Friday, October 31, 2008

Well Done

So it’s an embarrassment of riches when we are lucky enough to have two well stories in a single issue. In the magazine business, the “well” is the place where you run the meaty, in-depth features, which usually includes the cover story. With our little glossy—as opposed to, say, Vanity Fair—the well is often home to only one feature-length story. We try to dedicate as much space as we can to the well because it’s important to let a story breathe, to let the pictures compel the reader to come join in the conversation. And that it will be worth their precious time. In November we had two important stories to tell, so we decided, come hell or high water, to squeeze them both in.

The first is a profile of Madison’s Police Chief Noble Wray, who we named our 2008 Person of the Year. Public safety is on everyone’s minds—tonight’s Halloween festivities, which haven’t always ended well, are a prime example of why. And while Chief Wray has worked hard to make Halloween less drunken, reckless debauchery and more good, clean fun, citizens throughout the city aren’t feeling as safe these days. So we asked award-winning writer Frank Bures to explore the problem through the lens of a quiet and thoughtful Wray, who is policing a city that can no longer afford to see itself as a quaint little college town.

The second well story is a stunning portrait of seven survivors of domestic violence. Writer Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz weaves the stories of isolating fear and remarkable resilience together in a way that somehow gives me hope. That these women were brave enough to tell us what they went through means we can no longer ignore the pain and suffering that goes on behind closed doors. When women and children are abused and subjugated, societies weaken. Look at the Taliban in Afghanistan for evidence of the worst possible outcome of inequality and rule by ignorance and force. And even in a place like Madison, violence against women happens everyday but we don’t hear about it unless someone is severely injured or killed.

So if I was lucky to have two well stories in the magazine this month, I hit the jackpot with the writers who penned them. Frank and Maggie are two of my favorite storytellers, so I decided to ask them a few questions about how they do what they do so very well.

Maggie: What was it about the story of domestic violence that made you want to write about it? How prevalent it is (one in four women), and how little press it gets unless someone dies. The whole “murder-suicide” thing bugs me to no end, because it makes these events seem like isolated incidences—well, they're not. They are the inevitable end to a long-standing cycle of abuse within a relationship. I also knew that one third to one half of all Dane County arrests are domestic-violence related, so that made the lack of news coverage even more appalling to me. But it’s not that the media is being irresponsible, it’s far more complicated than that. Because of safety and privacy issues, because of fear and shame, these women are essentially muzzled. But abusers get their power manipulating those very same things—so maybe if we keep dragging the issue kicking and screaming out into the open, some of that power can be reversed. Mostly, it was really important to me to give these survivors a voice, and to show everybody else just how common these stories are.

Frank: You’ve profiled Bishop Morlino, Sen. Russ Feingold, brain researcher Richard Davidson and others for me over the last few years. What was different about Police Chief Noble Wray? One of my favorite writers, Gary Smith, says, “Each person’s life is a problem to be solved.” I think that’s really true. And not only is their life a problem they (and you the writer) are trying to solve, but there’s some larger story around their personal story that gives their story meaning. With Morlino it was the search for absolutes in a shifting world. With Feingold, it was a question of how you make the biggest decision of your life. With [UW–Madison men’s football coach] Bret Bielema it was the personal cost of success. With Davidson it was a question of free will. Noble Wray’s story, how he came from a tough background and rose to the top, is the perfect American story. But the larger narrative around that is about how Madison is changing, evolving, and what part Wray plays in that story. The challenge with writing about him was that he doesn’t much like to talk about himself, which is fine if you’re his neighbor, but not so good if you’re profiling him.

Maggie: You told me you envisioned the way you would write the story before you actually interviewed the seven survivors. How did that evolve as you went through the interview process and then sat down to write? If you’re trying to get me to publicly admit I hear voices in my head, then fine, you win. From the beginning I could hear the women’s voices in a chorus, kind of overlapping. Since I don’t like to go into a story knowing what I’m going to write, I tried to just get out of the way and focus on being a megaphone for them. But as the interviewing process went on, I was really struck by how different each of these women were, but how many of them were saying the exact same core things. One night I dreamed the story in its current format, with the women’s stories connected by identical quotes. So when I sat down to write, the only real outline I did was connecting those quotes in the right order. Then I just let the women speak. You’re welcome, I look totally crazy now.

Frank: I talk to a lot of young writers and journalism students about how in magazine journalism we “show, don’t tell” a story. In your profiles, you often do this by setting some amazing scenes for the reader. Talk a little bit about that process. Yeah, that’s a big difference between magazine and newspaper writing. What I do is sometimes called “narrative nonfiction,” where you’re trying to recreate a scene and transport the reader there. It involves more detailed and imaginative reporting, and I think it’s where my background as a travel writer comes in handy. You want the reader to be able to see and feel and hear the things that were going on, and in a way that contributes to the storyline, not in a way that’s just throwing things in. It’s basically storytelling through pictures and images—you have to visualize it. In the classic anthology, The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe says that with this kind of writing, information isn’t the basic unit of reporting. The scene is. So you have to imagine it, report it, recreate it and interpret it. And this can be hard with profiles, because you’re basically taking someone else’s life and making it your own.

As far as “show don’t tell,” it’s easy to say, hard to do. Basically I avoid adjectives, and try not to write in a way that manipulates someone into feeling/thinking/seeing something. I want them to arrive there themselves.

Maggie: It’s difficult to do these kinds of stories without being personally affected by them. How has this experience affected you? Well, I’m not letting it go. It’s definitely under my skin. I am considering starting a domestic violence blog to keep the conversation going, and I’ll probably keep bugging you for follow-up stories. I am completely humbled by the bravery these seven women showed in trusting me, in allowing me to speak for them— but there are many, many more who don’t have that option at all. Yes, it was emotional and depressing, but more than that it was really inspiring. I’m raising daughters. I feel like it’s my mandate to do my part in solving a social issue this critical. I want everyone else to feel that way, too.

Frank: You have two bylines in the November issue—you also wrote our travel essay and it’s this crazy trip you took from the suburb of Verona to downtown Madison by foot. First, what the hell were you thinking? Second, what are trying to convey to the reader through this kind of travel writing versus the more conventional service-oriented “go, see, do” story?
1.) I have no idea what I was thinking.
2.) One big pet peeve of mine is how everything in our society is preconceived and packaged for sale. This peeve doubles when it comes to travel, because travel is so much about your own experience in a place. And half of that experience—or more than half—is the imagination and insight you bring to it, as well as how you let it change you. So one thing I hoped to do with this piece was to inspire people to create their own experiences rather than just pay to consume someone else’s. There are so many fascinating things in this world, but they’re all on the road less taken. And that road lead me from Verona to Madison. It involved some chafing.

Chafing. I think I’ll leave it at that. Now do you see why I’m a very lucky editor?


Lisa Romeo said...

I don't recall how or when I stumbled across your blog, but I'm glad I did and check in every so often.

Love these two disparate yet equally interesting takes on narrative journalism, and the extra insight on the writing of the travel essay is terrific too.

I'm forwarding the link to my students in a freelancing class and in my personal writing class too.

If I lived anywhere near Madison, I'd likely be querying - you sound like an editor I'd enjoy working with.

Madison Magazine said...

Thanks Lisa! I love how writers work. You obviously do, too, since you teach them the craft. I'm grateful you took the time to comment.