Brendan Jones | The Moral Writer

Back in Sitka, taking a
breath with the family before traveling around Alaska to tour with the book, a
question keeps coming back: do we as writers take on certain responsibilities
as a result of the act of creation? And if so, how to fulfill these

For starters, I think what
we’re doing as story-makers – writing fiction – matters. There are stakes, and
we have a responsibility to honor these stakes. This means bearing witness,
and, to quote Rilke, “to trust in what is difficult.” Homer, the bards of
Ireland, troubadours in Southern France knew this – they took their bumps and
wrote, or recited like hell about it, as the case may be. Their storytelling
certainly was act of engagement with the wider world. Of course the writer has
the responsibility, first and foremost, to tell a personal truth, to write from
the core of the self. But what if this core ignores the world at large, and the
awfulness in it? How can you justify writing about the beauty of the Charles
Bridge if people are being incinerated an hour away? Writing is not, and cannot
be an absolute moral value. 

I’ve written political pieces for the New York Times and Huffington Post, but also have had the great pleasure of seeing the
novel land with people. While the op-eds create a quick, visceral response, the
novel (as I’ve been able to see it) taps into something different, a deeper
current. People tell back their stories. It connects deep within us, into some
underground river perhaps we’d been ignoring for too long.

Bottom line: we find
ourselves confronted by something terrible playing out before our eyes. An ecological
holocaust, how about that? Are we duty-bound to write about it? I would never
be so presumptuous as to construct rules of engagement for the written word.
And yet art that claims to be sufficient, exempt, autonomous, a universe unto
itself, is problematic – and not in a fancy, interesting postmodern way. Indeed
it’s part and parcel of the type of thinking that brought us to our current
impasse – impasse is the wrong word, that brought us into the current horror
we’re witnessing today. Sea lions beaching themselves in almond orchards, waiting
to die. The starfish die-off slowly moving its way northward up the west coast.
Or the sea lice on salmon from fish farms in British Columbia, the yellow cedar
die-off, glaciers crumbling, a familiar, depressing list. To turn the question
around, how can we NOT insert a moral component to the work we’re doing? And
how can we not take exception with work that privileges human consciousness
over and above the world we live in?

Cormac McCarthy looks
the holocaust in the eye when he writes about the brook trout smelling of moss,
and on the backs of the fish “vermiculite patterns that were maps of the world
in its becoming” in 
The Road. Anne Michaels does it
figuratively, in her poetry measuring the weight of oranges, or in her novel
, as she contemplates how humanism and an engagement with the sensual
world of Greece can heal the wounds of the Holocaust. I was reading Howard
Norman the other day and came across a passage in his essay “I Hate to Leave
This Beautiful Place,” when he discusses an Inuit man wailing at Sedna, a god
who has created a storm, putting a floatplane takeoff at risk.

[The Inuit man] had worked himself nearly
to tears. Again, I didn’t know for which trespass he was asking pardon – with
humankind there were so many and they occurred so frequently – nor did I know
if I should even have been looking at him. What is the proper decorum in the
presence of such a dramatic and intimate petition for mercy from invisible

Meanwhile, I helped his son, Peter Shaimayuk, load five electric guitars and
several sacks of mail into the cargo hold. The guitars were going to Winnipeg
for repair.

Here I find a nuts-and-bolts story of guitars needing repair in Winnipeg, but
one that is constructed 

out of a writerly core that has in mind and considers,
with every word, how we as humans orient ourselves to an uncertain and
crumbling world that we have created for ourselves. A good example of
environment being told through story. 

I do believe the act of writing, at its core, is about granting essence and
urgency and even personhood to the natural world around us. To make it come
alive, so we can taste it, feel its winds on the sides of our neck, taste the
brine, all of it. To acknowledge how we are hitched into a world that we are
destroying. And a writing that furthers our illusion of autonomy is morally
compromised. I believe that. And perhaps sitting down this evening, and working
this through, brought me to this conclusion. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but
after this book tour of eleven cities, meeting folks in the literary community,
reviewers, readers, I do think this.

Here’s a quote I love from Adam Gopnik: “We gawk and stare as the painters
slice off their ears and down the booze and act like clowns. But we rely on
them to make up for our own timidity, on their courage to dignify our caution.
We are spectators in the casino, placing bets; that’s the nature of the
collaboration that brings us together, and we can sometimes convince ourselves
that having looked is the same as having made, and that the stakes are the same
for the ironic spectator and the would-be saint. But they’re not. We all make
our wagers, and the cumulative lottery builds museums and lecture halls and revisionist
biographies. But the artist does more. He bets his life.”

Brendan Jones is the
author of the novel 
The Alaskan Laundry,
published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. A recipient of a grant from the
Elizabeth George Foundation, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony,
Fundacion Valparaiso, and Ragdale, he is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at
Stanford University. He has had work in the 
New York TimesPloughsharesNarrative
MagazinePopular WoodworkingThe Huffington Post,
and has recorded commentaries for NPR. Raised in Philadelphia, he took the
Greyhound west at the age of 19, ending up in Sitka, Alaska. He graduated from
Oxford University, where he boxed for the Blues team, then returned to Alaska
to commercial fish. He was a general contractor for seven years in
Philadelphia, before heading back to Sitka, where he now lives, commercial
fishing and renovating a WWII tugboat. |

1 thought on “Brendan Jones | The Moral Writer”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Yes, and you said it beautifully. The writer can't engage all the important concepts and all the horrors in every piece of writing, but he or she tries to make a difference. And that can be directly political, like some of John Haines' later work.

    P.S. Sorry I didn't see this post sooner.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top