Moral Purpose, As In … Writing?

John Gardner, Novelist & Professor (2)

John Gardner, Novelist & Professor (2)

I sorely regret one thing about my education: that I was never able to take coursework under John Gardner, who taught in the University System where I earned my English degree (SUNY.) Had I learned what he taught earlier on, the course of my whole life may have run differently thereafter.

Here is a quote from Gardner that illuminates why I say this:

“Let me quote at some length Tolstoy’s closing argument in ‘What Is Art?’ for though we may not be as sure as Tolstoy that the Kingdom of God is nigh, the argument for moral art, and against so-called art that ridicules ideals, still seems to be correct, with or without its religious premise. Tolstoy writes:

The task of art is enormous. Through the influence of real art, aided by science, guided by religion, that peaceful cooperation of man which is now maintained by external means—by our law-courts, police, charitable institutions, factory inspection, and so forth—should be obtained by man’s free and joyous activity. Art should cause violence to be set aside.

And it is only art that can accomplish this.

All that now, independently of the fear of violence and punishment, makes the social life of man possible (and already this is an enormous part of the order of our lives)—all this has been brought about by art. If by art it has been inculcated on people how they should treat religious objects, their parents, their children, their wives, their relations, strangers, foreigners; how to conduct themselves towards their elders, their superiors, towards those who suffer, towards their enemies, and towards animals; and if this has been obeyed through generations by millions of people, not only unenforced by any violence but so that the force of such customs can be shaken in no way but by means of art: then by art also other customs more in accord with the religious perception of our time may be evoked. If art has been able to convey the sentiment of reverence for images, the Eucharist, and for the king’s person; of shame at betraying a comrade, devotion to a flag, the necessity of revenge for an insult, the need to sacrifice one’s labor for the erection and adornment of churches, the duty of defending one’s honor, or the glory of one’s native land—then that same art can also evoke reverence for the dignity of every man and for the life of every animal; can make men ashamed of luxury, of violence, of revenge, or of using for their own pleasure that of which others are in need; can compel people freely, gladly, and spontaneously, to sacrifice themselves in the service of man.

The task for art to accomplish is to make that feeling of brotherhood and love of one’s neighbor, now attained only by the best members of society, the customary feeling and the instinct of all men. By evoking under imaginary conditions the feeling of brotherhood and love, religious art will train men to experience those same feelings under similar circumstances in actual life; it will lay in the souls of men the rails along which the actions of those whom art thus educates will naturally pass.”(1)

All of that is why I am reading Gardner now and enjoying his works so much. I’m finally learning what I needed to know all along (the above only partially covers it) about writing books. If I’m going to go through the agony, I also want the ecstasy part of becoming a notable writer. That means nothing that really matters to Literature’s meaning and value can be left out of my own works.

I know why I write and that I do it for a truly worthy reason far surpassing monetary compensation or even acclaim. Not that money and acclaim wouldn’t be good, some day, even if I write works worthy to be called “literary.” Maybe, especially in spite of their literary character, it would be good. Even thrillers can be literary. Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogs is a case in point. Ask me later about all of the other works of Gardner’s that I study. I have a hunch I’ll find mostly more of the same.

I find in John Gardner a writer whose fierce loyalties agreed with my own. If I could bring one teacher back from the dead, it would be this man who I never had the pleasure of meeting or studying under.

Such is the power of books, and of morality found in many of them. That goodness makes us yearn for more of the same, to seek it out and create more of it in our own lives.

Many, if not most, of Gardner’s works are available on The triple-book collection of his didactic books is a treasure trove for aspiring writers. These three books are available as a set in Kindle for the cost of a cheap lunch.

— JR

1 Gardner, John, (quoting Tolstoy,) On Moral Fiction (p. 27). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

2 Public Domain,

Already Too Late?


We Earth-dwellers are developing a growing fascination with climate change as the paramount issue affecting our species’ future. This awareness began around the release of the film An Inconvenient Truth. Many of us have recognized the extreme importance of stopping and reversing uncontrolled climate change, and rightly so. Those who deny the truth of climate change to serve their petty greed have become the greatest fools in all of history and everyone knows that. Their only argument is denial of facts that are clear, obvious, well-known and generally accepted. Climate change denial is the current folly that’s equivalent to flat-earth theory.

Climate change itself is not as primal as we may assume, despite all of the media attention it receives, because it's not actually the root cause of our worst issue. Contrary to that breakout climate film’s title, it’s subject matter is ironically, too convenient and a clearly obvious secondary issue. Environmental degradation is a consequence of a deeper root cause. Something else more primal, immediate, and threatening matters far more than our degrading climate.

It's past time for us to think again and refocus on the root cause of climate change: Planet Earth's accelerating human overpopulation. We can’t fix climate change in isolation because overpopulation keeps on driving it. We ask how we could ever reverse our rush into oblivion. That’s actually quite obvious but unfortunately, it’s also quite a threatening issue to even admit, much less to tackle for resolution. It seems impossible to correct but the stakes are clear:

Wake up or go extinct.

It has been proposed that the Earth's maximum carrying capacity for human life limits-out somewhere around one billion people, worldwide. Right now, in January of 2019, world population is estimated above seven billion resource consumers. If the Earth's accelerating degradation is to be stopped, we have to focus on reversing the wasteful resource consumption that human overpopulation causes. We must not only reverse over-consumption but also re-balance distribution of resources (meaning wealth) more fairly at a level that gives real, practical meaning to the concept of "sustainable."

Then future generations will have a fighting chance to achieve survival and lasting prosperity for everyone. The rugged individual that built America is not the right hero type for our reality survival show. The type of characters we need to champion a sustainable future are socially aware, self-limiting, responsible, informed, empathetic and altruistic.

Too many of us simply don't care what happens to our life's former setting after we die. We leave this earth like actors leaving the stage after a final performance but all the effects of how we lived continue. Our justification is, "if I won't suffer consequences, why should I care?" This is the ultimate tragedy of our creeping, materialistic, mass narcissism. To survive as a species we must evolve further. We have to transcend narrow self-fascination in favor of a common purpose to achieve long-term safety and wellbeing for our descendants.

We have a responsibility to others who follow us even if we’ll never procreate children. It's something like leaving a picnic area cleaner and more natural than you find it but on a far more telling plane of meaning. It's simply the decent thing to do. Knowing yourself as a caring and aware person, at least part of the time, brings a special, rich satisfaction to your self-image regardless of what others think. But usually, decency and sensitivity are noticed and respected, even admired. These traits spread virtue and invite a response-in-kind which tends to encourage emotions and behaviors that support our mass survival. These are good practices and we can strive to live by them despite any personal imperfections.

Achieving a functional balance between planetary birth rate and global death rate must become the most important concern and goal of all time. Failing in that, we will continue mass over-consumption that keeps accelerating planetary destruction until our present spaceship, the Earth, becomes a burned-out shell and at best, the human race regresses to a stone age life-quality. Worst case, we will go the way of the dinosaurs. This weighs on our minds unconsciously. It’s why our media are colored by darkness and pessimism. We’re trying unconsciously to work through our fear of what’s coming. Just tally up the dystopian novels and movies that are circulating these days. How many bright, positive visions of mankind’s future can you find?

Some say it's quite possibly already too late for us to wake up, to smell the smog and see the oceans rising and the seas awash with spilled crude oil with much of the human race suffering; too late to do all of the right things at every level of human organization, on a planetary scale. Truly responsible world leaders would take up this cause and help shepherd us to achieve the only goal that really matters in this day and age: zero population growth followed by population decline to a sustainable level.

We can reverse the problems that overpopulation causes by backing out of it opposite the way we got into it. Let’s consider spending that five trillion dollars on solving overpopulation instead of a bizarrely ridiculous wall at the US southern border that we don’t need, shouldn’t want, and that will not achieve the stated purpose. The border-wall proposal is emotionally driven, unwise and a desperate stab at fixing a symptom rather than a cause and doing that in the wrong way. It’s not really about general wellbeing. It’s an attempted distraction from what it’s really about — making a tiny, rich minority even richer. Being super-wealthy has never made anyone truly happy but it has made many who thought it might bring happiness, quite miserable.

The answer is clearly not to keep doing the same old thing by finding some new planet to colonize and rape like space conquistadors. Forget Mars. Forget space travel except for the journey through space that we are already taking as Earth passengers.

The real need is right here, right now, and could not be more imperative to recognize and to resolve. Planetary homeostasis is the grand challenge of the ages and the most urgent imperative that the human race has ever faced. World wars, major conquests, moon launches, plagues, self-driving cars — other human involvements are insignificant by comparison. Some sort of balance will reset life no matter what we do with policy but the key to human long-term prosperity is to do what it takes to sustain our kind, still thriving on the face of the Earth. Or the new homeostasis could well happen without humans around.

How will we ever manage to throttle human reproduction enough that we'll survive accelerating overpopulation and achieve a satisfying and sustainable quality of life for everyone? By providing everyone with both the means and the motives.

We are called upon to stop ourselves from destroying our environment and consequently our lives by achieving a net balance between what we take from the earth and what we give back, and all without damaging the environment. This will require greater awareness and self-restraint, deeper understanding, and a general re-thinking of our life-purposes during this century. Is life really just about ruthless money-grubbing, owning stuff, and social competition? Or is life’s meaning about something higher, gentler, grander, perhaps more noble? We could achieve peace based on sufficiency for everyone, genuine equality, social justice, and harmony between peoples and nations.

We are compelled to make the longer term more important than the short term; to redefine what makes us happy; even to realize, for the first time, on a mass scale, what a healthy happiness comprises and how it’s practiced. When we get clear on how to feel deeply fulfilled and also be safe at the same time and for the long haul, we'll become able to avoid the demise we're inevitably facing as a species. In other words, we must stop thinking and acting like immature, failed attempts at becoming empathetic, self-managing adults. Without right values, we humans simply become a plague upon the Earth.

Our first step is to finish growing up, emotionally. Then we need to think with that emotional maturity, guided by humanistic values that support mass sustainability and place its value above all of the passing, and ultimately trivial amusements that distract us. Then build the balanced lives that we can achieve for ourselves and for generations to come.

Here are some sobering, data-driven insights to inform thinking about overpopulation and its consequences. Check out Consider the Population Issue, a FlipBoard compilation by Joseph Riden:

Care to Comment?

Ebook cover for the forthcoming novel. Print cover will be based on this.

Ebook cover for the forthcoming novel. Print cover will be based on this.

After about a year of composition, self-editing, beta reading, edits and rewrites, the Sea Goddess release is forthcoming soon. The image above is what I believe to be the final design for the ebook cover. The paperback cover will of course wrap around with a spine and back with all of the trimmings. But this post is about the art.

How does this look to you?

Please comment with your honest and tactful responses, especially about emotional tone. Does this cover give you an itch to pick up the physical book or to open the book’s preview and see if you’d want to read it? If not, why not?

The genre is literary and mainstream. The story is taken from life with my former wife who became a lifelong friend. Nancy was the inspiration for the character Jess in this book. It could have been a memoir except for that irresistible urge that drove me to enhance it slightly to create the most irresistible story I could tell.

Please use the comment function at the bottom of this blog post to offer any observations or suggestions about the cover. The icon is small so look carefully, on the left below the signature line.

Your constructive help is greatly appreciated. Does this cover pique your curiosity enough to give the book a chance?

Thanks in advance,