When Creative Nonfiction Meets Reality TV


Photo by Emmelie.

There is a certain resistance that can be tied to writing creative nonfiction. The same can go for other genres of writing as well. When it comes to addressing the I (the speaker) in works in general, it can be reassuring to realize the I is not always the me (the writer). This can give a writer freedom when tapping into the mind of someone else, whether that can be a historical person or someone completely made up in the writer’s head. When writing in this style, certain emotions a writer can feel about the subject matter can easily transfer to this new speaker. This character can act as a vehicle for the writer. Basically, the writer can be like “Ehhh. The I is not me,” if someone has an issue about the work they have written.

The question that can be in the back of one’s mind is: What about creative nonfiction? The I is actually me and some of the words can be traced to the writer themself. This can cause some hesitation if they worry about the reader’s perception about them. I mean, it’s only human that we think that way, right? No one wants their diary becoming public. Dear Diary, I’ve been having sexual dreams about my neighbor. The next thing the person knows is BAM—the neighbor won’t even look at them in their face.

This semester I am taking my first creative nonfiction workshop where I honestly didn’t know what I was getting myself into. The only books I had read that have nonfiction elements were top selling memoirs like “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls. If you haven’t read it, then this blog post is also your cue to find it ASAP. There is a wide range of authors we are reading in this course. For instance, Annie Dillard, Evan Lavender Smith, Sarah Manguso, Mary Ruefle, Scott McClanahan, just to name a few. Each of these books takes different forms and inhabits different voices. The question now is this: how much of these books is true? Did everything happen verbatim? If you take Scott McClanahan Crapalachia, for example, his appendix openly admits that some of his characters are made up and that certain scenes never happened in the first place. Does this make Mcclanahan’s nonfiction inauthentic? Should we still read the book since he openly admits that not everything is 100% true?

Now this is where reality TV comes into play. This genre of television is sometimes pinned off as mindless or even as fake by viewers. There is a certain separation between reality TV and scripted series. Reality TV showcase people/characters who represent the “common” people (the viewers) where they are either surviving an island for a million dollars (Survivor), finding their true love amongst 18 other contestants (The Bachelor/Bachelorette), or living in a house with other strangers (The Real World). Producers film nonstop, but when it comes to the actual episode itself, viewers only get a small chunk of the greater whole. Narratives of characters are shaped through specific scenes, and confessionals get an even closer look into these characters themselves. Does this act of manipulation make these shows inauthentic? Should we not watch them when knowing this very fact?

When writing, there is an inauthenticity that naturally goes hand in hand. A writer knows damn well that there will be an audience, another set of eyes that will be placed on the words that come from their pencil. (The same goes for when a person is in front of a camera lens. At some point, the entire nation will see their reactions to other cast mates.) A writer knows that they will send it to other friends for workshop. When there is someone on the receiving end, words, scenes, can be shifted around. If you have a diary, when you write in it, ask yourself what if someone opened this up and read this passage? Would you change up some details so they wouldn’t know? Would you spice some scenes up to make it seem more dramatic?

Sometimes when we write about ourselves, or even memories, we can’t fully get everything right. Memories can be distorted or even when we write about something that has happened ten years ago, we are looking back with a different lens in which we once experienced it. Does that mean we can’t write about it? Not at all! If that was the case, we wouldn’t be able to write about pretty much anything and everything and there’s no fun in that.

To answer the previous questions in this post, I would argue, Hell yes, we should watch these reality TV shows. I would argue, Hell yes, we should read these creative nonfiction books. Knowing that nonfiction can straddle the line of “truth” opens more possibilities when it comes to writing. Create yourself narratives you can tell others, have confessionals that hit straight to the core of who you are and what you are thinking about with what has happened. Let others fall in love with you. They will tune in to each episode, each page that you create.


Devin Koch is a second year poet in Virginia Tech’s MFA program. He is the managing editor of the minnesota review.


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