AWP Nugget: Immersion Writing

AWP, CHICAGO: Egads. I’m here to learn, but I wasn’t expecting to find myself facing fundamental questions about my work-in-progress. I do live a life open to possibility, however, and you can’t always control how possibility will manifest.

Allow me to back up a bit. I attended a Friday morning AWP panel titled “The Writer in the World: A Look at Immersion Writing.” As a sports fan I grew up admiring George Plimpton, who immersed himself so deeply in his writing that he even got to be a “quarterback” for the Detroit Lions. But as explained by Robin Hemley–a multi-published author and director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa–immersion writing should be viewed more holistically, incorporating “Memoir, Journalism, and Travel.” (OK, I cheated there; that’s the subtitle of his book A Field Guide for Immersion Writing.)

Robin's book is on the lower left; this is a collection of "things to read" I've purchased on the AWP Bookfair floor. Well, I didn't purchase Shaking One, the journal with the black-and-white gears (in the lower center). I have an essay published in that, and they kindly gave me a copy.

So what is it about this subject that has triggered me to provide a more personalized post than my other AWP nuggets? Perhaps I’m seeking to apply immersion technique to my AWP reporting. But it’s also because the speakers seemed to be addressing me directly regarding the travel memoir I’m writing, the story of my cross-country U.S. trip interviewing artists.

The first blow came from Stephanie Elizondo Griest, the author of two immersion memoirs set in exotic locales around the world. When her agent circulated a proposal for her first book, Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, the pitch was a book of straight journalism. The book needs to be more about her, editors said. Stephanie overcame her belief that memoirists were “navel-gazers” and surgically inserted herself into her story. Boom. Two offers.

At the beginning of 2011 my agent circulated a proposal for my road-trip book. We pitched the book as a straight work of journalism, examining what creativity meant to a cross-section of artists. Every editor rejected the work, but one wrote something along the lines of this: “I’ve reflected on The Artist’s Road proposal for some time now. I like the writing and the subjects are interesting, but there’s not enoughtherethere. The author needs to put himself in the work, to let us meet his subjects through him.”

And so, for the past year, I’ve been trying to do just that. I’m being assisted by VCFA instructors, but it hasn’t always proved as easy to me as Stephanie made it sound for her. Longtime readers know how I’ve been forcing myself to move beyond the rigidity of journalism.

Next up was Melissa Pritchard, a novelist-turned-immersion-journalist. She discussed meeting New York TImes journalist Nicholas Kristof in south Asia while writing about rescued sex-trafficking workers. Nick, as Melissa called him, approached reporting like an “adventurous boy,” full of incredible kindness and interested in his interview subjects, not himself.

I am not anything close to the journalist Kristof is, but I understand his approach. When I filmed those artists, I left myself out of the videos entirely. But there is no question the road trip affected me, deeply. Perhaps that is why, in the very last film I produced at the end of the road trip, I left in ten words spoken by me at the very end of my video interview with writer Erin Ergenbright, an alum of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. A modest debut, but an appearance nonetheless.

Behold: This is about 1% of the Bookfair floor, which I believe includes about 600 exhibitors. I think about 500 got money out of me. Now I'm going to need to spend more money to buy an extra suitcase in which to lug my purchases back home.

Piling on was Joe Mackall, author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, and co-founder and editor of one of my favorite literary journals, River Teeth. Joe expanded on a point Stephanie made, that it’s important to share your prose with your interview subjects before publication.

Hmm. As a journalist, I was always taught that while you can fact-check with your sources, you never show them your story ahead of time, so as to avoid compromising your journalism. I asked Joe about this during the Q&A, expressing concern about surrendering “editorial control.”

“It’s not about editorial control,” Joe replied. The author has the final say on what to include or not include, but it is of real value to get that feedback. He also said he’s always surprised at the reaction; the parts he anticipates resistance to often are not raised, but something he viewed as innocuous will trigger resistance. In the case of Plain Secrets, what upset his subject the most was being quoted as disparaging the state of his brother-in-law’s barn; Joe removed that passage. I can’t argue with that editorial choice.

I need to reflect on this, the idea that I should share my prose with my interview subjects if the manuscript should ever be completed and scheduled to be published. I’m still in touch with all of them, by email, Twitter or Facebook. I’m writing this book with the utmost respect for them–with “empathy,” to use a word Melissa said. “Immersion is negotiation,” Joe said. I can accept that.

Immersion writing, Robin said, “is not deeper immersion into the self, but a deeper immersion into the world.” I’m learning to put myself in my book, but yes, I’m trying to write about a larger world, as seen through my eyes, as reflected off of my interview subjects.

I’ll be learning more from Robin soon. After the panel I purchased his book A Field Guide for Immersion Writing at the University of Georgia Press table, and he was kind enough to sign it. He even has a chapter in there on writing a book proposal. Who knows? Maybe when I’m ready to circulate a proposal again, my agent will experience what Stephanie did with her revised proposal–two offers.

I’d settle for one.

Questions for my readers: What does immersion writing mean to you? Is there an element of immersion writing in fiction and poetry as well?

16 thoughts on “AWP Nugget: Immersion Writing

  1. I’m so impressed you’re cranking out these insightful posts during AWP! So fun to read. Just to add to the evidence, my friend’s proposal eventually sold when she turned it into a mix of memoir and journalism, though that is not at all what she initially intended.

    I can imagine it’s difficult to overcome those ingrained journalistic rules (which also make sense!) I think the added appeal of inserting your own experience is because we as readers want to connect to a person. Sure, maybe the emphasis should be on connecting to the subject (the artists you interviewed, for example), but you are the one filtering for us. *You* are the storyteller. I wonder if that also makes us trust what we’re reading more? Objectivity has always struck me as perhaps a good goal, but not a real thing. Somehow I’m more apt to trust someone who makes it clear that they are relaying their experience and opinion.

    As for showing your work to subjects, I just ran an essay by a family member and I’m glad I did. I’m still not sure whether I will try to do something with the piece, but it was illuminating and actually deepened our relationship. (Perhaps not the goal of writing, but really nice!) What was noted in the article held true – where I thought there might be resistance there was none. It was one single line that I wouldn’t have thought would cause an issue at all that caused a stir. And I did end up agreeing. Tricky stuff, this memoir, though. I’m still not sure at all how to negotiate the possible personal fallout I might cause with my words.

    Thanks for the reporting, Patrick. I like hearing *your* experience of the conference! ; )


    1. Sion, what a fantastic comment. Great to hear the anecdote about your friend and the reporting/memoir, but fantastic to hear your firsthand account of the essay you shared with your family member. How funny it worked out just like the panelists predicted! Or perhaps not so funny, if that is the way it usually plays out. I gathered from that panel, however, it doesn’t always lead to a deeper relationship–Stephanie said she lost a dear friend–so I’m so glad that happened for you. As for whether that was the goal of writing, why limit the scope!

      I’m glad you find these posts of value, Sion, and that I can be your eyes and ears, immersing myself in the conference.


  2. Kate Arms-Roberts

    What struck me reading this was how deeply a single talk can change our approach to our work. A session taught by Wayson Choy at the 2011 Ontario Writer’s Conference entitled “Risky Business – Telling the Story You’re Dying To Tell No Matter What People Think” entirely changed my relationship to my writing process. I expect to continue working through the implications of that talk on my work for some time.

    Reading your blog, I dream that your book will reveal not only the wisdom you gleaned from your interviewees and their insights into their journeys and processes, but also how the process of doing those interviews changed you, plus your thinking about how all of those stories shed light on the creative process in general. (And maybe, just maybe, explicit reflections on how society could (and whether it should) support creative journeys so that children who hear the call to create early don’t stifle ourselves.).


    1. Kate, how great to hear about that 2011 session that has recharted your writing. Have you blogged about that? I’d love to learn more.

      As for your second paragraph, here’s my reaction–I want to steal that for the opening of the book proposal! 🙂 Honestly, I couldn’t have said it better myself.


  3. Reality television has largely replaced the objective documentary for the same reason — to journey through the subject matter with a character. The reason, of course, is that a protagonist is fallible. Facts and perfection bore us. We want to see a character in the process of learning, seeing, frightened, arguing, ecstatic, sad, confused, not-knowing, shocked, in awe, stumbling, realizing…awakening. Patrick, it’s my half-baked idea that we as viewers receive actual nourishment (psychic, spiritual?) from vicariously living the life of a person who moves through a transition from not knowing to knowing. (that sounds terribly intellectual, doesn’t it?)


    1. You know, I found myself thinking about reality television, and wondering if there will still be a market for immersion journalism. I decided there will be, in part because it’s rare that a new medium completely supplants one that has had sustaining value, but also because some reality TV–I’m thinking travel shows–feature writers who still write.

      I like your point about the fallible protagonist. Let’s face it, Snookie would be pretty boring to watch if she was sober all the time. Of course, I don’t think her viewers see her growing a lot either, so there’s obviously other aspects of that “story” that draw beyond rules of narrative.

      I don’t think it’s half-baked to say we gain nourishment from living the lives of others, and I would say that is true of CNF and fiction and poetry. A good book fills me up, I hunger for it, it satisfies. Works for me.


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  5. Patrick, it occurs to me that after you publish your travel memoir, there might be a book in the story of your journey to infuse more of yourself into your writing and crossing the bridge from journalism into creative nonfiction. There would be a lot for other writers to learn from your experience. Or is that too “meta”? 🙂


    1. Thanks for that idea, Sue. I will say I am resistant to instructional writing; I do teach workshops on blogging, but on this site I’m more comfortable passing on others’ wisdom on creative writing and living artfully. But there’s no question about the fact that when I have completed this memoir process I will have learned a lot. It’s something to think about, the idea of writing about that.

      It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I already have a number of book ideas in mind for the “next” one. Whether any are any good or not is another matter!


      1. I wasn’t thinking of it having an instructional tone–that would take your character out of the story again, right? I’m not sure what form I envisioned, but something closer to the memoir genre. Thing is, you don’t know how the story ends yet as you are still on the journey. So tuck that idea away for several years and then, if you use it, be sure to mention me in the acknowledgements! ;-D (Kind of just kidding about the whole idea, but there might be some kernal of a decent idea in there somewhere.)


  6. Corey Barenbrugge

    Thank you for this piece, Patrick.

    This is a little different than what you’re talking about, but I’m helping a friend with a piece he’s writing about a parent with illness. My friend’s writing is interesting because he has a lot of touching and humorous stories and anecdotes, but I’ve felt there’s something missing. I realize, what’s missing is my friend. He’s there, as an actor in the story, but he’s just that, an actor with a supporting role; he hasn’t inserted himself as an integral character with thoughts and feelings and growth as he takes this journey with his parent. I think he sees this as his parent’s story, and not his own, as well.

    Your thoughts were very helpful.


    1. Wow, Corey, that seems spot-on. It would seem to be a pretty common issue. I’ve read memoirs where first-generation Americans write about their brave immigrant parents, and they succeed when the author realizes it’s not stealing the spotlight when they share their own childhood memories; quite the contrary, it gives us an intimate entrance to the story.


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