Diving into Immersion Memoir
December 20, 2022 § 4 Comments
By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
One night as I flipped through TV stations, a woman with bleached-white hair, French-manicured talons, and an unmistakable Long Island accent caught my attention. Theresa Caputo, the Long Island Medium, supposedly channeled dead people.
Even though I’d always been fascinated by the paranormal, I was skeptical. I knew there wasn’t much reality in reality TV. I have been talking with the dead for three decades—as a professional genealogist. I channel long-forgotten ancestors by digging up historical documents, reassembling the pieces, and recreating their life stories. Although I’m not religious, I do believe in an afterlife. I thought: Wouldn’t it be cool to become a medium and talk directly to those dead relatives? They could put me on the right track in researching and telling their life stories.
With no plans for my six-week winter break from teaching online, I decided to become a “stunt journalist.” I’d be the Nellie Bly of mediumship. I’d immerse myself in the world of mediums to see if a middle-aged woman with no prior, youthful psychic, visionary, or near-death experiences could not only talk to the dead—but get a response. Then I’d write about my experience in an immersion memoir.
What is an immersion memoir?
Robin Hemley in A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel, writes, “The immersion memoirist is interested in self-revelation or evaluation while using the outside world as his/her vehicle.” Immersion writing can be “a quest, experiment, investigation, reenactment, or infiltration.” My immersion memoir would have four of these elements: I was on a quest to become a medium and converse with the dead. It was an experiment to see if I could do it. I investigated the history and mechanics of mediumship (there is a science to it). And I infiltrated the world of mediums through classes and development circles, where mediums and novices like me practice communicating with the dead.
What makes it different from other types of memoirs?
Hemley adds, “The I becomes a stand-in for the reader, an anchoring consciousness who develops a rapport with the reader and in effect stakes claims of reliability and authenticity: this is what I saw. This is what I did and observed. Trust me that I’m being as accurate as possible, but draw your own conclusions.”
I began my quest in 2012 and kept a detailed journal with notes from my research and classes, and all my failed and successful attempts to talk with the dead and get a response. One of the advantages of writing an immersion memoir is that you know the goal, so you can keep a diary and, when you write, you don’t have to rely solely on memory.
While immersing myself in the world of mediumship, I also read and studied other immersion memoirs (Hemley has an extensive bibliography in his book), such as Dinty W. Moore’s The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still, American Style, Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, to name a few. I wanted to see how they structured their memoirs and how they informed readers about a subject they may have known nothing about.
I wrote several drafts of my immersion memoir, but found it was (a) too long and (b) too much of “I did this, then I did that.” What was I missing? I returned to Hemley’s book and one question he posed struck me: “What was at stake?… There has to be something more substantial at stake emotionally for the writer. If there isn’t, then yes, you’re simply writing for the sake of the gimmick, and the reader will soon lose interest.”
When I thought about it, there were several things at stake: What if I spent all this time trying to communicate with the dead, and I couldn’t? That would be a disappointment for me and the reader. No book there. What if in becoming a medium I jeopardized my friendships and career as a respected, professional genealogist? Would people think I was a kook? There’s conflict there, that might work. But then I realized that the biggest issue at stake, what was most at risk, was my close relationship with my only child, my daughter, Laurie. She is a scientist and skeptic about the existence of an afterlife, let alone communicating with dead people. During my journey, we had several disagreements, which I recorded in my journal, including our email exchanges. Ah-ha! High stakes and big conflict. Now, I had “the real story” as Hemley puts it.
From that point it was easy to decide what to include and exclude from my five-year quest and substantial journal entries. It must have worked. I submitted the manuscript for Midlife Medium: A Genealogist’s Quest to Converse with the Dead to an indie press on a Wednesday in August of 2021, had a contract the following Friday, and the book was published in June, 2022. Of course, I’m leaving out the multiple drafts and many readers who helped me get to this point, and the two friends who asked to be removed from my story, but that’s for another blog post.
Is an immersion memoir right for you? Check out Hemley’s book and read other immersion memoirs. There might be a story just waiting for you to dive into.
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is the author of Midlife Medium: A Genealogist’s Quest to Converse with the Dead (Koehler Books) and twenty-six other books, including the biography, In Search of Maria B. Hayden: The American Medium Who Brought Spiritualism to the U.K. (Scattered Leaves Press). She has also been Brevity’s copy editor since 2012. She can be reached through her website, www.TheGenealogyMedium.com.
Sharon’s question “What’s at stake?” is truly a powerful one. Put another way: Who cares? Or, why will the reader care? It can help you identify a submerged theme that brings out deep perspectives that will resonate with the right readers.
Sharon, I just ordered the book and can’t wait to read it!
Fascinating — both the topic and the process. Thanks for the reminder that the writer must know what is at stake (aka, what is the conflict, right?) in order to craft a compelling read.