Immersion Writing

Hats off to Patrick Ross (@PatrickRwrites) who’s blog The Artist’s Road chronicles his open road quest to live an art-committed life. His AWP post on immersion writing struck home note only because it reported on a panel I was sorry to miss on the final day of AWP Chicago (too many compelling, concurrently scheduled panels!), but because he reflected on a couple of familiar memoir writing/revising challenges.

I attended a Friday morning AWP panel titled “The Writer in the World: A Look at Immersion Writing.” As a sports fan I grew up admiring George Plimpton, who immersed himself so deeply in his writing that he even got to be a “quarterback” for the Detroit Lions. But as explained by Robin Hemley–a multi-published author and director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa–immersion writing should be viewed more holistically, incorporating “Memoir, Journalism, and Travel.” (OK, I cheated there; that’s the subtitle of his book A Field Guide for Immersion Writing.) ~ Patrick Ross in The Artist’s Road

Ross shared Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s story about being asked by editors to include more personal personal details in her first book. Include more of yourself, they told her. She did. And she promptly received two offers!

Ross apparently received similar advice for his memoir, and the overwhelming feedback I received from agents during the 2011 Writer’s Digest Conference was similar. I was pitching Rosslyn Redux as an Adirondack counterpoint to A Year in Provence or Under the Tuscan Sun. The memoir had already evolved dramatically since inception as a book about green renovation and historic rehabilitation. As the chapters collected and the page count rocketed to catch up with the national debt, I was drawn more and more to the social and historic narratives connected with the house. “But what’s your personal experience?” I was asked again and again.

Ross also sharedJoe Mackal’s (author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish and editor of River Teeth) advice to let interviewees read what you’ve written before publishing your work. Their feedback and perspective is valuable even if you ultimately decide what to cull and what to keep.

This advice was echoed in several memoir-focused panels I attended, but the reason was slightly different. By sharing your manuscript before publication, those represented are less likely to object, and the author has the opportunity to discuss and convince. If they only read the final, published work they stand a greater chance of being offended and angry. Unless your portrayal flatters the pants off of them!