Immerse Yourself, Briefly: A Contest

April 9, 2012 § 20 Comments

To celebrate Robin Hemley’s new book, A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel, we are launching a quick contest.  You have one month, until May 11th, to immerse yourself, in something.  If it is water, be sure that you can swim. If it is honey, watch out for bears.

Here are the details:

For centuries writers have used participatory experience as a lens through which to better see the world at large and as a means of exploring the self. Immersion writing encompasses Immersion Memoir (in which the writer uses participatory experience to write about the Self), Immersion Journalism (in which the writer uses the Self to write about the world), and Travel Writing (a bit of both: the writer in the world and the world in the writer).  Types of immersion writing within these broad categories include: the Reenactment, the Experiment, the Quest, the Investigation, and the Infiltration.

Immersion, by the way, is defined as involvement in something that completely occupies all the time, energy, or concentration available.

So, choose one of the immersion modes and knock yourself out, except we are only allowing you 500 words.

Yes, you heard us right: 500 words, or fewer.

Robin Hemley, Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at Iowa, and celebrated author, will be the judge. First prize is a copy of A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel and $50, second prize is a signed copy of the immersive The Accidental Buddhist, and third prize is a showercap.  All three winners will be published on the Brevity blog.

Deadline May 11th, 2012.  Mail your entries to brevitymag(at) with Immersion as the first word in your subject heading.

AWP 2012: Immerse Yourself

March 3, 2012 § 5 Comments

By Kate Fox

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

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.

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.

Mama Cocks the Shotgun: Bristol’s Finest Lyric Essays

February 17, 2011 § 4 Comments

To review: Bristol Palin is reportedly writing her memoir.

Memoirist Sue William Silverman found this idea somewhat absurd, given that Palin’s life so far has included 1) being a rather flawed spokesperson for abstinence, and 2) Dancing with the Stars. Memoirist Robin Hemley made a joke about Bristol’s possible future as a lyric essayist.  We here at Brevity, deep into our third bottle of Malbec, decided that a Bristol Palin Lyric Essay Competition was just the thing to brighten a dull February.

Yesterday we posted some of our favorite lines from the numerous, wonderful, rich-with-grizzly-bear entries.

Today, we post our winner, and two runners-up.

And then we promise never to mention Bristol Palin again.

Here goes:

THE $25 whopping American dollars WINNER:

Nine Months to Now

A Lyric Essay by Bristol ‘She-Ra’ Palin

As told to Laurie Ann Cedilnik


Mama cocks the shotgun, and we’re off. She has her target, I mine. Her words are bullets, and they fall without mercy. I am hit. Utterly without protection. His seed is a hail of bullets, and I do not duck.


Really craving pickles this month.


The Nifty Runners Up:

Aurora Borealis

A Lyric Essay by Bristol Palin

As told to John Warner

It’s lonely in Alaska. That’s why families are big, so there’s always someone else around, but your family isn’t around, and maybe that’s why you fall into the arms of the handsomest hockey player in town, let him take your clothes off, let him place his hands on your hips and look at you and bring his lips to your belly and call you beautiful, which is something you’ve been taught to value.



A Lyric Essay by Bristol Palin

As told to Amy Butcher

Call me Ursidae. Call me whole.

As a child, I sifted river rock from the sandy collarbone of Wasilla Lake, stood ankle-deep in the cool, crisp water.  We were twinned then, the water and I both: each of us free, each of us moving at an inexhaustible speed.  The current carried the weight of the world: dandelion seed and pollen.

It was in an inlet in October that I saw him: the bear, that hulking bulge of brown.  He stood by the water and then was in it, found a fish and took it whole.  He swallowed its flailing, flippy body down.


Thanks to all of our awesome entrants, and congratulations to our winners, and Bristol.

The Bristol Stomp: A Lyric Essay Competition

February 9, 2011 § 5 Comments

Yes, our favorite Dancing with the Stars contestant is writing her memoir, and yes, there are far too many awful  jokes made possible by yesterday’s announcement.  But we won’t make those jokes.  Instead, we quote an exchange found on Facebook today between the master memoirists Sue William Silverman and Robin Hemley (and read even further down for your chance to win big bucks).

SUE :  Bristol Palin is “writing” a memoir! Really? Can’t we find another term, other than “memoir,” to describe what it is nonwriters write when they produce “something” that more or less resembles a book from the outside?  Here is a description of her nonbook: “Twenty-year-old Bristol Palin has wisdom she wants to share with us all, and she…’ll do it in book form.” Am anxiously awaiting “wisdom.”

ROBIN: I’m thinking of getting her as the keynote speaker at the next NonfictioNow Conference. I loved her series of lyric essays in Seneca Review, didn’t you, Sue?

Robin is kidding, of course.  Bristol’s lyric essays were rejected by the Seneca Review, poor kid.

So, does anyone want to enter our NIFTY BRISTOL STOMP CONTEST?

Here are the Rules:

— In 250 words or less, write a lyric essay that might’ve come from the pen of Bristol Palin.

— send it to, DEADLINE Monday, Feb. 14th, 4 pm EST.

— the best ones will be reprinted here.

— Winner gets $25!!!


Mean Week, Brevity Style

October 27, 2010 § 7 Comments

It is “Mean Week” over at HTMLGiant, which means the blogger folks say mean and provocative things about other writers and other magazines and other blogs and everyone gets all snarky in the comments and insults the original blog author, and in this way, if we understand correctly, everyone gets a good chuckle and site stats go through the roof.  Oh, the internet is such a wonderful place.

So, in order to increase our site stats, we here at the Brevity Blog are going to be way mean too, starting now:

1) Philip Lopate, you are too tall.

2) Lee Gutkind, lots of people don’t know how to pronounce your last name.

3) Robin Hemley, your first name is also the name of a bird.

4) Gay Talese … oh never mind.

Moby Dick is the most BORING book I have ever read!

July 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

The indefatigable Robin Hemley (pictured on the right), a Brevity contributor and friend, and author of the charming memoir, Do Over!, has opened two new contests on his blog(s), so here’s your chance to win money, or free books, or just have fun.

1. Robin is looking for silly reviews and dumb book blog postings at Cash prizes!!  The first entry is in, and here’s a preview:

Moby Dick is the most BORING book I have ever read!…. We were given a list of books in English class, and I chose to read this. After a week, I was just in page 103. It was needed the next day, so I panicked and switched books, and bought War and Peace. And I finished that book in 8 hours of straight reading.

2. Also, at, Robin (aka Mr. Red Bull) is sponsoring a contest to win free copies of Do Over. Simply email him at what you might like to do over in your life. On the same website, well-known authors (and a certain Brevity editor) share Book Tour Disaster stories.


Now everyone, back to work.

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