Narrative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction. The New Journalism. Longreads. #longform. The names for deeply reported and artfully told journalism have changed over the years, but the craft itself has not. Even in 2018, when hot takes and tweets and news aggregation have become de rigueur, there is still a need, and demand, for in-depth, nuanced, sensitive, and complex storytelling. Thankfully, talented, determined magazine journalists the world over recognize their obligation to deliver such transformative pieces.
For more than two decades, the editors of 5280 have made it a priority to include this kind of storytelling in every issue, to make these compelling articles part of the eclectic mix we provide to our readers each month—not just because they’re memorable but also because they’re important. These pieces don’t necessarily sell magazines—publishers of city and regional magazines depend on dining and travel coverage and best-of packages to move copies on the newsstand—but they do connect readers to the publication in meaningful ways. When it’s well executed, narrative journalism transports the reader to unfamiliar settings, to other eras in history, and into the minds of peculiar, mysterious, or extraordinary people. As Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning author Tracy Kidder and his editor Richard Todd put it in their book, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, “A story lives in its particulars, in the individuality of person, place, and time.”
Being able to construct a story that “lives in its particulars” is significantly more difficult than it sounds. Writers, in the act of writing, often send me (as their editor) notes that say, essentially, “writing is really, really hard”—typically with a few choice modifiers thrown in. They’re right; writing is hard. But the challenges of crafting a compelling nonfiction narrative begin well before a writer sits down at her Mac to type out the opening words of a first draft. Although 5280 likes to break news, our mission as a monthly publication skews toward providing clarity and context and—if we’re doing our jobs well—telling stories that offer some sort of universal insight into what it means to be human. Fiction writing offers this wisdom through the settings and characters authors invent; nonfiction writing is, by definition, rooted in all the messiness and improbabilities of the real world. There are very few neat narrative arcs in life. Sometimes these stories raise more questions than they answer. Sometimes the plots take unexpected—and nonsensical—turns. Sometimes they don’t have satisfying endings. Nevertheless, it’s up to the writer to discover the fundamental facts of the story and organize them in a cohesive, comprehensible way—finding the through-line, or narrative thread—that compels the reader to keep turning the page.
This all starts with reporting. “Reporting” isn’t a particularly sexy word—it conjures images of a rumpled, caffeine-addled journalist pressing play on a digital recorder, or a bespectacled research assistant rooting around in musty archives at the public library—but no good nonfiction story ever came into being without meticulous, dogged reporting. The very best nonfiction writers, of which there are many in this anthology, pride themselves on their reporting—even, perhaps, more so than their wordsmithing. They are relentless in uncovering details, in taking time to understand their subjects, and in witnessing scenes that lend the richness that is unique to this kind of journalistic storytelling.
Then comes the “really, really hard” process of writing, of discerning the structure of the piece, of deciding how it will be told, of figuring out which storytelling techniques to employ. Writers work in different ways: Some hammer out a couple thousand words in a day knowing full well there will be significant revising the next day (and probably the day after that, too). Others produce a couple hundred words in the same period of time, agonizing over every single syllable. All the while, an editor is there playing multiple roles: cheerleader, psychotherapist, sounding board, friend. If there’s one thing most people don’t know about editors’ jobs, it’s the fact that most of what we do isn’t rearranging words and sentences and paragraphs. There’s a lot of that, yes, but there’s also a lot of encouraging, cajoling, and listening. I have a quote from New Yorker editor David Remnick on my corkboard to remind me daily of my responsibility as someone who helps bring these stories into the world. “A real editor is focused totally on the writer’s work and helping the writer realize a vision of the piece or the book he’s set out to do,” Remnick once said. “Editing requires a certain selflessness that is hard to find.”
I don’t mean to be precious about the struggles writers and editors face in the process of putting these stories together. We’re not performing life-saving surgeries or researching ways to ensure the citizens of underdeveloped countries have access to clean drinking water. But ours is a craft that requires a specific skill set, one that includes the ability to sympathize with others, to listen, to be open-minded, to be observant, to be persistent, and not least, to be talented in translating ideas into words on a page. Having all of these skills is a rarity. We at 5280 are lucky to have employed and worked with a group of writers who are quintessential examples of what journalists can and should be.
Each of the stories in this collection is its own work of art. Each stands alone as a superior example of narrative nonfiction, regardless of whether it’s a lyrical personal essay, a serious investigation, or a poignant look at life in Denver or Colorado. It has been my great joy and privilege to have worked with many of these writers and to have been a part of a few of these narratives. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them, because as difficult as they are to produce, these are the types of stories we are proud of, care about deeply, and believe truly matter.
This essay appears as the Introduction to Mile High Stories. Buy your copy today.