Schtick Lit: My Life as an Immersion Memoirist

October 26, 2011 § 5 Comments

A guest post from Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, author of  My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself:

When I put on a prairie dress and climbed into my car to retrace the pioneer journey of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I had no idea what I was doing, much less how I might write about the experience. As the book developed, people wanted a description of what I was writing in three words or less. My go-to label became “humorous narrative nonfiction.” Then I read Robin Hemley’s discussion of his book Do-Over! In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments and learned to call my book an “immersion memoir,” which he describes as when a writer “creates a kind of framework to actively engage in experience and memory.”

Nellie Bly could be considered the first writer who made situation manipulation famous when she faked her way into Bellevue’s mental ward. George Plimpton practiced with the Detroit Lions and sparred against Sugar Ray Leonard. In 1961, John Howard Griffen traveled the South in blackface and wrote Black Like Me. More recently, A.J. Jacobs has forged an entire career with books ranging from The Year of Living Biblically to My Life as an Experiment. (I’ve noticed “the year I _____” set-up is popular).

A less flattering name for immersion memoir is “Schtick Lit,” implying that the genre relies on gimmick to generate interest, and my initial conception of the Laura trip might have tipped over into this territory. My idea was to travel Borat style, (i.e., in character) pretending to be this kooky woman who really thought she was the reincarnation of Laura. By the first gas station stop, I knew this would never work. I didn’t have enough chutzpah to keep up the act. And why should I? Borat struck me as the worst sort of gimmickry, not to mention mean. Duping people for a cheap laugh struck me as against the spirit of the Little House books I loved.

As it turned out, wearing the dress for a twelve-day road trip was hard enough. On day one, when I zipped up the back and tied my bonnet strings, I learned my first lesson about how costume would change my experience—going out in public alone in prairie garb activated intense social anxiety. Discoveries unfolded from there. I encountered Amish women in prairie dresses and felt like an imposter. I stood on a prairie and learned that bonnets function like sunglasses—and blinders. Children ran towards me. Children ran away from me. Often, people pretended to flat-out ignore me.

At times I questioned (and still do) the “gimmick” of the dress (every time I zip up for a reading). But I know my interactions with people would have been different if I’d worn jeans and a t-shirt (and in the same way, the dress changes what happens at my readings).

So, how to escape the schtick when tackling your own immersion memoir? Hemley defends immersion by explaining that all memoirs and novels have a structure. Okay. Even so, in my case, the road trip provided structure. I didn’t have to wear a prairie dress. The key to me, then, is the sincerity of intention. I (stubbornly and perhaps naively) believe the reader can smell a phony. Bly really wanted to know what was going on in Bellevue. Plimpton loved and excelled at sports. I have had a genuine and lifelong obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder.

A few tips:

  • Be genuinely curious about your immersion and what it might yield.
  • Don’t pre-judge what might happen and take copious notes on what does happen.
  • Comedic potential doesn’t hurt but the piece can’t be slapstick.
  • The experience should have potential for a meaningful discovery.

I was going to write even more “shoulds,” such as “you can’t just go and stare at a fig tree,” but then there’s always the writer who could go and stare at a fig tree and write about it in a way that would transform all fig-tree staring to come. Ah, I miss you David Foster Wallace.
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Kelly Kathleen Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself, and at work on her PhD at Ohio University.

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