Immersion: A Writer's Guide to Going Deep

Immersion: A Writer's Guide to Going Deep

by Ted Conover


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Over three and a half decades, Ted Conover has ridden the rails with hoboes, crossed the border with Mexican immigrants, guarded prisoners in Sing Sing, and inspected meat for the USDA. His books and articles chronicling these experiences, including the award-winning Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, have made him one of the premier practitioners of immersion reporting.

In immersion reporting—a literary cousin to ethnography, travel writing, and memoir—the writer fully steps into a new world or culture, participating in its trials, rites, and rituals as a member of the group. The end results of these firsthand experiences are familiar to us from bestsellers such as Nickel and Dimed and Behind the Beautiful Forevers. But in a world of wary strangers, where does one begin?

Conover distills decades of knowledge into an accessible resource aimed at writers of all levels. He covers how to “get into” a community, how to conduct oneself once inside, and how to shape and structure the stories that emerge. Conover is also forthright about the ethics and consequences of immersion reporting, preparing writers for the surprises that often surface when their piece becomes public. Throughout, Conover shares anecdotes from his own experiences as well as from other well-known writers in this genre, including Alex Kotlowitz, Anne Fadiman, and Sebastian Junger. It’s a deep-in-the-trenches book that all aspiring immersion writers should have in hand as they take that first leap into another world. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226113067
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/24/2016
Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing Series
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 808,295
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ted Conover is a journalist and associate professor of journalism at New York University. His book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2000 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Conover is also the author of Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes; Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America’s Mexican Migrants; Whiteout: Lost in Aspen; and The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World. He regularly writes for the New York Times, Harper’s, the Atlantic, and many other publications.

Read an Excerpt


A Writer's Guide to Going Deep

By Ted Conover

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 Ted Conover
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-41616-8


Why Immerse?

If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

HARPER LEE, To Kill a Mockingbird

How to think about strangers is one of the conundrums of human existence. The warning parents give children, don't speak to strangers, may be good advice when it comes to unknown adults. But how about other kids? What is school, for most of us, other than a first experience of immersion among contemporaries we don't know? And when does it become okay to speak to strangers — ever?

Many of us are nervous around others. We are slow to "put ourselves out there," wary of entanglements or rejection. We hang out with our own kind.

Shyness is natural, but not necessarily a good thing. If we can't get past it, our worlds can stay small. My third-grade teacher, whom I loved, tried to get us to think about shyness. She quoted Will Rogers, the American humorist and homespun philosopher: "I never met a man I didn't like."

Wow, really? I thought. Even bad people, bank robbers, murderers? I've been thinking about that idea for almost fifty years.

* * *

I live in New York City, one of America's most stratified metropolises, with vast extremes of wealth and many distinct ethnic identities. I mix with my fellow New Yorkers every day, on the street and on the subway, but the subset of those with whom I have real conversations, actual social discourse, is much, much smaller. Sometimes I think back on the place I'm from, Colorado, and wax nostalgic about how, though the place was less diverse, mixing was somehow easier: something in the air said it was okay, and even expected, to chat with strangers. To be newly arrived was normal. Ethnic enclaves were fewer and seemed to have more permeable membranes. I still remember the day when, home from college in New England, I rented a car at the Denver airport and the guy behind the counter, after we had chatted a few moments, said in apparent mock self-disparagement, "Oh, you probably just think I'm some guido from Brooklyn." I looked at him confused. "What's a guido?" I asked. I'd never heard that phrase for Italian American.

But New York is not all snobbery and specialization. New York, deep in its DNA, has Walt Whitman. Whitman, a poet and journalist, wrote a long and famous poem called "Song of Myself," and another that is wonderful called "Song of the Open Road." Both feature long lists of people he hopes to meet and know. In "Song of Myself" he mentions the duck-shooter, the deacons, the lunatic, the squaw, the deck-hands, the one-year wife, the paving man, the "pedler," the opium-eater, and many more. In "Song of the Open Road" he writes,

The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,

They pass, I also pass, any thing passes, none can be interdicted.

None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me.

* * *

When I walk downtown on Broadway, to which Whitman addressed a poem ("What hurrying human tides, or day or night!/What passions, winnings, losses, ardors, swim thy waters!"), I try to channel him, because in some ways Whitman helps me to understand myself. I like to travel and I like to hang out and Whitman helps me understand why. Whitman, as many Americans still do, nurtured an idea of a country where nobody is better than anybody else, where everyone can meet and engage. It strikes me as a democratic ideal worth keeping alive. When I'm out there talking to people I feel as though I'm emulating, and in turn maybe modeling, a kind of democratic discourse.

Americans don't have a corner on this kind of thinking. An expression in Spanish conveys a related idea: Cada cabeza es un mundo. Every mind is a world, a universe. In other words, each of us is interesting. What could be a better calling, in this world, than getting to know other minds?

After my first two books, when I was still living out West, I came to New York and attended a party where David Remnick, who went on to become editor of the New Yorker, introduced me as "a writer who makes his living sleeping on the ground." The subjects I had chosen for those first books were groups of people, hoboes and migrant workers, whom you didn't need a lot of money to hang out with. Often in my life, when I've been sleeping on the ground, it means I've been having an adventure, so I think of it as a good thing. The prospect of adventure — of getting out of my circle, my world, my own head for a while — has been another enduring appeal to me of this work. Occasionally somebody who doesn't quite get this will look at me as some kind of a nut, consigned to a lifetime of hardship in the pursuit of my craft. How do you keep doing this? My answer is usually something to the effect of no, you've got it wrong. It's not about the suffering, it's about the opportunity, the chance to learn new things. What could be better than riding freights with hoboes/traveling with migrants/driving a cab in Aspen/working as a meat inspector for a while? And I mean it.

Granted: the difficulty is a given. People don't always want to talk, to let you in. Not everybody you get to know will turn out to be a person you are glad to know. (Sorry, Will Rogers.) Sometimes conditions are uncomfortable. Often there are long stretches of waiting and tedium. You might become lonely, you might get sick. Staying home or going to the office in nice clothes would no doubt be easier. But oh, so much less interesting!

A case in point: one evening when I was working as a guard at Sing Sing prison, I came home, collapsed on the couch, and turned on the TV. I'd had a long day dealing with stubborn and angry prisoners, not to mention fellow correction officers (COs) who had second-guessed some of my decisions in a way I would not describe as supportive. On the screen was a presidential news conference — the reporters looked well-dressed, alert, more engaged than stressed. I'd been in that briefing room years before as an intern at US News & World Report and might have followed that path. The shouting of questions in between the President's answers was a bit chaotic, but nobody in that briefing room was going to get slugged or shanked. Everyone seemed more or less collegial, and briefly I felt envious.

But after a good meal and a hot shower, that feeling went away. What I was doing was unpredictable, trying, sometimes frightening — but almost every single day, I came home having seen or heard something remarkable that my friends could scarcely imagine. One day it was the young inmate who said to me, as I escorted him down the corridor to a medical appointment and asked about his "bid," "CO, I'm gonna be here till the sun burns out." Another day it was the quick response of a fellow officer who saw an inmate run into me and wasn't sure if it had been intentional: if it had, he was ready to subdue him for me, to put his own body on the line, no questions asked. Or the realization that grew over several months about how, despite the fact that I was a small cog in a big correctional machine, I had an important choice to make. As I wrote in Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, "It took time (and confrontations) to decide (or to discover) what kind of person was going to be wearing your uniform. A hard-ass or a softie? Inmates' friend or inmates' enemy? Straight or crooked? A user of force or a writer of tickets? A strict overseer or a lender of hands? The job was full of discretionary power and the decisions about how to use it were often moral."

Could I have learned that any other way? Well, maybe. But it would have meant less to me as a writer because I would have been hearing about somebody else's experience, not parsing my own.

Research doesn't have to be as secretive or intensely immersive as mine was in prison to yield valuable insights. For chapters on West Bank checkpoints and Nigerian traffic, respectively, in The Routes of Man, I accompanied a student in Ramallah on a weekend visit home to his parents' house in Hebron, and spent several days with an ambulance crew posted to a highway intersection in Lagos. Everybody knew I was a foreign journalist; in those settings (and most others) I could never pretend otherwise. The point is that by simply spending time with people, being at their sides as they encounter challenging situations — by hanging out, in other words — you learn a lot more about them than you might by only conducting interviews. By eating with them, traveling with them, breathing their air, you get more than just information. You gain shared experience. And often you get powerful true stories.

* * *

In the past 50 years, nonfiction writing has undergone a great flowering, as writers borrowed from the storytelling techniques of fiction and otherwise experimented with creative approaches. A watershed moment in terms of immersion writing was 1966–67, which saw the publication of Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel," In Cold Blood; Hunter S. Thompson's transgressive and groundbreaking Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs; and Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback, the most famous of George Plimpton's participatory forays into the world of professional sports.

In Cold Blood, though not strictly speaking immersion writing by my definition — Capote did not live with his main subjects, Richard Hickok and Perry Smith, whom he met only after they had been apprehended and charged with murdering an entire family in Holcomb, Kansas — approaches some of the ideals of the form with its intensely empathetic approach. Without ever minimizing the horror of the crimes they committed, Capote nevertheless listened intently to their stories, particularly the life story of Smith, with whom he corresponded for months and developed a deep connection. They may have done something monstrous but they were complicated individuals, not one-dimensional villains. In one stroke, Capote established a new genre, true crime, with an exemplar that still stands as a masterpiece of storytelling. Some of the license he took in reconstructing scenes and dialogue raises eyebrows among nonfiction writers today, but that's a quibble; looking back, this is a book that shook journalism awake, and opened a world of possibilities to writers of my generation. (It should also be said that waiting for the killers' execution, which Capote saw as his book's conclusion and finally witnessed, exacted a huge toll on him.)

Some of the same can be said of Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, though it is a very different kind of book. Hell's Angels has a first-person narrator, Thompson, who openly identifies with some of the outsider ethos of his subjects, dabbling with some of the same illegality (e.g., drug use) and not aspiring at all to the sort of sober respectability common among journalists of the time. His willing participation in activities of the Angels for the better part of a year reveals a narrator who is transgressive, smart but countercultural, and clearly placed at risk by his subjects (with whom he parts ways after receiving a beating from a group of them).

Thompson's book began as an assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, an important incubator for immersion writing over the years. So did Timothy Crouse's Boys on the Bus (1973), an account of life among correspondents covering the 1972 US presidential campaign. Some of Thompson's irreverence and bravado are echoed in Crouse's book, which helped to establish an interest in readers for "behind-the-scenes" accounts by insiders — as had Gay Talese's The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at The New York Times: The Institution That Influences the World (1969).

The third of these books, George Plimpton's Paper Lion, was very different from the other two but also a landmark. The idea was simple but appealing: Plimpton, a somewhat British-sounding blue blood with literary credentials that including cofounding the Paris Review, joined the Detroit Lions football team as a participant in preseason training. Using his own incompetence to comic effect, Plimpton paid close attention to certain stand-out personalities, players' off-the-field hijinks, and what it felt like to be part of the group. Though not the first of his participatory forays into professional sports (his 1961 book, Out of My League, described a session on the mound pitching to All Stars of the American and National Leagues), it quickly became the best known. Today Paper Lion is practically synonymous with "immersion writing" to many readers of a certain age. (The sportswriter Frank Deford and I once shared a literary agent; when the agent introduced us at a social occasion by describing my first two books, Deford exclaimed, "What are you, some kind of proletarian George Plimpton?")

Another milestone work that pushed against the bounds of convention was Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). The East Coast journalist traveled West to encounter 1960s luminary Ken Kesey, with whom he roamed the country in a crazily painted bus filled with followers known as the Merry Pranksters. Alongside the Pranksters' drug experiments, Wolfe was conducting a literary one, seeing what it was like to be of the group while simultaneously apart. "Despite the skepticism I brought here, I am suddenly experiencing their feeling," he writes early on. This "saturation reporting," as Wolfe would later call it, was one of the beginnings of the New Journalism — a style of research where the journalist didn't simply observe with professional detachment, he traveled alongside his subjects, engaging with them over an extended period.

Wolfe's impulse to bring readers into worlds behind image and headline was evident again in The Right Stuff, his 1979 book about the astronauts of Project Mercury, the first American manned space program. According to the ascendant myth, astronauts were a new kind of hero, superpilots culled from the top rank of fighter jocks. Inside the ranks of these pilots, however, Wolfe learned different: a pilot who sat in a tiny capsule that he could not steer was, in the astronauts' private conversations, Spam in a can. By spending days and days with astronauts and their families, Wolfe became privy to this alternative narrative. His insider account felt intuitively true; and rather than knocking astronauts off their thrones, learning about the secret brotherhood of fighter jocks seemed to make most readers like them even more. Wolfe made them seem accessible and sympathetic.

Wolfe has such a singular, opinionated writing style that one might think The Right Stuff and his other nonfiction books were written in the first person. But as one moves through his cultural reporting to Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) and Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (1976) there is less and less of it. In his critiques of modern art (The Painted Word, 1975, and From Bauhaus to Our House, 1981), and in The Right Stuff, there is none.

Some of today's finest immersion writers have followed suit. John McPhee, Tracy Kidder, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and Katherine Boo all tend to keep themselves out of the story. Others, including me, use ourselves more, often as a character among many. Jon Krakauer, Sebastian Junger, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jeff Sharlet, Tony Horwitz, Lis Harris, and many others have often used the first person throughout.

But that doesn't mean these books are about us. In immersion journalism, there is always a subject beyond the narrator herself, something the writer sets out to investigate. Immersion writers may draw on their own experience (often they contrive it as a form of research) but they focus on the larger world. Personal experience, of course, is also the well from which memoir writers drink. But the difference between them and the writers I've mentioned above is clear and, to my mind, fairly stark: classic memoir is about what happened to me more than what I actively investigated so that I could write about it. Of course, in recent years the field of memoir has boomed, and now includes many accounts not just of life-as-it-happened-to-me, but life-as-I-made-it-happen. Elizabeth Gilbert famously visited Italy, India, and Indonesia for Eat, Pray, Love, and we do learn about those places in her book. But the real subject is her recovery from divorce. That's what makes Eat, Pray, Love a memoir. Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, on the other hand, has relatively skeletal elements of what could be called a writer's journey of self-discovery. Ehrenreich, using herself as a guinea pig, set out to explore life as a minimum wage earner in the United States. Her own experience is Exhibit A, but her focus is always outwards — on her fellow waitresses and housekeepers, for example — instead of inwards. This is immersion writing.


Excerpted from Immersion by Ted Conover. Copyright © 2016 Ted Conover. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

I. Why Immerse?
II. Choosing a Subject and Gaining Access
III. Once Inside
IV. Undercover: Moving beyond Stunt
V. Writing It
VI. Aftermath
Annotated Bibliography

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