I had a great exchange with another writer who wants to begin a magazine full of first-person stories in the vein of Morbid Curiosity, which I edited for 10 years.
His initial note, with identifying information removed:
"I'm studying journalism in Toronto. I was a big fan of your work and read Morbid Curiosity Curse the Blues in a day. Since then, I've bought copies for most of my friends. I'm currently working on a magazine as part of my final assignment. It focuses on amazing firsthand experiences. My goal is to be able to publish.
"I will be speaking with a prison guard and a prison nurse, in the next few weeks, and am trying to line up an interview with a prisoner or someone who has served time in order to get an understanding of prison life. My goal is to write articles that put the reader there and let them experience these lives from a safe distance.
"I was hoping I could pick your brain for some advice and experience. You received so many amazing stories from first-person perspectives and seen so much yourself. I was wondering how you managed to get others to open up to such personal and often painful memories.
"I'm also curious as to what you felt made a good story and what didn't."
So, immensely flattered, I wrote back:
In terms of getting people to open up about their stories: I was continually amazed by the things to which people would confess. I tried to make Morbid Curiosity magazine a very safe space where anything could be said. Often, I had people lamenting that something worse hadn't happened to them, so they would have something to write about.
It may have been easier for me to collect stories because the magazine only published first-person essays. People could confess in the privacy of their own homes. I tried to stay respectful, treating the ghost stories and alien abductions (for instance) as true because they were true for the people who experienced them. In other words, something life-changing had happened to these people, and a ghost or an alien abduction was how they explained the experiences to themselves. Even so, I did a fair among of careful vetting, asking questions to clarify the essays. Some stories couldn't stand up to the scrutiny, so I let those pieces go.
If you are going to interview everyone yourself and write the stories up as articles, I would try to be as sympathetic a listener as possible. Listen without judging. If you seem like someone to whom they could say anything, they likely will.
In terms of what makes a good story: I looked for pieces where the voice of the author came through very strongly, so that the reader got a good sense of the person behind the "I". I wanted events that had changed the authors, so I looked for stories that were short on set-up and long on perspective. I wanted to know not only what happened, but how things changed afterward. Some authors really fell apart when it came to self-reflection, so I had to pass on those stories. That said, some of my favorite stories were the ones where the authors were clearly self-delusional and the reader could see things in their texts that the authors themselves missed. The conclusions the author came to after the event was over weren't the ones that the readers would reach.
Good luck with your magazine! Publishing Morbid Curiosity was a joy and an honor. I hope you find the same pleasure.
If you're interested, I blogged about my own experiences working with prisoners on their stories: http://redroom.com/member/loren-rhoads/blog/good-manners-and-bad-behavior
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