“What magazines do you read?” one professor asked a group of us in my first year as an MFA student. People spoke up quickly. The New Yorker. The Atlantic. The New York Times Magazine. Harper’s. A smattering of literary journals. I’d heard of all these publications, but had never even opened most of them. I once bought an issue of Harper’s at an airport, but was bored almost immediately.
I first thought of “being a writer” as finding a cultural niche then burrowing into it. I figured, then, that I needed to find a magazine that I’d fit into. East Coast fiction writers read The New Yorker. West Coast writers, McSweeney’s or some other ironic, underwhelming, mysterious publication. What about me, a young nonfiction aspirant from the suburbs of Houston?
I had seen the title somewhere before. It glowed in my memory. I went home that day and bought a subscription to it. I got the first issue soon after. It was full of advertisements. It was liberal in its politics. It was distinctly Austin; the strange hippie heart of hog-tying, oil-drinking Texas beat loudly in the writing. It was, at once, shameless in its touting of the state’s advantages, critical of its backward politics, genuinely curious about its unique and violent history, and resignedly playful about its miserable weather and oil dependency. I instantly manufactured the dream of one day working there.
That Texas Monthly exists may not surprise you. That the writing it contains is good, often excellent, may.
This is not a blog post meant to convince you to read a magazine whose content is restricted to things Texan, as I’m sure those of you not from the state nurture some amount of healthy skepticism toward the zeal of its residents. However, this is a blog post meant to convince you to read an article from it, written about a Texan issue, but exploring deep existential questions of blame, justice, imprisonment, and retribution. It’s called “The Innocent Man” and is available in its entirety here. It was published in Texas Monthly, in two parts, late last year.
If the title alone is not enough to convince you, here’s a summary: in the mid-80’s, Michael Morton was convicted for killing his wife in their Austin home, in the presence of their three year-old son. Twenty-five years of prison-time later, DNA evidence proved he didn’t do it. Colloff spent what must have been a million hours talking to the wrongly-imprisoned man. She builds scenes. She somehow is able to translate real-life characters onto a page. She has mastered the chronology and explains it with exceptional clarity. Pamela Colloff has somehow managed to research and publish tens of thousands of words about a real-life court case that rivals Capote in its ability to hold my attention.
No? Ok. The remaining skeptics must go here: The 2013 National Magazine Awards. Scroll down to “Feature Writing Incorporating Profile Writing.” Notice, too, the other magazines on that list. You may have heard of some.
Ben Dolan is in his third year of the MFA program in Nonfiction at the University of New Mexico. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review.