by Ethan Gilsdorf
[Another entry in the monthly column, The Freelance Life, by Ethan Gilsdorf, about the trials, tribulations, triumphs --- and tips to share --- along the path to becoming a freelance writer.]
One of the problems with writing personal essay or memoir is that it's often difficult to decide what to write about, or how to frame your subject matter. The boundaries around our lives are messy. Where does one experience in life start? Where does one theme end? Do our experiences even have themes? No story from our personal history seems to have an obvious beginning, middle and end.
This can be frustrating for the nonficiton writer eager to craft a piece of writing that's coherent, and powerful, and interesting, and other adjectives.
When I was learning to become an essayist and journalist, I was doing quite a lot of travel writing at the time. I embarked on mini-quests --- to hike across Scotland, to couchsurf across Iceland, to backpack across South India, to travel across Paris for the perfect French fry --- and wrote about my experiences.
What I was writing about was not some dim childhood memory, adolescent gaffe, or ancient lesson I needed to resurrect from the tombs of my past. Rather, in these pieces, I could grapple with something new. I could experience new things --- like trying to mountain bike through the French Pyrenees as the sole American member of a British group after consuming, each afternoon and evening, too much tea, cakes and cheap red wine --- and report on what I saw and felt and thought, who I met, what I made of it. I could take notes about my fears, my observations, my conclusions. With these limitations of scope and topic, the essay or narrative came together.
I later learned (Duh!) this genre was called "immersion writing." Also known as known as gonzo, stunt or participatory journalism, immersion writing can help writers put clearer bookends at either end of a significant experience so that they can write about it. The experience may feel manufactured, but that's the point --- by forcing yourself to do something new, you learn new things about yourself, and the world, that become fodder for great writing.
Some early pioneers in the genre were George Plimpton and Hunter S. Thompson. More recent practitioners, in book form, include Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America), A. J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible) and Robin Hemley (Do-Over! In Which a Forty-Eight-Year-Old Father of Three Returns to Kindergarten, Summer Camp, the Prom, and Other Embarrassments).
The idea? You find an idea that intrigues you, a question you need answering, a project you want to embark on, an investigation that needs investigating. It could be something personally/emotionally significant to you --- maybe getting over your fear of heights by taking a trapeze class. Or the project might be making a decision not to do something all day, or for a week --- not speaking, or not using the Internet.
In a recent piece of stunt journalism, after noticing that people had begun calling me "Sir," I wrote about my own desire to become "more hip" and "less old." (Ha!) This was the perfect "quest" for me, one that matched a problem that I personally wanted to solve, a question I wanted to investigative, from my own life.
There are myriad ways to "immersive thy self." If you're a non-church-goer, you might attend church for a month; if you do go to church, attend a different one than you normally do. You might try karaoke for the first time. You might spend a day with a policeman, ride the T all day, or pretend to be homeless. You could go undercover in some sub-culture: horse jumping people, dog show people, cat people, cat video people. You might try rock climbing or pole dancing. But your activity need not be as extreme as bungie jumping. You might take a class with a pastry chef, or walk from one end of Boston to the other. Or from Boston to your hometown of New Hampshire in memory of your mother. (That's another story.)
You also research your topic beforehand. You interview people already involved in this sub-culture, as well as those you meet while you're doing what you're doing. You take notes: How do I feel? What am I thinking? What am I seeing? What am I learning?
Then, you write it up. Along the way, you interweave with observations about your experiences a little précis on, say, bungie jumping or walking, or the brief history of the T. You toss in a little lay sociology or psychology about why people do this thing that they do.
The point is to think about the present you, not the past you. If your personal essay or memoir is feeling mushy, or the memories are feeling too dim, or it's feeling too much about you in the past, think about doing something new in the present. Take on a fresh experience. Do it, then write about it.
NOTE: If you're interested in trying out immersion writing, I'm offering a 10-week workshop, Freelance Essentials: Gonzo, Stunt and Immersion Writing Boot Camp, that will teach you all the basics. It begins January 8, 2014. More info here. This workshop is part of the Freelance Essentials Series, which teaches students the skills and craft to become working freelance journalists. Other classes offered this term in this series include:
- Freelance Essentials: Nuts and Bolts (Saturday, January 25th)
- Freelance Essentials: Craft and Structure Fundamentals (Saturday, February 8th)
- Freelance Essentials: Pitching Intensive (Friday-Saturday, February 21-22nd)
A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and his is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D.Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he serves on the Board of Directors. He also serves on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf
I once wandered a very different set of roads than the ones I wander today. The road that would, ultimately, lead me toward emotional fulfillment was a difficult one to find. It was cold and scary out there. And joy was the street I needed to find, but not before I took a U-turn away from abandonment and made a sharp right turn toward ambition.
I began to find my way out of that blind darkness on a night in the middle of June 1982, after hearing my mother tell me for what had to have been the hundredth time: “Son, you better get up and go get yourself a job. I ain’t taking care of no grown-ass man.”
I had been playing football for the better part of 16 years, but my career had ended. I imagined myself sometimes as that person the teachers would call the bad example. The one they were talking about when they said: “OK, students, we’re going on a field trip down to the local Burger King, so that I can let you see personally what happens when you don’t receive an education.”
You know, that person who greets you before taking your order, with “Hi, welcome to Burger King. How may I help you?” I couldn’t be him.
Living became rougher than I could ever imagine death being. I began to think of death as if she were near.
Two things were for sure. One, I was too old to be living at home with my mother. I was 21 years old and I still could not read. But I would use my last competitive breath to fight, to become someone other than the cards I was dealt said I’d become. No, I couldn’t for the life of me dare ask for the cards to be reshuffled … but I was determined to be more. I couldn’t accept my mother’s ultimatum, and within a few days, I went from being my mother’s third child born … to being her first child homeless.
I could have gone down to a fast-food joint, but I was afraid I would be signing my illiteracy death certificate. Yes, I had gone off to college and had completed at least three years of schooling, but I had returned home mentally empty, emotionally robbed. I was in the greatest shape physically that a 21-year-old young man could ever be in — but psychologically, I was lost.
Three and a half weeks later …
I hadn’t shaved in six and a half days; hadn’t bathed in three and a half weeks. My body reeked from the lack of soap and water; my underarms were foul even to me. But though the world saw me as incompetent, I was something that they could never be: I was free.
I was a transient, with more time on my hands than a clock ticks in a week. Impoverished. My every movement gave credence to the phrase down and out. Living became rougher than I could ever imagine death being. I began to think of death as if she were near. Closer than I’ve ever seen her before. And yet I was forever moving forward, not because I wanted to, but because society says that loitering of any kind is a crime. So I walked, as the bottom of my feet burned from the sweltering Texas heat. This hot asphalt was my path.
I cringed at the thought of being seen by others as nothing, but I felt like … nothing.
I attempted to hold my head up high, to keep my shoulders straight as the onlookers gawked. I thought: Just like them, I am an unfinished product, still in search of my calling. Just like all of us are. But the world had all but written me off. Had I truly become a derelict, a nuisance and an intolerable human being?
Homelessness is a maze; each step is regretful, each mile easily forgotten because it seems never to end.
All the streets became nameless as I continued drifting forward, heading nowhere as fast as I could … so I moved. Twenty-one, penniless, grieving my existence. Through the eyes of the fortunate, the elements are a careless part of your day: a drizzle, a heat wave. But it is another thing altogether for that drizzle to caress your already fragile body and mind, for that heat to burn you as it burns the asphalt. And as I walked up and down the streets of Dallas, my feet bled up, I formed cracks between my toes, and, over time the blood soaked my socks and dried. When I finally removed my shoes and pulled off my socks, they had adhered to my toes. I smelled the pungent scent of old, dried blood.
Homelessness is a maze; each step is regretful, each mile easily forgotten because it seems never to end. I eventually made my way from the streets to friends’ floors. My days of displacement? Twenty-one, the same as my age. Three weeks. But I never again want to wonder where I have to lay my head.
I have since become the writer of the words you are so graciously reading. I am the author of six books. Never have I stopped believing in the young man who one day dared to believe that he was placed down here on earth to do more than say, “Good evening, welcome to Burger King. How may I help you?” Instead, I walked until I could run, I reached until I could feel. I maneuvered through life with the hunger that I might one day do more than just exist. And I do so much more than exist: I have five lovely children, I have two cars, I own my own business and I’m not even finished. And now? My hope is that my arms might be long enough to reach back over the walls of assurance, to grab, if not all of those still hoping for such a freedom, then at least one of those still in search of that street called Joy. I dream that sharing my story will help bridge the gaps from homelessness to happiness, that it will somehow light a fire bright enough to lead someone’s loved one back … to a place called home.