My creative nonfiction professor has instructed us to immerse ourselves in a subculture somewhere in our little university town and write 4-5 pages about it by next Tuesday. We are reading In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s compelling nonfiction novel (a genre assignment many are still uncomfortable with) about a violent quadruple murder in Kansas, told in riveting – but to some people, questionable – detail. Capote moved into the little town where it all happened and spent months exhaustively investigating the crime. This book ruined his life, our professor tells us. He never quite recovered from the experience of immersing himself in the murders.

And this is the guy you want us to imitate? I can’t help thinking.

I chose to immerse myself in my roommate’s work at the daily newspaper on campus.  The newsroom swallows up hours of her life, yet I have very little idea of what she actually does there, and despite fending off multiple suggestions/hints/nudges that I should come work there too, I’m curious and perhaps willing to look a little closer.

What does “immersion” mean, anyway?  I’ve most commonly heard the word attached to study abroad programs that promise you’ll return fluent in another language thanks to the miracles of “language immersion.”  When I’ve found my subculture, must I eat/sleep/breathe it?  Should I attempt to dive straight in, or am I allowed to observe for a little while?  Should I ignore all other concerns, even if those around me are doing homework or browsing Pinterest?

The infinitive, the command “to immerse,” calls to mind that moment of slipping underwater, taking a deep breath and letting the surface close over me and saturate my scalp, tendrils of hair drifting indifferently upwards and outwards while I float, suspended, between planes.  There’s something to the word that connotes downward movement into some substance or place, while also allowing me to be weightless.  I don’t know how that works, exactly; but it makes me think of dipping my head underwater, and it makes me thirsty.

Immersing oneself in water carries significant symbolic weight, too.  Going down into water often represents baptism, or at least some kind of vital change in a person or character’s life.  Capote had certainly changed by the time he came up for air from the little town in Kansas.  Ideally, an experience that results in a truly good creative nonfiction piece will probably change the writer somehow.  But, so far, we have not discussed what we’re supposed to do when we do finally break through the surface again and withdraw ourselves from the subculture.  We have not talked about what that will do to us.  We are supposed to be leaping off the docks here.

That’s the thing about “immersion.”  It sounds timeless, yet permanent.  To completely go into something, after all, is quite an undertaking.  And once you are there, suspended between those planes, with the dappled light and all your sensory information shifting in new and interesting ways…the word seems to suggest you might want to stay.

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