AWP 2014: The Ethics of Immersion

March 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

downloadA guest post from Ann Beman.  (For those of you wondering, we still have about ten more panel reports in our queue, and will continue rolling them out into next week):

Select seat with view of lectern. Check.

Push Voice Memo button on phone. Check.

Scribble panel title in notebook. Check.

I’m ready. So are the five panelists facing me, and so are the 60+ audience members surrounding me. We are the researchers in Room 607.

“It’s a bit of an oddball role,” began moderator Ana Maria Spagna. She described the ethical challenges experienced while researching Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, in which she explored her late father’s involvement in the Tallahassee bus boycott of 1957. The various people to whom she spoke had different and sometimes conflicting versions of the story, “as well as their own real lives and real pain,” she said. The crux became how to respect those peoples’ privacy, integrity, and culture: “How could I honor their stories and still tell some version of the truth? How could I characterise my relationship with them, because on one hand, these were friends of my late father, and on the other hand, they were subjects of a potential book?”

Many different writers have faced these challenges, said Spagna. “And they’ve approached them — necessarily — differently, both in terms of craft and in terms of ethics.”

Joe Mackall, author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish, describing how he framed his intentions with his insular Amish neighbors — “I told Samuel I just wanted to write the truth as I saw it.” Invoking Gay Talese’s “fine art of hanging out,” Mackall told his Amish neighbors, “I’m going to hang around so much that I’m not going to leave on my own accord. So you need to tell me, ‘enough.’ They never did. I was exhausted.”

Amanda Webster, discussing her work in progress, a book about growing up in a gold-mining town in West Australia, attending school with members of the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal children removed from their families by the Australian government — “In Australia, a white person writing about personal Aboriginal stories is typically taboo. Story ownership was a real issue for me.”

What Webster learned:


  • Establish your authority to tell the story, and once established be aware that it’s not unassailable authority.
  • Establish your stake.
  • Be aware that your role is not to provoke further trauma.
  • Be mindful of Aboriginal customs.
  • Not to plunder these peoples’ lives and then disappear without a trace.


Webster also explained her rationale for and methodology in paying some of her research subjects — “Ultimately, it came back to the refrain we always hear: as writers we should be paid for our work. Shouldn’t these story subjects be paid for their work as well?”

Both Mackall and Bob Cowser Jr. (Dream Season: A Professor Joins America’s Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team) expressed their reticence to change names during the writing process. They acknowledged it was necessary but preferred to completely finish their manuscripts before doing so. “It breaks the spell for me,” said Cowser, “I don’t know who to care about, or where the ground is under me.”

Jo Scott-Coe, author of Teacher at Point Blank: Confronting Sexuality, Violence, and Secrets in a Suburban School, describing her efforts — “I took a great deal of time to shade identities, particularly with the darker material, of which there is quite a bit,” she said, adding that she avoided names by identifying teaching staff by role, and family members by relation. Despite the camouflage, there were readers who recognized themselves.

What she learned:


  • The ethics of where or how to camouflage names
  • When people react negatively or angrily, it’s not always to debate. Often it is because you have expressed a connection or perception that they disagree with, or that they find offensive, or that they didn’t expect to be expressed by you.
  • Essayists cannot always anticipate these reactions, and they’re not always ours to control or evade.
  • We are not always in the service of a predetermined message. We don’t know what we will discover.


All of the panelists agreed that the most important “contract” they had with their research subjects was to let them read and vet what they had written.

“Ultimately,” said Scott-Coe, “our byline is our accountability.”

Ann Beman is nonfiction editor for The Los Angeles Review, and prose reviews editor for the museum of americana. She lives with her husband and two whatchamaterriers in California’s Southern Sierra in Kernville on the Kern River, Kern County. Cue the banjoes.

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