March 3, 2012 § 5 Comments
F128 The Writer in the World: A Look at Immersion Writing / Robin Hemley, Melissa Pritchard, Joe Mackall, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, and Christopher Merrill
After the recent brouhaha over John D’Agata’s approach to creative nonfiction, I was amazed when not a word about it was mentioned in this session. Instead, Robin Hemley began by identifying earlier writers—Nellie Bly, James Agee, Barbara Ehrenreich and others—who have used themselves as a “conduit” for experiential, participatory writing. He then cited three types of immersion writing:
• Immersion Journalism
• Immersion Memoir
• Immersion Travel Writing
though he was quick to state that these categories are meant to be useful, not binding; the boundaries among them are permeable.
Stephanie Elizondo Griest, who has written about “life in the Communist Block after the Marxist meltdown,”—specifically, Russia, Beijing, and Mexico—was the first to present. She spoke of encountering a bias in publishers toward memoir over direct reportage, and as a result, had to alter her work to introduce more of herself into the narrative to attract publishers. She then addressed the ethical landmines involved in writing creative nonfiction, specifically exploiting and/or profiting from someone else’s story. As a sort of antidote to these landmines, Griest holds to five tenets:
1. Learn the language of the people you’re writing about. For her this meant intense study of Russian, Chinese, and Mexican, though she admits she still had to use interpreters to overcome the distance between the language she had learned and the colloquial/regional dialects.
2. Live the life of the people you’re writing about. You must have intimate contact; you must live among them as they live.
3. The “subjects” or people you are writing about are always right. This assumption grants the compassion and understanding you need to treat people with respect.
4. Share the work before it is published. You must give the people you’re writing about a chance to respond to the work.
5. Writing these stories is a privilege, not ownership. You must be clear on who owns the story—they do.
Joe Mackall was next, and though I’ve known Joe since at least 2001, I didn’t realize he was so drop-dead funny. He talked about writing about the Shettlers, an Amish family, in Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, and said up front that his wife threatened, “If you screw up our friendship with these people, you are in deep trouble.” He also described being terrified of both Amish draft horses and riding in Amish buggies (“You people drive too damn fast around the Amish!” he declared to the audience). To Mackall, the “outsider” in his subtitle says it all: there was no way he could be anything other than an “infiltrator,” one who provides a window on what they allowed him to participate in, so that his role was more of a benevolent docent and a justifier of a misunderstood subculture. Mackall echoed Griest’s tenet of sharing the work with those being written about, though he was surprised at what the Stettlers took issue with. The things he worried about, they seemed to see as the provenance of the writer. But when he noted the shabby conditions of a brother-in-law’s barn, they asked for that part to be removed, and when he estimated a hog’s weight at 200 pounds, Samuel Stettler corrected him, saying it was closer to 300 pounds—and Mackall knew he was the better judge. According to Mackall, “Immersion is negotiation.”
Christopher Merrill gave perhaps the best—and most harrowing—example of true immersion, citing Christopher Hitchens’ willingness to undergo waterboarding to dispel the Bush Administration’s claim that it was not torture, but simply “extended interrogation.”
He then cited Elisabeth Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses” as the best template for the way active description should work—its tripartite structure of a faithful account of the details, then a reflection upon those details that finally allows the “true” meaning to emerge. As he explained, “Any moment, if you pay enough attention to it, will act as a hologram for meaning and truth.”
As another Brevity blogger bemoaned, I have overshot my 500-word limit, so I will conclude with two anecdotes I thought were quite resonant for different reasons. Griest underscored the “danger” of immersion writing by telling about a “blind date” she was supposed to have with a local in Mexico. He showed up drunk, after midnight, with several drunk friends in tow, inviting her to “come and party.” As she said, no one in her right mind would even consider going. But as a memoirist, she tended to think, “If I get out of this alive, this is going to be great!”
Then Melissa Pritchard spoke of walking through—I believe it was India’s—brothel district, where 12-15 years olds were on display and being sold for sex. And she thought she was “handling it all right” until she saw that some boys had a young brown bear on a leash and were torturing it to make it dance. In the middle of all of these children being sold, she cried at the dancing bear—though she realized later that it certainly wasn’t the only thing that made her cry.
Kate Fox is a writer/editor in Athens, OH