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.