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A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism and Travel by Robin Hemley

field-guide-for-immersion-writingThis is the fourth “craft” book I’ve read this semester, and it’s one of the better ones. The Art of Subtext was an intriguing read, but so thoroughly geared toward fiction writing that it was less useful to me. The Situation and the Story felt a little wandering and indistinct. On Writing was of course wonderful – as an insight into King the man and the writer, as well as for his writing advice, which is largely on the sentence/language level and therefore applicable to nonfiction as well as the fiction that King specializes in.

By contrast, A Field Guide for Immersion Writing is specific in terms of the writing it addresses. I really appreciated Robin Hemley’s breaking down of immersion genres: first into travel, memoir, journalism, and then into quest, experiment, investigation, reenactment, and infiltration. (All of this makes sense in his thorough discussion. And there are examples.) I also really appreciate that he recognizes these as fluent: “The categories are meant to be useful, not binding.” He then works methodically through his categories and sub-categories of (nonfiction) immersion writing, addressing their fluid boundaries throughout, and offering advice about how to do both the immersion, the living and interviewing and learning, and the writing. He also speaks to the practical side of the writer’s life: how to pitch proposals, how to fund travel and research, that kind of thing.

Perhaps one of the most important things that made this book work for me was that I liked Hemley’s voice – which is to say first of all that he had a voice, that he let some feeling for his personality live in this book. (He was referring to immersive travel writing and not writing about craft, but see this line: “To me, it’s an act of generosity to introduce yourself, to say, This is who I am and why this story is important to me, and these are the people I met along the way.” [emphasis his] I hear this as an echo of something I’ve long believed: to not let oneself come into one’s writing is sort of dishonest. We know you’re there, so show yourself.) Hemley shows himself; and I liked, felt like I got along with, the person I met there. So I was primed to take advice from him. Also (as in the above parenthetical quotation) I found that we had some principles and opinions in common, again making me interested in following him. The point here I think is that our reactions as readers are subjective and personal (duh, right?), so if I vastly preferred Hemley’s craft book to Gornick’s, that doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same way.

That said, I do think that this “field guide” offers a wonder of practical advice, specifically geared towards a certain type of writer. Its specificity is definitely one of its greatest strengths (if you’re in that group of writers – see again The Art of Subtext), and it offers a huge number of examples of immersion writing that work in various ways. So, plenty of reading there.

More wisdom: Hemley writes, “Book projects are protean: you start out thinking you’re writing about one thing, but the book you write almost never turns out to be the book you set out to write.” This echoes something I’ve heard from a number of other students (and graduates, and faculty) in my MFA program, and it’s something I find intriguing, and both promising and scary.

I liked this book, and I liked the author enough that I intend to (someday) read his Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness, about his sister. That’s an endorsement.


Rating: 8 suitcases.

One Response

  1. […] Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, […]

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