunately, getting caught in the ad absurdum cul-de-sacs of such thinking is widespread and the woe of many an otherwise self-confident and productive writer. I spend a lot of my time as a teacher directing students back toward their own artistic impulses. They are usually pleased by that. Think about it: some tenured philosophy professor or some neuroscientist funded by a corporation tells a young person there is no you, you literally do not exist, and that person eventually believes it, over the evidence of her own experience, which the philosopher and scientist assure her is no evidence at all. My imagination fails at how a writer could make a beautiful work of art believing such junk. Part of what I learned during that time alone is that such junk in fact ruins the imagination. It cancels the very possibility of the sort of transcendentalist thought I’ve come to cherish.
During that non-publishing era, I also got what I thought of as a second MFA degree sitting next to the drum kit of the jazz musician Elvin Jones at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I played drums (not particularly well) for years, so I was able to follow what Jones played with understanding and think over the years about what it would be like if it were transposed into written words (synesthesia is a wonderful thing—Jones perceived the various sounds his drums and cymbals made in terms of color, and thought of himself as making paintings when he played).Literary prizes are always an uproarious and partisan spectator sport. That’s part of the fun.
Over the course of maybe four dozen nights spread over ten years, I had the priceless experience of listening to and watching Jones put outrageous amounts of beauty into the world with his bands, set after set. No matter whether he came to the drums contented, peeved, exhausted, with a head cold or a good night’s rest, every time I saw him, he gave the four count for the first song and launched straight into the furthest reaches of art. He composed sublime sentences and paragraphs and entire libraries of beautiful thoughts through his drums.
Every word he said, as it were, had thoughtfulness and meaning behind it, and he brought each one into the world through his drums by paying the closest attention to experience, to the moment itself, much like Emerson, much like Dickinson, much like Melville. And he did so with the added urgency and righteousness of his art also constituting his resistance against the physical and psychic violence perpetrated against black people in America, another astonishing gift he and other jazz musicians gave that I was able think about as I watched and listened to him play from no more than five feet away over all those years: the artistic ideal that the only proper response to violence and humiliation is beauty.
It occurred to me that jazz musicians like Elvin Jones and John Coltrane, for whom Jones most famously played drums, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and many, many others, were themselves 20th- and 21st-century transcendentalists. No one would ever mistake an Elvin Jones solo for anyone else’s. That singular drumming began and ended with him: a genre of one. The same goes for Mingus and Dolphy and Coltrane. And none of those guys would have heard a word of this shit about how there is no self, no soul, no imagination, no beauty, how there is no mind, how the brain is just a piece of meat, either. A pork chop never composed a jazz tune. A pot roast never wrote a poem. There never will be a filet mignon that even likes to listen to jazz or read poems.
Well. This reminiscence is a bit more peppery than I anticipated. But I only mean to illuminate the spirit and directions my thinking and writing of Tinkers took during the years between when I first tried and finally published the book.
When Tinkers made it into print, I gained degrees of appreciation and love for independent publishers and bookstores I otherwise would not have had. I will forever be grateful that working with Erika Goldman at Bellevue Literary Press gave me entrance into the company of people who devote their lives to finding, editing, publishing, pitching, and selling books that might otherwise be overlooked, who do so for the same reasons I discovered over the years of learning to make art for art’s sake, and who do so from the often-fragile tabernacles of independent publishing houses and independent bookshops.
Best of all was the opportunity to act as an ambassador for independent publishers and bookstores when Tinkers was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Using the attention that came along with the prize as a chance to name check as many indie folks as possible in as many contexts as possible will always be one of the greatest joys of my life.
Whatever suspicions are merited about literary awards and how they’re deployed, Tinkers getting the Pulitzer directed attention not only to the existence of the large, vibrant, ongoing, and I’d say perennial grassroots community of independent readers and purveyors of books in our culture, but also to the fact that Tinkers made its way around the country pretty damn well before the prize, almost entirely by word of mouth and handselling.
Tinkers winning the prize was as dismaying to some people as it was pleasing to others. Literary prizes are always an uproarious and partisan spectator sport. That’s part of the fun. It speaks to a larger point about all different sorts of books needing to be allowed into the world so they can find all their respective sorts of readers. It also speaks to the source powering the entire matter: people care very, very passionately and fiercely about books. A natural and desirable consequence of writing fiction according to one’s deepest experience of the world is that it will meet with divided opinion. That’s good. As long as there are as many publishers and booksellers of good faith making and getting good books written in good faith to readers who read them in good faith, that’s great.
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.