The Essence of Immersion

The art of hanging out

Even as a teenager, I knew I wanted to write documentaries on paper. Of course, at that young age, I had no language, no terminology, no understanding of how to do that or what it really meant, but writers like Ted Conover, William Finnegan, Thomas French, and Jonathan Kozol were my teachers. Their books—Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes; Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters; South of Heaven: Welcome to High School at the End of the Twentieth Century; and Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America—were my textbooks. I read and reread their works and tried to pare away the story to find the process underneath, to understand how each author was able to observe, record, choose particular words, and craft narrative movements and sections of dialogue and characters’ thoughts.

Fast-forward ten years through multiple wrong (albeit possibly necessary) turns working inside a documentary television series, a newspaper, the evening news, and investigative reporting—and you would find me in rural South Africa. I was every parent’s nightmare: the twenty-four-year-old who moves to Africa with a one-way ticket and a plan that requires a backup plan. But over time, I made a life for myself as a reporter, an editor, and the founder of a writing school for African women. There, I eventually decided to write my first book, a work of literary journalism set inside a community with little written history.

In September 2005, I started my first month of intense immersion inside Rooibok, a community of three hundred Shangaan, Sotho, and Mozambican Tsonga families. The concept of immersion journalism was one with which, at that point, I had some experience and basic confidence. But never had I fully immersed myself (with the intention of long-term and long-form reportage) in a community with three languages—one that I did not know at all, one of which I knew only the basics, and one that I could read a bit and understand somewhat in conversation but could not really speak beyond greetings and a few token words—and three distinct cultures nevertheless bound together physically, emotionally, and psychologically by the history of apartheid. I knew, immediately, I would need to keep myself in check: asking myself questions, examining each day, and learning from each successful and not-so-successful moment of reporting. I also knew I needed to be willing to ask for advice from more experienced writers, and I did this often—via e-mail, over the phone, and inside existing literature.

Author and former editor of the American Scholar Anne Fadiman introduced me to the anthropological concept of a cultural broker and admitted, “There are [some] barriers you can never cross.” Then the St. Petersburg Times narrative projects reporter Thomas French pushed me to think cinematically as I reported and to be OK with being inside a story as it unfolds. Foreign correspondent Paul Salopek was brutally honest about language, being an outsider, and the times when a translator can also serve as a writer’s cultural or situational guide. Davan Maharaj, then the Los Angeles Times assistant foreign editor and former Africa correspondent, taught me the importance of clearly defining a translator’s role and being aware of your translator’s biases and bad habits. Washington Post reporter Anne Hull taught me to admit ignorance, to see place as a character with its own complex layers, and to examine my own biases. Norwegian war reporter and author Åsne Seierstad caused me to question the ethics of immersion and the idea of writer as character. And the scholarly publications of anthropologist Conrad Phillip Kottak helped me navigate ethnographic note taking, cultural consultants, and both emic (local-oriented) and etic (observer-oriented) research strategies. Ultimately, each pushed me to ask questions and to figure out the logistics for my particular situation.

But, years later, what I’ve realized is this: immersion is about waiting. It’s not about finding a story to fit inside your pre-constructed ideas, but letting story unfold. It’s about wading and waiting. What was I looking for? I wasn’t really sure. I wanted to paint a portrait—or a series of portraits—of the beautifully complicated daily life in rural South Africa. Only spending time inside Rooibok, observing, joining, and asking questions, would allow me to do that. So began my journey alongside three distinctly different community members: Regina, a weaver in her sixties; Thoko, a middle-aged traditional healer and shebeen queen (owner of a back-door, illegal pub); and Dankie, a young man coming of age as one of “Mandela’s children,” the first academic class educated entirely under democratic governance. Sitting, waiting, and wading allowed me to attempt a snapshot of a particular place and time.

Tom Wolfe called this “saturation reporting.” Gay Talese calls it “hanging out”; David Simon refers to it as “stand-around-and-watch journalism”; Bill Wasik uses the term submersion; and Susan Orlean prefers to avoid terms altogether, describing her work as simply nonfiction. I’ve also heard it referred to as “fly-on-the-wall,” “deep-dive,” and “immersion.” Ultimately, whatever you choose to call it, one thing is clear: this is not the description of a genre; rather, it is an approach, a commitment, and ultimately a category of reportage.

In The New Journalism, Wolfe emphasizes “sticking around” as the make or break element of any scene-based storytelling. You need to stick around long enough to see the scenes happen in front of you. In many ways, just as a documentary film crew needs to keep the cameras rolling and return to the editing room with as much as two hundred hours of footage for a feature film, I knew—as I reported for The Rainy Season—I needed to stick around to witness the scenes I would bring to the page. And in order to do this, I needed access.

Access comes with trust, and trust comes with time.

I spent time with the Shetlers; I helped them out if I could; I liked them and they grew to like me. More than that, they trusted me. Nobody swoops down on the Swartzentruber Amish and is allowed inside. It takes time. It takes trust. Trust is the key to access. After about five years [of friendship], I let the patriarch Samuel know of my interest in writing a book about them. He didn’t shut me down, but I didn’t push it any further. Every so often, I’d bring it up, but I never pushed. Waiting was the key. One day, my wife and I were visiting the farm. It was just before Christmas, and Samuel and Mary had just finished milking cows by lantern light. Something about the dusk and the lantern light and the easy laughter between the four of us drove me to the moment when I believed I’d burst if I didn’t begin researching and writing what would become Plain Secrets. The next day, I approached Samuel again. He said he needed to talk it over with his wife and let me know. So the next afternoon, I went to see him. He said yes. If I hadn’t waited—which is not something I do well—there would not have been a book.

While Joe Mackall was inside an Amish community just south of Cleveland, I was inside Rooibok, eighty-five hundred miles away. Every few weeks, we would get on the phone—a patchy Skype connection, thanks to the compact-car-sized satellite on my roof—and discuss our shared challenges. We pored over questions around language and trust, standing both inside and outside, and the act of waiting.

Plain Secrets is a portrait of a family, through which we’re meant to understand a community. And, really, this is what I was doing inside The Rainy Season, only through three separate yet interconnected lives. Our reportage and intentions were similar, but what divided us was form. I couldn’t imagine putting myself inside my book—a requirement for Wolfe’s new journalism, Wasik’s submersion, and Robin Hemley’s immersion writing. I could, however, understand why Mackall’s book required it. Samuel was his neighbor and friend—he could not deny this, and it was clear this relationship affected the story. In the most basic way, it’s the reason he had a story.

Ten years later, as I embark on new work with entirely different logistical problems than The Rainy Season, I’m exploring my basic understanding of immersion—pushing myself to consider it a verb much more than a noun—and have been looking to others, those inside and outside of creative nonfiction, to reshape and complicate how we see this form of reportage.

Rene Denfeld is the author of the novel The Enchanted, told through the eyes of a death row inmate, and the narrative nonfiction book All God’s Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families. Across genres, her writing is grounded in long-term immersion and investigation. Whether she’s writing or working as a death penalty investigator (work that often requires spending years talking to families), she’s a truth seeker. She’s collecting facts, she’s reconstructing a narrative, she’s waiting for each individual truth to reveal itself: the criminal truth, the narrative truth, the emotional or psychological truth. She’s willing to immerse herself inside a situation or community with the aim to listen and draw information, and with this reportage tool, she’s written fiction, nonfiction, and court documents for death penalty appeals.

I was trained as an investigative reporter by some amazing old-school journalists. I was taught the old-fashioned shoe leather approach. You simply cannot find the truth by sitting at a desk, making phone calls or Googling on your computer. That is how myths are perpetuated. You have to get out there, spend time with people, get to know them, help them feel comfortable sharing their truth. For All God’s Children, I spent a lot of time with street youth. I learned more in that time than all the studies and articles I read.

While walking through her Portland neighborhood not too long ago, Denfeld explained to me the role of fiction in her ability to tell truth. It was fiction, she said, that allowed her to get closest to the truth. And, yet, it was real life, long-term immersion that she also needed to get there—years of death penalty investigations, spending time inside prisons with men and women on death row, as well as with their families inside their homes, over and over again. A deep understanding and the ability to fictionalize is, for Denfeld, the closest she’s felt to the emotional truth of an experience. With journalism, there was always a wall she couldn’t pass, but writing a novel changed everything.

“I pursue every project as both a poet and an anthropologist,” says Nomi Stone. Indeed, she is both, and her recent work has taken her inside a foreign space on domestic soil. Stone spent two years hanging out in mock Middle Eastern villages erected by the US military across America, where combat simulations take place. Her recently completed ethnographic fieldwork is the basis for two works-in-progress: a collection of poetry titled “Kill Class” and her dissertation in cultural anthropology.

It took Stone months to gain access to the villages. First, she had to wait for the military to trust a poet enough to open their doors. Then, through listening and observing, she had to gain the trust of mock villagers and mock (but not mock) military. Like Mackall’s ten-year relationship with Samuel and Denfeld’s investment in reporting on Portland’s street children and listening to inmates, Stone’s willingness to “stick around” was the key she needed to open a rarely budged door. She recalls:

I went to a mock village for the first time in 2010. I nearly stopped breathing. Hollywood artifice pulsed with an uncanny core of the real. I was put up in a mock Baghdadi hotel in the middle of the Mojave Desert, its check-in area decorated with platters of fake kabobs. Outside, a mock Babylonian statue towered over a fake traffic circle. A mock mosque contained only bullet shells within as a clue for the training soldiers. Mock blood and threads of mock organs from a shoot-out spumed over the set. And in the fake market, Iraqis, wearing laser tag belts to register their simulated deaths, played war every day. These spaces demanded the most careful precision in my observation. I invoked the anthropologist to think about, for example, how “authenticity” is referenced by the military through the construction of the sets. Which gestures—a prayer rug; Arabic graffiti; the call to prayer; and in some simulations, even odors designed to mimic mass graves—generate a sensory apparatus for both the training soldiers and the Middle Eastern role-players inside? Meanwhile, it is my poet-side who inflects these spaces with the affect, emotion, and sensation that a cursory observer would not glean.

These two distinct filters that affect Stone’s observation and fieldwork skills ultimately inform all of her writing. Inevitably, her anthropology is also poetic and her poetry is deeply anthropological. Like Mackall and Denfeld, Stone seeks truths that only immersion—time and access—could offer.

“Waiting is important at every stage,” explains Susan Orlean, New Yorker staff writer and the author of eight books, “but particularly when you are with your subjects. You need to wait for a relationship to form, and you need to wait within that for a subject to talk openly and intimately. That’s why I don’t come into most reporting situations with a list of questions; having that list burning in my pocket would make it that much harder for me to sit back and wait for the relationship to form and for the subject to open up.”

This level of waiting—whether you’re conducting two years of fieldwork or two weeks of “hanging out”—is what it takes to let the story unfold. It’s the difference between setting up a camera for a twenty-minute interview, during which time you’re the dominant voice, and approaching with a camera that doesn’t stop rolling. Let the camera roll long enough, and a story will reveal itself.

“Most good journalists who hope to get inside someone else’s world and stay there awhile come on very softly and do not bombard their subjects with questions,” wrote Wolfe in The New Journalism. Wolfe’s advice is one of the reasons I believe in porch-sitting. When I first started reporting in South Africa, I knew that just sitting on the stoop for a cup of tea was more valuable than asking questions. I learned to listen, and I learned to let someone else fill empty space. I learned to let others converse and to simply steer the rudder now and again. And, sharing a good, long cup of tea often makes someone comfortable enough to invite you to return, and to start hanging out longer and longer each time. Once such trust is developed, people begin to reveal themselves on their own terms.

“[I] have no need to impose a narrative on others,” explains Denfeld, “I am comfortable with receiving the complex truth of other people. Too often people approach other cultures and have a strong need to have them fit into a narrative—either romantically sympathetic or unforgivably horrible. I don’t have that need. I am comfortable finding out any truth.”

As I spent most of a year inside Rooibok, my subjects took me places I never would have known or thought to ask about. They recognized I really was there to listen and that, when I did ask questions, I was seeking to understand further something they’d told me or I’d seen. Often, when I asked a question, people were surprised by how much I had absorbed and processed.

Through this porch sitting, through my trust in waiting, I was able to see stories and character unfold. Regina revealed herself as an elderly woman standing at the crossroads where her Catholic faith and the AIDS pandemic crash; Thoko started taking steps to turn her shebeen into a fully licensed tavern; and Dankie was approaching the matriculation exams that would determine whether he could go after his dreams to become a detective or if he’d find himself working in the fields, the trees, or the city like other men in his community. And, just as these three revealed themselves and their complexities, the community of Rooibok also revealed its own character with its own narrative arc. It sits inside a larger village where an outdoor butchery occupies an old petrol station and a funeral parlor sits in the attached garage. It’s a place where an AIDS education center sits across the street from a West African doctor selling cures for the pandemic. It’s where BMWs are parked outside of crumbling cement homes and the availability of water changes with the day of the week. During northeastern South Africa’s rainy season, as the land shifts from dusty winter blond to lush summer green and back again, Regina, Thoko, and Dankie all face the challenges and possibilities of the new South Africa.

For me, immersion is about experiencing the world outside of myself. More than anything, I aim to tell others’ stories. And, sure, through these stories, I learn about myself and my place in this world, and I recognize that my essay or feature story or book is ultimately curated through the filters that represent my life, but I don’t aim for my journey to be the narrative upon which the camera is focused. I will not deny that this, surely, affects my curation, and in some circumstances—as was the case for Joe Mackall and Ted Conover—my personal journey is a necessity in telling the story I set out to tell. However, unlike Robin Hemley, author of A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel, I don’t believe immersion is a type of writing grounded in memoir; rather, I see this as an information-gathering and truth-seeking tool available to writers in every genre and grounded in the fieldwork of investigative journalists, war reporters, and anthropologists.

When I first started reporting for The Rainy Season, I reached out to Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Salopek to learn from his experiences with translators and the challenges he has faced when reporting in Africa—or, more generally, in communities and cultures other than his own. At the time, I’d been obsessed with Salopek’s work for National Geographic and the Chicago Tribune, specifically his serial narrative set on the Congo River. Paul was not a parachute journalist in Africa—something that is often impossible to avoid given the way the continent is often considered a single beat; rather, he was immersing himself inside communities and situations and pulling out deeply personal and deeply insightful narratives.

Today, Paul’s work represents a new level of reportage. Some might even call it extreme immersion. Having begun in Ethiopia in 2013, he will walk until he reaches South America in 2020, retracing the path early humans took sixty thousand years ago as they populated the globe, moving from pre-historic Africa across the Middle East and Asia before crossing into North America and then south. As part of this journey, he will report on the stories that feel most pressing: climate change, cultural survival, the effects of technology, and migration. The work is documentary and personal all at once, encountering people whose stories otherwise go unheard and untold.

My most recent correspondence with Salopek found him inside Georgia, where he’s stopping for a few months. He wrote me:

On this project, I’ve come to a few conclusions about speed. You can skim across the outer surface of a story very fast, the way a stone skips across a deep lake, leaving behind insignificant ripples. You can sink into a story for years—disappear into it, vanish inside it, get smothered by it, and lose your perspective as a writer. Or you can walk through a story, literally or metaphorically speaking. I think walking speed is just about right: You move into and out of the story incrementally, steeping yourself meaningfully in the lives of others—but not for so long that you become bought-in, jaded, or so immersed that you no longer recognize what’s in front of your nose. Three miles an hour, with a lot of stops, is just about right.

About the Author

Maggie Messitt

Maggie Messitt is author of The Rainy Season, a work of narrative and immersion journalism, long-listed for the 2016 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award in South Africa, where she was a journalist, editor, and the founding director of a rural nonprofit news organization and journalism school for eight years.

View Essays
Good news for subscribers to Creative Nonfiction magazine!

All current print magazine subscribers (Creative Nonfiction and/or True Story) also have access to our entire digital archive. That’s nearly 30 years’ worth of true stories, well told! 

* Not yet a subscriber? Creative Nonfiction magazine is a home for thought-provoking, remarkable, engaging narrative nonfictin. Sign up today!