Friday, October 8, 2010

The Dutchman was drunk

"The Dutchman was drunk." It was an unconscious error, my ear attuned to the alliteration rather than the facts. Only after the Carnival article was published did I remember: He was Belgian.

The mistake was minor. It held no 'weight,' as they say in the biz, to the unfolding of the story. Maybe I noticed it when I realized that the sentence was changed to: "The Dutchman was tipsy." Now, to me, that mattered. Because he wasn't tipsy. And I would never use that word. He was drunk. Shitfaced, really. In fact, I was worried about him --worried that he might trip on a cobblestone or pass out in the parade.

I suppose the editors of the LA Times wanted to soften the blow, whether to keep the travel section family friendly or cater to advertisers who need to sell Rio, I don't know. In an earlier draft I'd written "the urine-scented streets." Evoke the senses, we are told. But when I consulted a prolific travel writer, he suggested I delete it. Most newspapers and commercial magazines don't want the gritty truth on a destination piece.

So it became "rain-drenched streets." Less evocative, so mundane. Cliche, really. One might even say it rained on our parade.

We're always told to write the truth. But it begs the question of what is considered 'truth' in nonfiction, and how meaning is affected, when facts are omitted or altered.

So what if he wasn't really a Dutchman? He was definitely drunk. And the sound effect was lost. I may as well have written, "The Belgian was tipsy."

{By the way, this post is in no way meant to disparage my editors at the LA Times. Especially at a time when papers are dying and editors overworked, they did an impressive job sharpening my grammar, asking for clarification where facts were fuzzy, and cutting the piece by 1/3 without changing its structure.}

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