“[W]e’ll need you to steer clear of mentioning any drug-related violence/kidnapping/etc.”
Those were the only directives about the Mexico City feature that were sent to me by the editor.
You can read that, as I did initially, as a form of editorial whitewashing, or what Catholics refer to as a “sin of omission.” I’m not sure you’d be far off base.
But you can also read it, as a contact of mine in Mexico City did, as an opportunity to tell a narrative that stands as a radical departure from the dominant narrative. “I love your editor,” Ramon^ told me before he went on to recount a recent exchange he had with an editor at a major US-based newspaper. The editor contacted him to fact-check a story involving one of his properties. “I told him that the only problem I had was with the mention of drugs and violence,” Ramon told me. “It had nothing to do with the story. Can you believe the editor told me that mentioning these two things is the paper’s standard procedure for Mexico City and Mexico, as if they must precede any article with a disclaimer?”
Unfortunately, I could believe it.
Truth be told, I probably would have opened my own article with a similar disclaimer, something along the lines of “Despite daily news of narcoviolence in Mexico, the country’s capital is safe….” Initially, I felt compelled to correct a common misperception by acknowledging drug and violence issues and then promptly moving on, letting the body of the article stand as a defense, enumerating all the reasons why Mexico City is “worth” visiting.
The deeper Ramon and I got into our conversation, the more I was convinced that regardless of the editor’s intentions when he demarcated the “no-write” zone, the more freedom I had to write a feature that was free of what I was beginning to define as “higher-order cliches.”
As an editor and travel writing instructor, I’ve become finely attuned and intellectually allergic to descriptive cliches (for the cliches that make me break out into hives, check this article and this one), adjectives, usually, that have lost all of their descriptive power.
But I’m also susceptible to more subtle cliches, the ones that establish and confine the boundaries of our narratives, the ones that almost unconsciously guide the reader to approach an article with a particular opinion or mindset. I’d long felt frustrated by these types of constraints, but I was only just beginning to develop a name for them–higher-order cliches–and a theory about them.
I filed the story with the editor last night. As I re-read the article one last time before submitting it, I was pleased with the direction the piece had taken. Free of the meta-cliche of drugs and violence, I was able to describe Mexico City as I experience it– and as I hope readers can experience it, too.
What higher-order cliches have you found in your reading? And what meta-cliches have you fallen into in your writing? Share your experiences in the comments.