a literary journal +

Behind the Veil of Appearance

Recently, I’ve been struggling to write about … let’s call it nature (shameless self-promotion or me on golden eagles). The struggle comes from the fact that I’m a city critter, and not just any city but Gotham, where we have three species of animals: the rat, the roach, and the pigeon. What I struggle with is my ignorance of the natural world. I don’t have a vocabulary to talk about what I see, even when it moves me. Birds have wings, some are bigger than others. Some have long beaks, some short. Lizards are a dusty green. Plant-life makes a russet smear on the ubiquitous California hills. The impulse is to wax romantic about what you see, like D.H. Lawrence in Mexico rhapsodizing about the peasants on the side of the road squatting with the patient enduring ancient wisdom of their ancestors, a symbol of human suffering and endurance. When the reality is that they were waiting for the bus. Lawrence was a lot better on miners in Northern England – that was the world he’d grown up in. He knew it. The same holds for say, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus which deals a lot with music, particularly Schoenberg and tone rows. Mann didn’t know much about music, so he went to Theodor Adorno, who had studied with Schoenberg (all three men were living in exile at the time. In Hollywood!). You can actually pick out the places in Faustus where Mann is putting in his own responses about music and where he’s drawing on Adorno. The Mann stuff is gooey romanticism, souls soaring, the spirit of man, that kind of garbage, while the Adorno sections have a depth that only knowledge can provide. Which is not to say that knowledge is enough to write well – hell no. But I think it’s an essential first step. You have to show respect to your subject in its own … I guess the word I’m shrinking from is ‘being.’ Otherwise you’re just falling back into yourself, into the brutality of mysticism. Mental masturbation.


  1. Hey Roberto.
    I struggle with similar problems, and not just because I live in NYC, but because I’m lazy when it comes to research. Years ago I wanted to write a non-fictional story centered around a small park in Chelsea where I practice tai chi, and I could not find anyone who could tell me what kind of trees those were, the ones in the park or the ones on that street. So I said the hell with it and wrote the story minus certain specific details, and if finally ended up in my file of “stories to do someday.” Yeah, someday when I’m willing to get off my ass and do the research. Remember those Ian Flemming novels about 007? One thing that made them so wonderful was the incredibly rich detail, of plant and animal and insect life in Jamaica or wherever, the details about the diamond and gold business, the descriptions of exotic cities all over the world—-and all of them written at a time predating Google. But you’re still young enough to get out there and gather details, so give yourself a break. The Golden Eagles piece is great.

  2. Esteban
    Research is a big part of it. I think I’ve figured out to give the veneer of actually having background on what I’m writing about (and yeah, the interweb helps). Beyond research though, there’s just that ability to write comfortably that only comes, for me, when I’ve found a language for my subject. Which research helps, but not just research alone. For example, there is great travel writing that is great because the writer recognizes that he doesn’t know anything. Proust doesn’t know anything technical about music, and yet, his writing on the Vinteuil sonata works, at least in the context of Le Recherche.

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