UI Nonfiction Writing Program director presents panel

BY JULIA JESSEN | APRIL 19, 2012 6:30 AM

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Robin Hemley wanted to give writers a how-to guide of the literary style he most enjoys. So he created a book to show writers how to immerse themselves in the world around them and record those experiences in literature.

"Immersion writing is always sort of defined by the writer's relationship to the world," said Hemley, a UI professor of English, the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program, and the author of A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel.

He will conduct a panel discussion at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St. Two University of Iowa nonfiction graduate students will join Hemley on the panel.

Hemley said he thought doing a panel discussion with two immersion writers from the nonfiction program was a more interesting idea than following the standard reading format.

"I want people to think about their engagement with the world at large and, hopefully, help people understand what's intriguing and important about this kind of writing," he said.

An example of immersion writing in Hemley's work is his book Do-Over!, in which he returned to childhood experiences that he considered failures, such as flubbing his lines in a play and did them over.

"The most fun part of immersion writing is the research when you're out among people talking to them, taking notes, and doing some hopefully meaningful work out in the world, and then you go home and write about it," he said.

One of the M.F.A. candidates joining Hemley is Stephanie Griest, whose writing details the social-justice issues she faces in her immersion work. She travels to many countries that deal with social and political conflicts, including Russia, Cuba, and Mexico.

"It's like having multiple lives really," she said. "I feel like I've had an extra-long life, because you live the life of many different groups of people, people that you find fascinating, people who intrigue you."

Griest, who worked on her first book for around 10 years, said perseverance along with empathy, curiosity, and an open mind are all qualities that are necessary to be a good immersion journalist.

"This kind of writing really requires a dedicated person," she said. "You can't half-ass immersion writing; you have to commit to it, and it has to become a serious part of your life for several years."

The other panelist, Inara Verzemniecks, is a writer with a background in journalism; she said another quality necessary for a good immersion journalist is patience.

"You have to be willing to spend as much time as necessary to feel that you've deeply inhabited someone else's existence," she said.

Verzemniecks said she wants her writing to be able to convey a true sense of the experience she wrote about.

"Whenever anyone reads anything I've written, I hope they feel like they were experiencing what I experienced," she said.

Hemley also said he hopes his readers find something in his work that resonates with them.

"I'm hoping that people will find my work enjoyable at some level and also, hopefully, artful as well," he said. "Just like any writer, I want the insights I make in my work to be important to someone else."

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