The nonfiction genre is a contentious battleground where authors, critics, and audiences wield fact and fabrication, truth and exaggeration, to make claims upon the hazy territory between literary style and subservience to what happened. I witnessed a battle such as this in March at AWP in Chicago (faithfully depicted here), where I also saw, at a different panel, Robin Hemley speak about honesty and persona in nonfiction. While a piece of writing can never flesh a person in her entirety, Hemley claimed, a successful piece must always employ a coherent persona: the combo of voice, perspective, cultural background and experience. Honesty falls in service to this persona; not that a successful piece lacks honesty, but that it creates a seeming honesty for the reader that maintains itself over time.
At least that’s what I got from his talk.
With all these evolving expectations and tricky guidelines, I figured I’d better stay updated on the crafts and techniques of the genre I’ll be writing in for Haney on the Train. Thankfully, Robin Hemley just this year published A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel. (That plus I’m a writing craft book junkie—I even taught a freshman writing course last year called Writing About the Craft). What’s Immersion Writing, you ask? It’s a subset of nonfiction writing where the author immerses himself in his subject, employing the first-person point of view and even turning the lens back on himself at times to lend intimacy to the story. I think of immersion writing as what New Journalism, practiced by writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe, has evolved into. Readers should always know where the writer stands in relation to his subject.
A Field Guide for Immersion Writing addresses immersion memoir, immersion journalism, and travel writing as the three prongs of immersion writing, dividing them into subsets, offering tips, examples, and guidelines, and attempting a definition of each. According to Hemley, immersion memoir uses the world to find out about the self; immersion journalism uses the self to find out about the world; and travel writing uses each to find out about the other. My project obviously falls under the heading of travel writing, as I’ll reflect back and forth between my own perspective and the cities I visit, the milieu of train travel, and the people I meet.
The Vertical Pronoun
In each of these immersion modes, Hemley expands and redefines the personal pronoun “I” as the “vertical pronoun,” which reveals the self without indulging the self. It’s vertical typographically, but it also works on many levels within the prose. At one moment the author may come to the forefront saying I, I, I, while at another remain behind the curtain of the narrative. It’s the dynamic force that drives the narrative. Whether it’s visible in any moment or not, readers always sense its presence. “The immersion writer must always be both participant and observer, but certainly never simply the observer,” Hemley writes (81). We’re speaking about persona here, the authorial character with attributes carefully chosen, and at times exaggerated for comedic effect, by you, the author, through whose lens we experience each scene.
Throughout the book, Hemley emphasizes putting something at stake in order to propel the narrative and maintain the audience’s attention. I’ve struggled to figure out what “stakes” actually mean in writing; in fact, Diane Roberts wrote that same admonition on my story drafts last fall during a nonfiction workshop. “Put something at stake,” she said in regards to my story about waiting tables as a Persian restaurant in Chicago, in the same breath as “focus!” I see now that my writing may have fit the mold of what Hemley calls a “prose blob,” which “ultimately is about nothing and everything. That’s why it’s a blob” (16). To find success, a writer must have an angle into the story. They’ve got to see and relay it through a specific thread, particular vantage. A prose blob addresses everything—attempts the impossible task of depicting the person—while muddling the narrative persona.
But Hemley’s advice pertains to books and essays, not blogs exactly. I may not find my stakes until I’ve compiled the information, the memories and ephemera, and can look over what exactly happened, what my trips means or meant, and decide if there’s a book there worth undertaking. I certainly plan to write separate essays, each with their own thrust. Maybe each blog post will have its own stakes. Maybe a large part of the stakes of my project lies in the multimedia presentation of information—the freshness of multimodal composition.
I’ve considered a more specific angle for my quest, like an investigation of the various occupy movement camps across the nation (sounds tedious), or a journey to play these citys’ municipal golf courses (woah expenses, and I’d hate to have to lug my clubs), but in the end, I figure that the highest-stakes subject has to be myself. In fact, my various selves: me the American; me the aspiring writer; me the 28-year-old with two degrees hoping to put them to work; me the guy who likes to stay in motion, having moved bedrooms 9 times over three states and four cities in a 20-month span before landing where I’ve been for the last year; me the former 15-year-old dreadlocked vegetarian Deadhead slacker who’s only now realizing his academic potential; me the son, brother, nephew, cousin, boyfriend; and the other permutations of myself that may pop up or I may not even know. “Travel is a great prism through which to view the self,” Hemley writes (104), and that self, where he’s been and where he’s going, must be my stakes.
I mean, what else could I put at risk in order to pull this off? Am I supposed to lose something if I don’t attain a certain goal? Must I risk something I hold close to my heart just to bring back reportage from the farthest flung reaches of the country? Or isn’t the human vulnerability revealed the act of immersion writing enough?
Then again, Hemley speaks about the Bait and Switch: You know how most nonfiction books have two titles with a colon between? The first title is the bait, the ostensible subject. The second title is the switch, the de facto subject, what the author’s really going after through the process of writing. I’ve got that—“Haney on the Train” is the grabber, and with “Paul’s Gone to Look for America,” I come through as the real subject. When I need a theme to return to, an investigative angle, I’ll ask people, “Who does it mean to you to be an American?”
But damn, I could go on and on about thoughts inspired by Hemley’s book about my project. I’d better save my energy for the actual thing. Plus, Hemley says, “Many would-be writers make the mistake of talking out their ideas to the point that they lose all the energy for writing them. Ideally, you want to share your idea with someone who won’t take it over, who doesn’t have any hidden agendas or feel competitive with you, and who will offer just enough of a response to make you want to run to your writing desk and finish alone what s/he helped kick start” (42).
And now I know. This project has to be my own. It can’t belong to any business or larger political aim but the writing can be cohesive, cogent, and compelling as long as I build my narrative persona, don’t talk all the energy out of it, and find supportive people to help me along.
More Quotes from Hemley’s Book Because, What the Hell, I Already Typed Them Up
“Immersion writing engages the writer in the here and now in a journalistic sense, shaping and creating a story happening in the present while unabashedly lugging along all that baggage that makes up the writer’s personality: his or her memories, culture, and opinions.”
“It’s never the ordinariness of the person we should condemn, but the ordinariness of the writing of the vision itself” (7).
“Immersion writing engages the writer in the here and now in a journalistic sense, shaping and creating a story happening in the present while unabashedly lugging along all that baggage that makes up the writer’s personality: his or her memories, culture, and opinions” (8).
We’re always writing to find out what we think, not because we know something about the world and want to impart it to everyone else” (25).
“An experiment can easily become a gimmick book if there’s nothing at stake, if you’re simply entering into the project because no one has done it before. Most of these experiments happen over the course of a year, which makes sense” (30). Hell, even Thoreau squeezed two years of secluded living into one for Walden.
“Sometimes a piece of writing becomes a prose blob because a writer keep adding layer upon layer of complexity, when in fact the simplest approach to the piece might ultimately be the best and most powerful” (39).
“[A] casual interest is not enough to make a book. That’s the difference between a gimmick and a book with something at stake. If you don’t have a trust investment in your idea, your readers won’t either. It’s called ‘phoning it in,’ and we’ve all run across teachers and writers who phone it in, who have become so bored and world-weary that they’ve lost their emotional and intellectual investment in the work they used to love” (51).
[A] work of immersion journalism inevitably tips its hand, shows us what’s at stake for the author, why he or she thinks this project is vital to your understanding of what it means to be human” (65).
About immersion journalism, Hemley says, “I don’t want to know how reasonable and dispassionate a reporter you are. I want to know your obsessions and your blind spots, to gauge them against my own, to make me understand and care about the human dimensions in the drama” (72).
“Immersion isn’t for the faint of heart. Whether you’re putting yourself in harm’s way emotionally, psychologically, or physically, it’s almost a guarantee that you’re going to get pummeled in one way or another” (93).
“[H]ave more than a passing knowledge about the culture in which you find yourself, read what others have written, and look beyond your first impressions” (103).
“Regardless, the country of yourself has to be conveyed as sharply and honestly as possible for the reader to care about it. The real infiltration here becomes the reader’s infiltration in to your psyche” (108).
“Still, that’s not the same as saying that the place about which you’re writing is less important than you. That would indeed be a self-indulgent attitude. It’s important to approach your subject with a sense of humility and the certainty it is a real place and not just a figment of your imagination” (109).
“[M]ost often an immersion project’s worth can be measured by how high the stakes are. … I tell my students not to make themselves the heroes of their memoirs. If you do, people won’t trust you as a narrator” (126).
About the travel experiment: “Does everything have to have the weight of the world and the fate of humanity hinging upon it? The cheery answer is, yes!” (139).
“If the stakes aren’t high, you won’t be able to sustain the idea. If you don’t see your voyage as a voyage of discovery, no matter how frivolous or absurd it sounds, your readers will find nothing to discover either” (141).
“In most cases, the limitations or restrictions of your travel experiment are essentially the organizing principle or conceit of the project. What you do with this conceit witll either make or break the essay or book. Restrictions of limitations seem to me the lifeblood the of travel experiment” (142-3).