Issue #38, Summer 2010
CNF’s Armchair Guide to Stunt Writing
When Immersion Journalism and Memoir Collide
CNF’s Armchair Guide to Stunt Writing
In 1887, a young reporter and her editor hatched a plot: The reporter should feign insanity to write an expose about conditions in a New York City asylum. It was investigative journalism, but of a sort that demanded an unusual degree of, well, commitment from the reporter, Nellie Bly; she endured rotten food, cold baths in filthy water, sleepless nights and abuse from nurses for 10 days before letting her editor spring her.
The story more than justified the reporter’s temporary suffering; originally published in the New York World (and later as a book, Ten Days in a Mad-House), it resulted in almost immediate improvements, not only on Blackwell’s Island, where Bly did her time, but throughout the entire city.
The stunt also established Bly’s reputation as a reporter and celebrity (especially when she followed it up by trying to beat Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg’s fictional 80-day record for an around-the-world trip). More interesting, Bly’s all-in style anticipated, by nearly a century, New Journalism, which significantly undermined the traditional view of the reporter as an objective, impassive observer and—for better and worse—let reporters become characters in their own stories.
Fast-forward to George Plimpton’s arrival on the scene. Plimpton, one of the New Journalists and probably the best-known of Bly’s writing descendents (though he claimed inspiration from the sportswriter Paul Gallico), attained celebrity by throwing himself, woefully unprepared but wholeheartedly, into various big-league situations, from pitching against all-star line-ups to trying out for the Detroit Lions to boxing three rounds against world boxing champ Archie Moore to playing percussion with the New York Philharmonic. Around the same time—but with more seriousness and secrecy—a white Texas writer, John Howard Griffin, contrived to turn his own skin dark (by taking a medication, exposing himself to a sunlamp, and applying “stain”) in order to tour the South as a black man, believing that “the best way to find out if we had second-class citizens and what their plight was would be to become one of them.” Griffin, too, attained a measure of fame—or, depending on your view, notoriety—following his stunt; he was asked to speak on race relations at events around the country, but he and his family ultimately moved away from Texas because of threats against them.
Both Plimpton and Griffin were unusual in the lengths they were willing to go for a story. Until recently, writers crazy enough to, well, play “crazy” (or take a hit to the face) were rare, and so, too, books chronicling writers’ unlikely immersion experiences—whether undertaken for lighthearted entertainment or as part of serious cultural investigations.
Fast forward again, however, and it seems as if finding a good stunt has become a surefire way to land a book contract; recent years have seen the publication of scores of books that might be titled, generically, “Look What I Did for a Month/a Year/Until I Couldn’t Stand It Another Minute.” They chronicle stunts that run the gamut from earnest, Griffinesque projects, such as joining the ranks of the working poor (Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed) or trying to live without leaving a carbon footprint (Colin Beavan, No Impact Man), to slightly more lighthearted, Plimptonesque undertakings, such as going back to kindergarten and the high school prom (Robin Hemley, Do-Over!) or reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica (A.J. Jacobs, The Know-It-All).
Maybe all this contrived exhibitionism isn’t surprising; after all, we’ve become accustomed to watching, on television, real people—just like us! (maybe, kind of)—put themselves through ever-more strenuous and unpleasant experiences for our entertainment and, less often, edification: toughing it out, say, in remote areas with only a bandana and a swimsuit to protect themselves from the elements or choosing a life mate from a random group of strangers assembled by a team of assistant producers.
Granted, there’s a lot to be said for vicarious thrills, for seeing how far someone else is willing to go, and the “reality” of a situation does enhance the impact. Don’t we all know by now that some of the dialogue is scripted (or at least heavily edited) and that, on many shows, the contestants’ outrageous behavior is the result of a toxic combination of sleep deprivation, hunger and free-flowing alcohol on set? Of course. But remember when a contestant fell in the campfire on “Survivor”? That really happened! And the folks on “The Biggest Loser”? Just look at them!
Why shouldn’t books demand the same attention and satisfy a similar appetite? In fact, with more time and space for reflection, and with less manipulative third-party editing, books should be even more effective than television at providing not only entertainment, but also admission to worlds we can’t access on our own, and they should do a better job of providing suitable tour guides, knowledgeable narrators we trust to nudge us, via their own hard-won experiences, into new ways of seeing the world.
Come to think of it, isn’t that pretty much what great books do?
Which is not to say—let’s be perfectly clear—that all of these books (and there really are a lot of them) are “great” or even, in some cases, “very good.” Generally, they succeed more as entertainment—amusements—than as serious literature; certainly for style, no one beats Plimpton, and few even come close. (Ol’ George might have struggled on the mound, but he could sure knock a story out of the park.) No doubt one factor contributing to these books’ mediocrity is that the set-up almost demands a fairly straightforward, chronological treatment; after all, if you’re going to do an experiment for a year, why not start the story with Day One and power through to the end, perhaps tacking on a few afterthoughts? (Or, if you’re reading the encyclopedia, for example, tell the story alphabetically.) A related problem is that such projects are also virtually made for (and in many cases, from) blogging—not necessarily a bad thing, except that blogs generally succeed on humor and breeziness and narrative tidiness, whereas books demand something more … more mess, more reflection, some bigger ideas.
Still, you can hardly blame writers for hopping on a good trend. True, the average writer has traditionally been a little less extroverted (or so one likes to think) than the average would-be reality-television star, but in a publishing climate that requires writers not only to write books but to rustle up an audience for those books (hey! maybe with a good blog), it’s easy to see why the stunt book is so popular, not only with readers but with writers and publishers.
Too, it overlaps nicely with memoir, another trend with staying power; sure, some folks are lucky enough to have had book-worthy life experiences, but sometimes you have to make your own luck, you know? Make your family live without electricity or heat; make your wife pick you up from kindergarten; spout factoids at every opportunity (Jacobs’ wife eventually imposed a dollar-per-irrelevant-fact fine); fake a mustache, go out in the world as someone you’re not and forge relationships based on deceit—you can’t help but have something to say about experiences like these.
For those who would follow the path forged by Nellie and George, we humbly present CNF’s Armchair Guide to Stunt Writing—because we sure as hell aren’t going to do whatever crazy thing you would consider doing in return for a book contract (and we definitely don’t want to be married to you while you go on your lunatic quest) … but we might read about it, if you survive to tell the tale!
1. Identify a Problem—in the world, or maybe just in your own life.
In 2006, Colin Beavan was feeling, as many of us do, panicky about climate change and found himself ranting about how people—ahem: you—should do … do … something about it before it’s too late. Then, one unseasonably warm January day, he realized, “My problem might not actually be the state of the world. My problem was my inaction. I was worried sick about something and doing nothing about it.” Similarly, though on a less global scale, Robin Hemley, at 48, having done reasonably ok at the game of life, nevertheless realized, “Inside, I was still the kid who flubbed the line in the school play in second grade, the last one picked in sports at camp, the awkward teenager who couldn’t get a date for the prom. All of these failures were holding me back, I sensed.” For A.J. Jacobs, the journey started with the realization that since college, he had become “embarrassingly ignorant.” Intolerable!
2. Turn That Problem into an Opportunity (aka A Stunt)
Sure, you can wallow in middle-age discontent (or early-middle-age—a surprising number of these books are written by guys in their mid-30s, married and coming up on having kids, which adds another sub-plot), or you can enjoy one last moment of craziness and, through the wonders of the book advance, earn a respectable, middle-age living at the same time! Daydreaming about “one last moment of glory on a field, any field,” Stefan Fatsis (“A Few Seconds of Panic”) decided to follow in Plimpton’s footsteps by trying out as a kicker for an NFL team, the only position potentially open to a 5-foot-8, 43-year-old former soccer player. Hemley’s solution was to invoke the “do-over,” that magical boyhood tool; he contrived ways to go back to kindergarten, to summer camp, to eighth grade, to the prom and other sites of his childhood and adolescent failures, and make them right. (As you might imagine, this involved going through lots of background checks.)
3. Convince an Editor/Publisher to Let You Write About (and, Ideally, to Pay For) Your Stunt
One day, Barbara Ehrenreich was having lunch with Lewis Lapham, then editor of Harper’s. As she tells the story, their talk drifted to poverty and to how women, especially, would fare under welfare reform and support themselves and, often, families on minimum wage. Ehrenreich suggested that someone should do “the old-fashioned kind of journalism—you know, go out there and try it for themselves.” And “Lapham got this crazy-looking half smile on his face and ended life as I knew it, for long stretches at least, with the single word ‘You.’” Plimpton pitched his idea for a series of sports-related escapades to the editor of Sports Illustrated, who gave him the go-ahead to pitch baseballs to All-Stars and later even put up a cash prize for the “winning” batters, but warned, “Seems to me that your big problem isn’t going to be arranging these … er … matches, or writing about what you go through, but getting through everything in one piece … in a word: survival. I would advise getting in shape.” Which turned out to have been good advice—if only Plimpton had paid heed.
4. Perfect Your Disguise or Establish Ground Rules, or Both
Depending on the stunt you choose, preparation can be a pretty elaborate process. Before she could go out in public as “Ned”—to bowling night in a men’s league, to strip clubs, on sales calls, even into a monastery—Norah Vincent (Self-Made Man) had to get new glasses and a flat top, figure out how to fake facial stubble (electric hair clipper trimmings, attached with stoppelpaste), bind her breasts (too-small sports bra) and lift weights to change her shape and find the right stuffing for a jock strap. Once she had the physical disguise down, she learned to speak like a man: in a deeper register, using fewer words, speaking more slowly and with greater authority. To pass as a black man in the South in 1959, John Howard Griffin (Black Like Me) first consulted with a dermatologist who prescribed a medication followed by prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation, a treatment Griffin undertook in secret at the house of a friend, and that gave him “a dark undercoating of pigment which I could touch up perfectly with stain.” Then, after shaving his head, Griffin headed out on his own into the streets of New Orleans. Interestingly, he didn’t change his name or identity, except as others changed it for him, reacting to his appearance. Nellie Bly experienced a similar phenomenon; although she prepared to pass herself off as insane by making some funny faces in the mirror and acting oddly enough to be committed (staying awake all night, talking to herself, rocking back and forth), once inside the asylum, she “talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be…”
(Of course, it’s possible to build a solid stunt without making such significant physical investments: A.J. Jacobs merely had to shell out $1,400—which, presumably, he could even write off for his taxes—for a leatherette set of the Britannica, and find shelf space for the books. Totally manageable, even in Manhattan.)
On second thought: skip this step. No one trains. Actual training would undermine the fundamental premise of the book: that the writer is a clueless boob, completely out of his element. If he admitted he knew what he was in for, Day One would be a lot less exciting. Thus, Colin Beaven would have us believe he woke up on Day One of his “No Impact” year without having previously considered the need to give up paper towels and find a non-disposable way to diaper his one-year-old. (Colin’s wife, on the other hand—she prepared. A fashionista facing a year without shopping, reports her husband, she “went on a clothes-shopping bender that reaped her two really nice pairs of leather boots and cost us the cashing-in of one small, unserviced 401(k).”) George Plimpton threw “some twenty or thirty pitches” to a pal and squeezed a rubber ball for a few minutes a day in the week before he was scheduled to take the mound against Willie Mays and 17 other all-stars. And when you put it that way, would training have made much difference? Probably not.
6. Get Out There and Do It!
If you don’t actually do the stunt, you can’t write about it (and you definitely can’t get paid for it). So, move to Florida and find a waitressing job, or two waitressing jobs—no, make that a hotel housekeeping job and a waitressing job, and an efficiency—no, make that a trailer; stop ordering take-out and stop buying anything in plastic packaging and turn off the electricity and heat in your apartment and do your laundry in the bathtub, grape-masher style, and stop using toilet paper; settle in for a week of learning about Alpha Friends and I-Care Rules and “different is great,” and for a week of summer camp, and for a week of sixth grade—social studies lessons and Tuck Everlasting and math homework—and a week of senior year at boarding school—chapel and Hamlet and prom; join a bowling league and deceive your teammates as you observe how they interact with one another and the other teams and how they talk about their wives and other women, and, later, go to the strip club with one of those teammates and get lap dances (and wonder a little whether the dancer finds it odd that your fake penis doesn’t react to her gyrations) and try (and fail) to figure out the appeal. The important thing is to go all-in—remember how stunt documentarian Morgan Spurlock had to say “yes” every time the McDonald’s server asked if he wanted to “Super-Size that?” No shirking allowed.
7. Encounter Unanticipated Obstacles to Writing About the Stunt
The fact is, many good stunts pose logistical challenges for the writer. Consider, for example, Nellie Bly, essentially jailed and believed to be mentally unsound. She had brought with her—as any good reporter would—a pencil and notebook, which were at one point confiscated by a nurse. Asking for her belongings back, Bly was informed she had brought only a notebook and no pencil; pleading her case, the poor, deranged dear was “advised to fight against the imaginations of my brain.” More often, the problem posed by the stunt is one that writers—especially those who write about themselves—regularly experience, namely, how to find a balance between writing about life and actually living. That is, can one live in the moment and at the same time be taking mental notes? And how, for example in the middle of working multiple, low-wage, physically demanding jobs, can one focus on the task at hand, let alone make physical (or even mental) notes for later writing? Recounting a hectic Saturday she spent as the sole dietary worker in the Alzheimer’s ward of a residential facility, Ehrenreich admits, “I have very little memory of this day, and my journal notes for it have the gasping, panicky tone of e-mails from an Everest climber who has just used up her last oxygen canister.” Of course, Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air) had that problem, too, but it didn’t stop him, either.
8. Encounter Unanticipated Obstacles to Finishing the Stunt Itself
As Robert Burns observed, even the best-laid plans gang aft agley. For Beavan, seven months into the No Impact year, it was toddler puke—two rounds of it, in the night, resulting in two sets of soiled sheets and pajamas that he couldn’t bring himself to wash by hand and that made him realize “there is a level of non-resource use below which things just get miserable. That there is a level of non-resource use below which people cannot and will not voluntarily go or stay in order to save the planet.” And so the family settled there. (Also, they eventually gave up giving up coffee and olive oil and balsamic vinegar.) Ehrenreich set some limits from the beginning, for example, ruling out homelessness: “If I was paying rent by the week and ran out of money I would simply declare the project at an end … Furthermore, I had no intention of going hungry. If things ever got to the point where the next meal was in question, I promised myself … I would dig out my ATM card and cheat.” She met her match in Minneapolis, working at Wal-Mart for $7 an hour and unable to find affordable housing, a situation that meant that “for each day that I fail to find cheaper quarters, which is every day now, I am spending $49.95 for the privilege of putting clothes away at Wal-Mart. At this rate, I’ll have burned through the rest of the $1,200 I’ve allotted for my life in Minneapolis in less than a week.” And so she quit.
And if you didn’t have the best laid plan in the first place? Forget it. Plimpton, for example, planned to pitch against two teams of All-Stars, and whichever side got the most hits against him would win a prize. Tiny detail he failed to consider: he hadn’t hired an umpire, fearing he would lose control of his pitches and both teams would score on walks. And yet, with no ump, there was nothing compelling the batters to swing at anything less than a perfect pitch—and so Ernie Banks waited through 23 pitches until he found one to his liking. With two batters to go on the first team, Plimpton’s inner voice, which had mumbled to him genially throughout the afternoon, began to turn on him, finally “spinning off in a cracker-Cassandra’s wail of doom. ‘Mah God!’ it cried out, ‘y’all gonna faint out heah.’” (Which—spoiler alert!—he did not, but only because the manager pulled him.)
9. Share What You Learned
Of course, you’ve learned something, right? And maybe even more than one thing. It could be something about yourself—for instance, that you don’t have the stamina to pitch against major leaguers for hours on end. Or maybe it’s something about your spouse—permit us to suggest that in such cases your best bet (assuming you like being married) is to employ phrases like “incredibly patient,” “long-suffering,” “wonderfully indulgent” and “what a trouper, I couldn’t have done this without her.” Thank you, dear, for picking me up from kindergarten today; how’s your first-trimester nausea?
But it’s not all about you. Ideally, you’ve also learned something about other people, maybe even about Society. Go ahead, wipe the make-up off and tell us—you’ve earned it.
Or maybe—not to single anyone out; you know who you are—you’ve simply learned about Aachen (a German city), Dasnami sannyasin (naked Indian ascetics), Morozov, Pavlik (a Young Pioneer who was murdered after denouncing his father and others for holding out against collectivization, and then was martyred by the Soviet regime), and Zywiec (a Polish town). But probably even then you’ve learned some other Important Lessons, too.
10. Re-Entry; Deal With Fall-Out and/or Fame
As Jacobs puts it (another spoiler alert!) while shelving the XYZ volume, “There’s something sad about finishing a huge, yearlong project, an immediate postpartum depression.” And if you’ve spent a year trying to change your daily routine to reduce your carbon footprint, it’s nearly impossible to climb on an airplane the day after the project ends. If you’ve been undercover, there’s also the problem of coming out to people you’ve deceived. For Vincent, who as Ned forged some intense relationships with other men, revealing herself as a woman (and a lesbian, to boot) was often a fearful prospect, both because of the possible reactions to the news (she often worried someone would beat her up) and because of her own feelings of guilt at the subterfuge. Near the end of each of her four “sessions,” Ehrenreich told co-workers she was a writer, mostly to “stunningly anticlimactic” results, among them the question, “Does this mean you’re not going to be back on the evening shift next week?”
But in most cases, the real moment of truth comes with the publication of the book, or at least the first articles: even before the end of the No Impact year, Beavan was profiled in the New York Times, which drove thousands of readers and “The Media” to his blog, and suddenly, he realized, “People all over the world, apparently, want to hear from me. What the hell am I supposed to say to all these people?” Beavan worried most about saying something wrong and missing an opportunity to steer people in the “right” direction. For other writers, the stakes have been—at least, personally—higher: Griffin’s first accounts of his experiment in the South were published in Sepia Magazine and titled “Journey Into Shame.” Even before the first issue was printed, his family was receiving death threats in the mail, and threatening phone calls, and Griffin himself was hanged in effigy from the main red-light wire in the Texas town where he lived. Following the project, he traveled widely to speak to various groups—white and black—but moved his family to Mexico for protection.
11. (for advanced stuntsters only): Return to Step One
Sometimes you get lucky, and one stunt leads to the next. Consider Vincent, who found that eighteen months of switching back and forth from woman to man and deceiving everyone she met made her a little crazy. (Go figure.) So for her next act, she decided to investigate the mental health industry, checking herself into three different institutions for treatment of depression. With greater joie de vivre, George Plimpton moved from the pitching mound to the football field, the links, the boxing ring, the tennis court, in each situation taking on “a great” and more or less completely humiliating himself for readers’ amusement and gratification. A.J. Jacobs has become a self-styled king of stunts: surely it was only a small leap from the Britannica to the Bible (The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, in which, yes, he attempts to stone an adulterer, among other things), and from those experiences to outsourcing his daily to-do list (reading bedtime stories, arguments with the wife) and trying radical honesty in The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment.
And the best part is, the pool of potential stunts is bottomless. (Readers’ appetites for stunt books might be a little more limited, but then, they keep saying that about memoir, too, don’t they? And anyway, you can’t worry about that; if it’s a good stunt, they’ll read it.) No one has taken a coast-to-coast pogo-stick ride, or tried to slaughter a cow in an urban back yard and put every single part of it, horns to hooves, to good use in the house, or lead a completely normal life—except naked … yet. So what are you waiting for? Those books aren’t going to write themselves!
Hattie Fletcher has been the managing editor of Creative Nonfiction since 2004. read more
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