Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Immersion Writing

Immersion is defined as dunking, marinating, dousing, plunging into, soaking, and drenching. In other words, while using the technique of immersion writing, you saturate yourself within a situation to learn through first-hand experiences about a topic and write about it. I think the more familiar term for this in the international news circuit is embed which is basically the same as immersion unless you are taking one of Lee Gutkind’s (the “godfather of creative nonfiction) seminars.

There are four general types of immersion writing. For most writers, immersion writing is actually living an experience and writing about it from an interactive viewpoint. Popularizing this style, Paris magazine founder and editor George Plimpton wrote about his experiences as a back up quarterback for the Detroit Lions, as a professional hockey goalie with the Boston Bruins and about his time on the pro golf circuit. Lee Gutkind, founder of the literary journal, Creative Nonfiction, wrote Many Sleepless Nights, an inside chronicle of the world of organ transplants written in an immersion style.

When creating the first type of immersion writing, the author examines every detail of an experience from an often participatory viewpoint as well as an observer. George Plimpton actually practiced with the pro football and hockey teams as well as played a few minutes in games. Lee Gutkind did not participate in his first immersion book about the world of organ transplants but he was given access to several patients and donors as well as being in the operating room when a transplant was performed, then interviewing the patients afterwards. In both of these instances, the authors used their five senses to maximize their ability for observation and retention of information. Plimpton described what it feels like to be a pro football player; what it is like to train and the experience the excitement and nervousness of game day; the need to see on all sides of him; the feel of the dimpling on the leather football; the smells of the locker room; the sound as it reverberates on the field with the crowd cheering and even the taste of a new product called Gatorade he drank after a play. He turned all this know-how into several successful, humorous books by writing creative nonfiction stories regarding what he saw, touched, smelled, heard and tasted. Gutkind did the same. They immersed themselves in the subject in order to write a more personalized book on a subject they liked or wanted to know about. What was it really like to be a pro football player? What were the attitudes of teammates upon winning or losing? How is camaraderie built by the team manager? Plimpton reported on the answers to these and many more questions by telling us stories through creative nonfiction.

In order to create a publishable piece out of an immersion research experience, one must plan what he wants to observe but be open to all interpretations by necessity. Research beforehand is necessary in order to ask intelligent questions (what does the doctor do with the diseased kidney after removal, why do I have to have my ankles taped before a scrimmage, what can fail, how much will it hurt, etc.) It can be likened to boot camp for army recruits: every waking moment of how, where and when you sleep, eat and spend your days are defined by the parameters of experience. Each day is setting your mind to something foreign to your usual activities where your mind must concentrate on the tasks continually. Memory is a strong component of this type of research.

The second kind of immersion writing has a shorter period of observation and no participation. Pretend you are developing a villain. Go to the airport and watch people for two hours. Use the five senses and record (written or on a tape recorder) the sights, sounds, smells, mannerisms and voices of people departing or arriving. Jot down all the things you see, smell, taste, hear and feel. Note eyes, body language, what strangers do when they accidentally touch, how a fiancé looks as she says good-bye to her deployed soldier, the spiritedness of bored children, and even how a suitcase sounds as it is rolled along. Immerse yourself in one task: studying people. Do not text or take a coffee break. When you return home, you have a plethora of characteristics from which you can create a realistic character for your book. Flush out your notes and keep them for other stories too.

A third type of immersion writing is enrolling in a weekend course on writing where all you do is write, critique and learn. You leave home for some idyllic, peaceful, quiet setting where you will be inundated with information related to writing. Some people use what they call a fourth style of immersion writing by writing about anything for a twenty minute session every day just to begin the creative process.

Immersion style books by Lee Gutkind -- Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction. An Unspoken relates a profile of veterinary medicine. The University of Southern Illinois Press re-issued Gutkind's best selling book (originally by Dial Press) about major league umpires, The Best Seat In Baseball, But You Have to Stand!

Immersion style books by George Plimpton -- Paper Lion tells about being a backup quarterback during preseason training with the Detroit Lions of the National Football League and a follow-up book titled Mad Ducks and Bears. The Bogey Man chronicles his attempt to play professional golf on the PGA Tour during the Nicklaus and Palmer era. Shadow Boxing chronicles a bout with pro boxer Archie Moore. Open Net details the insider’s view of the fascinating world of pro hockey where he immersed himself with the prohockey team, the Boston Bruins. Plimpton trained then pitched in a baseball game against the National League and wrote about it in Out of My League.


elizabethbrinton said...

This explains why I read at least a dozen hockey books this winter and watched the entire playoff season.

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

Good blog, Jennifer. i learned a lot about immersion writing - when doing research, dive right in !

Jennifer Rova said...

Maybe it can explain my continuing immersion in eating chocolate.