Tinkers Freedom

Every year around this time, I set aside a few books to read during late summer afternoons, when the work day ends and there are no papers to grade. There’s a certain style of writing — almost a genre unto itself — that fits right into that particular lazy, hot, porch-swinging slice of time.

The first book on that list this year, for me, is Paul Harding’s Tinkers. I can’t wait to drift in and out of its consciousness.

Harding first landed on my radar when I read this part of an essay he wrote for Lit Hub:

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.

I cherish this quotation for several reasons.

First, when Harding was having trouble publishing the novel Tinkers — which went on to become one of those huge success stories that started with complete failure — he thought back to his teachers. They helped him to persevere, stay whole, and stick to his plan. After they had taught him! That’s not necessarily in the job description of a teacher, and it’s not what teachers think about when they plan lessons or meet with students to offer extra help, day-to-day. But it happens. The memory of certain teachers can sustain us; their example, when we learned from them, can offer us models for thinking and being; sometimes, even, our teachers remain active parts of our life, long past the time when we shuffled our of their classrooms for the last time. I’m glad Harding points these things out, even if obliquely.

I’m also glad to be able to savor his wonderful, willful misreading of the market’s reaction to his work. I don’t mean to turn Harding into some kind of effectiveness guru, but here, he’s dropping some serious science. If you want to make a unique contribution, whether in writing or business or family or something else, it’s so important to understand where you’re actually putting your effort. In fact, it’s essential to avoid self deception and compromise. There’s nothing wrong with publishing or marketing or even proofreading . . . but these things should not be confused with actual writing. Likewise, when you’ve written and you want to sell your book — so that, maybe, you can afford to write the next one — you shouldn’t confuse writing in the basement or the garage, or reading on a porch swing in late summer, with the work of publishing and selling.

What’s the actual task in front of you? What yeses, and more important, what noes, will help you to do the work that you were meant to do in the world? In whatever you do, don’t confuse writing with publishing.

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