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.)
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.
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?