These letters typically open with song lyrics. Sometimes a line from a movie or a childhood story. Maybe even a recent headline or an ancient proverb.
No matter what it is, the editor—whichever one of us forgets to say “Not me” after “Who’s writing the letter?”—weaves the premise of the letter into the theme of the issue, threads the theme of the issue around the topics of the articles and, often with a wink, ties the topics of the articles back into the premise of the letter.
It’s a tried and true formula. It’s tight, it’s neat, it’s smooth.
And as the staff and I reflect on the 19 years of Cipher preceding us, and the challenge of presiding over its 20th anniversary, the idea of formulas and templates is a recurring one. We’ve been handed such a distinct legacy. Where do we want to stay the course? Where do we want to diverge?
The Cipher has long advertised itself as an “Alternative News Magazine,” an unfortunately vague designation. We don’t peddle “alternative news,” whatever that may be, nor do we strive to be a counterpoint to the traditional news apparatus (rest easy, Catalyst). As best as we can discern, The Cipher’s trademark is creative nonfiction, be it long-form journalism, social commentary or photo essays.
But that’s not a particularly satisfying definition. It’s not tight, not neat and not smooth. If any of us had to deliver an elevator pitch, we’d be blabbering about personal narrative as the double-doors closed behind the put-upon executive. We kind of know what we are, but aren’t quite sure.
So, in honor of our hazy self-conception, we’re starting the year with an issue full of nearlys, closes and just-abouts. Becca Stine gives us a devastating account of the search for normalcy in a setting that’s anything but—the Balinese prison Kerobokan (p. 8). Anna Cain dredges through the bizarre world of television pitches to bring us the stories behind shows that were on the cusp of being made, but didn’t make the cut (p. 20). Ethan Cutler takes us into David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, “The Pale King,” and tries to make sense of the pervasive, agonizing boredom which Wallace so accurately diagnosed and so acutely suffered (p. 16).
We also get a suite of wonderfully reported political articles: Andrew Braverman’s profile of El Paso county’s most unlikely politician, Electra Johnson (p. 12), Catherine Sinow’s report on the increasingly prevalent, soon-to-be criminalized opiate Kratom (p. 30) and Pax Hyde’s analysis of ColoradoCare, a referendum to make Colorado the first state with a universal healthcare system (p. 36).
The spirit of these articles sheds light on how we think about the magazine itself. There’s no hard-and-fast rule about what it should be, but there’s always been a tacit understanding. It seems to work, even if we’re not always sure why.
But don’t take this as a knock on templates—not even the template we tend to fall into with these letters. I’ve used it before; I’ll use it again. In fact, if you read this one closely, you’ll notice I’m using it right now. Well, almost.
-Nathan Davis and the Cipher Editors