Getting Real: Teaching Creative Nonfiction

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The other night, my wife and I accidentally got sucked into watching a Jersey Shore marathon. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s basically a high concept science fiction program that involves a group of grotesque orange aliens who derive sustenance from a diet consisting solely of hard liquor and whose highest form of compliment is to call someone a “Guido.” To be honest, the show is a little derivative of other science fiction shows that came before it—these aliens have the aggression of Klingons and the dull-witted brutality of the "toaster"-model Cylons.  My wife and I agreed that the show was stupid and a waste of our time, and we turned off the TV once we realized it was 3:30 in the morning and this marathon wasn’t going to be over anytime soon.

It’s as obvious as it is glib to point out that so-called “reality” television doesn’t resemble the world in which most of us actually live, but I worry that some people—and by some people, I mean some of my students—might mistake this manipulated footage and manufactured drama for something that resembles life on planet earth. Chuck Klosterman suggested in his essay “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite” that MTV’s The Real World fundamentally changed how young people relate to each other—“People started becoming personality templates,” Klosterman wrote, “devoid of complication and obsessed with melodrama.” Over the years, dozens of students have told me about auditioning for one reality show or another, and I could always tell which “type” they wanted to be—Sensitive Heterosexual Guy, Wild Party Girl, Intellectual-Yet-Approachable Black Dude.  The problem with reality television, really, is its tendency to reduce actual human beings into characters.  Static, superficial, underdeveloped characters at that.

This is why I like to teach creative nonfiction to undergraduates.  While some writers, like Phillip Lopate​, suggest that a nonfiction form like the personal essay is more suited for middle-aged people (who are, presumably, prone to reflection), I believe that it’s important for students to examine and write about their lives.  I know the complaints about college students’ supposed self-absorption, and I feel like it’s lately become fashionable to bemoan our students’ interest in writing about their own lives.  The suggestion is that writing about the self—particularly the young self, the self who hasn’t experienced very much of the world—convinces students that they can be writers without taking risks that involve experiences, adventures, and other people.

I don’t subscribe to that theory.  To be sure, I don’t subscribe to the opposite theory, espoused by some composition scholars, that personal writing is good for students because they are already experts in their own lives.  I’ve met a lot of people in my life, and very few of them seemed to have much expertise when it comes to discussing themselves.

When I ask my college students to write nonfiction, I am asking them to disregard the superficial, melodramatic narratives that tend to pass for reality in our popular culture and, instead, dig deeper.  A show like Bad Girls Club or Road Rules traffics in abstraction and stereotypes, but in memoir and essay writing, we’re looking for the concrete, for the unique individual consciousness.  We’re stripping away the constructed persona and focusing instead on the person, with all of the complexity and contradictions that would be sure to get her application to live in the Jersey Shore beach house rejected.

Some of my students have become talented essayists and memoirists.  I’ve directed three phenomenal MFA theses concerned with post-traumatic stress disorder, the plight of undocumented immigrants, and growing up in an orphanage in the early 1960s.  I’ve seen students get accepted to Ph.D. programs and publish their work.  And while I take pride in whatever role I might have played in my students’ success, if I’m being honest, I have to tell you that I’m a little more proud whenever a student—through reading and writing creative nonfiction—achieves a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the world and himself.  It’s deeply gratifying to find out what happens when people stop being ridiculous caricatures, and start getting real.

[This post first appeared on LitBits on 11/30/11]

About the Author
William Bradley’s nonfiction and commentaries on nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and journals, including The Missouri Review, The Normal School, Brevity, College English, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the Assistant Editor of the magazine River Teeth, and he teaches at St. Lawrence University.