Immersed

This happens for me at the beginning of each semester.  I stare at my course syllabus with its list of assignments and deadlines and I hear my breaths go shallow, I feel my heart rate speed.  Part panic, part thrill.  This semester is no different as I immerse myself in a new course in my MFA program called “Literary Journalism.”  The teacher, Larry Cheek, developed a reading list of books and articles from this genre.

Larry describes it as a blend of the journalist’s approach of capturing events and personalities with the narrative technique and style once assumed to be the domain of fiction.  That’s why some people call it narrative nonfiction. We started with Facing Unpleasant Facts, essays by George Orwell that were a kind of advocacy journalism. In one, “The Spike,” Orwell posed as a vagrant to show conditions of poverty in England in the 1930s; it’s an example of many of his writings that showed conditions without explicitly saying “this is wrong.”   
Orwell’s collection led naturally into the next book we read, Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. In 1959, Griffin, a white man, took medication and used a stain to turn his skin dark.  For the next six weeks, he lived in several cities in the South as a black man and later wrote about it.  Larry tells us what Griffin did is called “immersion journalism,” and it’s a technique many nonfiction writers have used to explore an array of social issues.  One notable book of this type is Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. Larry warns that with immersion reporting, the writer should prepare to be altered. As a reader of immersion reporting, I’m altered, too.
Truman Capote did in-depth reporting of a different kind in the book we’re studying now, In Cold Blood.  For years, Capote steeped himself in the story of a multiple homicide in a small Kansas town. Though Capote didn’t use immersion reporting in the same way as Griffin and others, his biographies make it clear that his life was changed by his obsession with the Clutter family murders.
This is only the second week of the course, and we’ve had lively discussion about the reading we’ve done so far. We try to focus on craft elements such as story arc, character development, scenes, and description as well as ethical considerations when telling true stories. None of us can turn off, though, our emotions and opinions that the stories provoke.
 “The thing I most want to do as a journalist is to provoke people to think,” Larry told us during one of our first sessions. Since putting words on a page is the way I discover what I understand, at least my writing rouses my own thinking. I hope it does that for readers, too.
Excuse me now.  I’ve got some reading to immerse in.

4 thoughts on “Immersed

  1. Hi Iris! wow–you are getting a MFA–more power to you!! I loved it when my college classes made me read 😉 I am currently living and volunteering on Dominica Island in the eastern Caribbean for the US Peace Corps…been gone from the US 6 months now and getting more adjusted every day to the heat, culture and so on. My primary assignment is at a Catholic primary school–which I love–this year I am their art teacher! among other projects…to integrate into the community I have been attending Mass in the lovely old stone Catherdral adjacent to the school. Quite an experience for this Quaker to attend Mass, but I find I enjoy the chant and response litany…altho I do miss Silence. I invite you to check out my blog dominicaislanddispatches.blogspot.com to see what my life is like here. hope our paths cross again some day..Aurora

  2. Great to hear from you Aurore and to learn about your blog (I’m a follower now). Looks like you’re having fun and doing good work. I’ve made paper beads with trimmings from my hand-bound books- such a great way to recycle all kinds of cool paper bits.

    I’ve visited a number of cathedrals and smaller Catholic churches in Mexico and Nicaragua and am always moved in those sacred spaces (even blogged about it here in June 2011: http://bloggerbyconvincement.blogspot.com/2011_06_01_archive.html). I’ll picture you there attending Mass.

    Glad our paths have crossed “virtually” and hope we’ll see each other again sometime.

  3. Iris, have you read Ted Conover? I realize that just about the last thing you need right now is more reading suggestions, but whenever I hear “immersion journalism” I have to bring him up. He's a good writer with a trustworthy persona. I especially enjoyed the book where he goes undercover as a prison guard.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, Jessica. I haven’t read Conover but will add him to my list (for AFTER this semester!). I did check out some of his writing, including the one you mentioned and passed his name along to my class. I’m intrigued by a piece he wrote in the May Harper’s about meat production. I don’t subscribe so I haven’t read the article yet, but I’m intrigued by what Conover wrote about his process in a blog post available online at http://harpers.org/blog/2013/04/on-meeting-our-meat/

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