Friday, June 13, 2008

Insert error

In the early '90s, I (naively) accepted a low-budget, state-funded job to write a small local history, something between a booklet and a book.

In this history I included a short passage about a star-crossed missionary couple that came West in 1839.

It was one of those probably-ought-to-be-simple chores that was anything but. On the one hand, I didn't want to plagiarize, but on the other hand I didn't want to introduce new meanings by rewording what little I had to work with. One particularly dicey problem was trying to write up an accident that the wife had. The information I had was that she was seriously hurt when her horse stepped in a badger hole. This may not strike you as a problem as far as retelling goes, but I grew up in horse country, and I was aware that there are several ways of getting hurt in that sort of scenario. Your horse can trip and you can fall off. Your horse can fall and fling you. Your horse can fall on top of you. Your horse can stay upright but panic and ditch you while doing violent maneuvers while out of its head. You can get caught in the stirrup but no longer be in the saddle; at this point the stirrup magically changes from a useful feature to part of an injury factory, the other main components of the disaster workshop being the horse and the landscape. Your horse can trip or jump sideways just so and sling your face into a handy tree limb, with unhappy results. Etc. Etc. Etc.

What I had managed to find in records seemed (one thing with another) to indicate that the horse had fallen. But whether the unfortunate rider got flung, or smashed, or what, was anybody's guess. Not that it mattered, overall, but I didn't want to introduce details that might not be right. I figure that history can get skewed enough without my help.

I didn't have a lot of time to spend on it, but, unfortunately, a small curse seemed to settle on me. No matter which way I went about it, I seemed to be accidentally describing one specific type of crash or another, or one type of injury or another, or I inadvertently placed the accident more specifically along the route than I could justify. Finally, I hit upon "After crossing the Payette River, Mrs. Griffin's horse stepped in a badger hole, and she was badly injured in the ensuing fall."

It wasn't good writing, perhaps, but at least it didn't change history as it had come down to me.

So, finally, I slogged my way through the project and sent it off to the enthusiastic bureaucrat overseeing the project.

When I got the booklet back for review, I found that the friendly bureaucrat's copy edit team had changed "ensuing fall" to "following autumn" - which was off by a season or two, since the Griffins had left the Whitmans and Spauldings in March of 1840, to make their way back to Fort Boise.

That they had started the trip in March was in the same paragraph as the "ensuing fall" business. It should have been obvious, in other words, that I wasn't using 'fall' as a less-academic-sounding version of 'autumn'.

I also thought it should have been evident from the context - horse steps in hole, calamity follows - but obviously I was wrong. I guess I should be glad that March hadn't turned into Two-Step or Double-Time or Journey or something like that. I mean, 'march' has more than one meaning, just like 'fall' does.

Alerted to the horrible possibilities, I read the ms with a fine-tooth comb, and with increasing dismay. The proofreaders had added in railroad lines I hadn't talked about, and otherwise larded the project with factual tidbits I couldn't footnote, and found surprisingly hard to verify.

So I contacted the friendly bureaucrat, and asked him what sources had been used for the additions. I stressed my willingness to change to the new data if it came from a better source than I'd been able to scurry up in the short time between assignment and deadline. The message I got back was that some academic sorts had been asked to proof the text, and they'd put in what they felt like adding. This was fine with me, them being experts and me being nothing but a reporter doing freelance work outside my usual field, but I wanted to check their sources against mine.

I couldn't do it. They'd put in things from memory...

Which, you know, sometimes works.

But since their names weren't on the book and mine was, and since we were on deadline, I put my foot down, and took their pet remembrances out, at least the ones I couldn't back up with written sources at my disposal. At least I hope I got them all out...

I was then (and still am) convinced that a good editor is above rubies. But I am now equally convinced that the editing process can be hazardous to your mental health, not to mention your reputation. Not to mention your ability to tell a story. Not to mention the historical record.

I see that Susan Wise Bauer has been having similar adventures as she watches one of her books move toward printing. Oh, my.

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