This week, using Suzanne Farrell Smith’s article, “The Inner Identity of Immersion Memoir,” from the December 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, we spent some time talking about this form of the genre. Perhaps the most well-known recent example is Robin Hemley’s memoir, Do-Over, in which he returns to relive his high school prom, a class play, and other childhood experiences in order to re-do them in hopes of creating more successful outcomes. Here’s how Robin explains the immersion memoir: “To me, in ‘Immersion Memoir,’ a writer creates a kind of framework to actively iengage in experience and memory.” Key to this immersion, is the author as quest hero, that figure leaving the safety of the known world and traveling into the unknown in order to see what might be obtained or learned. In immersion memoir, the writer leaves the comfort of his or her contemporary space in order to return to past experience. R0bin, for example, returns to the summer camp of his youth . The immersion memoirist, Smith points out in her article, looks at the past through the lens of immersion. The present-day quest forms a story line and a method for the retrieval of memory and the creation of new memories. The immersion offers a necessary means of looking at the past and how it intersects with the present and future.
The question arose in our conversation yesterday about whether the immersion memoirist must always be recreating experience by trying to relive it. Does that memoirist, ala Robin Hemley, have to be attending a prom, performing in a school play, attending summer camp? The question is one that insists on a strict classification, and, as I pointed out, this is an interesting pursuit on an intellectual level, this attempt to say what something is and what something isn’t, but when it comes to our practice, it seems to me that the useful question is how immersion can benefit any type of memoir.
When I was writing my book, Turning Bones, which I describe as a book of fiction and nonfiction–part memoir, part family history, part invention–I traveled to Nicholas County, Kentucky, the place where my great-great-grandparents, John A. and Elizabeth Gaunce Martin married and began my family line. I was on a quest to resurrect my ancestors, and I hoped in Nicholas County to find relatives, unknown to me, who could tell me things about the family that I didn’t know. The story of my quest provided a lens through which I not only became more intimate with my ancestors, it also, much to my surprise, allowed me to discover myself.
Which was the case, one day in a smoke-filled cafe in Carlisle, Kentucky, when I went to talk to an elderly man, Boswell Keller, who had descended from the Gaunces. I hoped he could tell me who John A. Martin’s father was. I hoped Boswell Keller could take me back another generation. When I asked him for that information, having tolerated the offensive air of the cafe, having shouted at the top of my lungs to compensate for the fact that he was hard of hearing, he raised his hand and pointed a finger at me, and I thought the moment was finally there when I’d learn the name of my great-great-great grandfather. But all Boswell Keller could tell me was that “there was a world of Martins back then.” He told me he just couldn’t get it all studied out:
I heard the regret in his voice, and I knew that he had turned this over in his mind again and again. We were fellow travelers, obsessed with the past, but Boswell Keller was more desperate because he knew that his time was running out.
I reached across the table and shook his hand. “I guess we’re some kind of cousins,” I said.
“Yes, sir.” He smiled and squeezed my hand. “I reckon we are.”
That moment made it all worthwhile–the smoky air, the shouting I had done. I was glad that I had found Boswell Keller, thankful that I had made my journey to Kentucky, if for no other reason than to look into the face of this man and to see in his eyes how thankful he was that I had come.
So I experienced a surprising moment of familial connection, all because I made the journey, asked the questions, immersed myself in a quest.
The writing activity for this week? Simple. Leave your writing room. Go someplace that matters to your past. Visit the home where you grew up, perhaps. Knock on the door. Tell the people who live there now that you spent your childhood in that house. See if they’ll invite you in. Take note of what happens inside you as you revisit that place. Even if you don’t get inside, you’ll have this story to tell of the attempt and of what it made you feel to be on the steps, looking through the doorway. There are countless other trips that you could make. Find a friend from the past. Make plans to meet at a place the two of you once frequented. Did you used to play whiffle ball on a schoolyard? Shoot baskets at a playground hoop? Get busy. Do it again. Or visit your elementary school, your high school. See if you can actually sit in a class, become a “student” again. A bar or coffee shop from your college days in which significant and perhaps unresolved parts of your life took place? See if that place is still in business. Go there. If it’s not in business, go there anyway. See what’s on that site. A favorite route you drove when you were a teenager? The two lane blacktop out to the state park, perhaps, and the road that wound around the lake and the hidden coves and points where you parked with your date? Drive that route again. Still in love with that date? Take her or him there. When you write of your experience with whatever means of immersion that you choose, let us know why it was so necessary for you. Let us know what was at stake for you on your quest. Let the story of that quest, sweep you back into the past, back across your present, and forward into your future.