"The difference between immersion journalism and immersion memoir is that an immersion journalist is primarily interested in reporting on the world outside herself while using the self as the vehicle for that information. The immersion memoirist is interested in self-revelation or evaluation while using the outside world as his/her vehicle."
Nickel and Dimed is a book of immersion journalism; the author, Barbara Ehrenreich, uses her self as a vehicle through which she can explore the larger issues faced by America's working class--those who live on minimum wage, most often working more than one job, and struggling to afford housing and pay their bare-bone-bills.
To do this, Ehrenreich decides that she will spend three months living and working within that reality; she would work in Florida, Maine and Minnesota, seeking out the cheapest options for housing in an attempt to survive on the 6-7 dollar an hour wages of jobs such as housekeeping, waitressing, and working as a nursing-home aide.
Ehrenreich starts the book with a prologue in which she 'fesses up to her privilege--to her "leg-up" on those who live without the knowledge that after three months they can return to a life where its okay to lose nickels and dimes or toss them in fountains. She writes, "I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full-time, often for most of their lives. With all the real-life assets I've built up in middle age--bank account, IRA, health insurance, multi-room home--waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to "experience poverty" or find out how it "really feels" to be a long-term low-wage worker."
Ehrenreich's introduction was largely confessional, full of slightly self-effacing humor, and most importantly, provided the reader a clear understanding of what the book and project would hopefully do--and also, what it would fail to do. Observing the way a vulnerable prologue like Ehrenriech's can disarm a skeptical audience convinced me that this is the way I want to approach immersion writing. I remember a quote by Hemley that said something has helped me process my self-consciousness in writing about the self and my fear of sounding egotistical. He said, "To write honestly about the Self more often takes courage and generosity than egoism." Immersion journalists can use a focus on the self in a selfless manner--and IF he or she does it right and well and without secretly preserving pride or padding the ego, that act is going to require guts and will arrive to the reader as a gift.
Additionally, Ehrenrheich's prologue supplied the reader with an upfront rundown of the project's limitations, allowing the reader to more readily accept, instead of resent, the ways that immersion writing will always fail to unveil the absolute reality of another person.
Not only is the experience of an immersion writer influenced by the fact that the writer is only visiting, but the writer's observations of the foreign world are also suspect to the his or her biases such as background and worldview. In my college anthropology class, we learned that there is something called "confirmation bias" where an investigator sees things that he or she already believes and pays a lot of attention to those, ignoring the things that do not support his or her objectives. As devious as that sounds, it often is done unconsciously. One way that Ehrenreich combats confirmation bias is by pairing her experience with solid research, using heavy footnotes to show the reader that what she is experiencing is not a solitary event or an isolated viewpoint.
For many immersion writers, the best possible scenario is that they would enter an environment as a fly on the wall. Now, that's not to say that the writer would be invisible—in fact, the most compelling scenes in immersion writing seem to happen when the writer is thick, middle of things, interacting with fellow humans in their natural setting (all thought the setting may be very unnatural to you)—people who are just doing their thing.
I’ve wondered how dramatically the effectiveness of immersion writing would decrease if the writer's secret role of "writer" were to be found out by those he or she is writing about. I found it so interesting that before Ehrenreich quits her job at The Maids, where she had been an employee of the cleaning service, she decides to tell her fellow maids that she is actually working on writing a book and that she is going to write about her experiences cleaning. When Ehrenreich tells her secret, the announcement attracts so little attention that she has to repeat herself. Finally one of the women asked, "Are you like, investigating?" and then cracks up laughing, saying that the "place could use some investigating!" The group seemed take it so casually and well, nobody articulating a sense of being lied to at all.
At that point, with her real identity revealed, Ehrenreich is able to ask more pointed, journalistic questions. Traditional journalism, in that instance, provided Ehrenreich with some more direct answers to some questions she'd been trying to get at subtly during her experience.
Even though traditional journalism seems to access answers more directly, its methods also have limitations. For example, subjects’ own biases will affect his or her answers—as will the desire of the subject to save face. Traditional journalism doesn't allow someone the benefit of being a fly on the wall, and certainly not of a bee in the hive. For these reasons, I keep coming back to my mysterious love for immersion writing and the way that, although it harvests a limited frame of information, it gleans something that feels rare in today’s individualistic society: an understanding of how the land looks when standing in another person's shoes.
I just find myself wanting to live in as many homeless shelters as I can or spend a few weeks in a retirement home living like an old-fogie. It makes me want to step into so many "other" worlds!