Those of you who have taken my writing workshop know that I spend about the same amount of time talking about acclaimed, classic Canadian literature as I do gabbing about everyone's favourite hate-watch reality TV franchise, The Bachelor. Yes, you know the one- with the roses and limos and bikinis-on-helicopters. I can't explain my obsession. And I'm not proud of it- I work as a screenwriter, so I'm well aware that my tv viewing time should be spent on watching classics like The Godfather or, I don't know, Citizen Kane or something (actually I probably watched that movie like 12 times during my undergrad and to this day it is the only film I have ever fallen asleep watching, and yes I know that's like film blasphemy).
I do try to separate "true film" viewing time from guilty-pleasure TV time, but more and more that latter category gets exclusively filled by all the various spin-off/social-experiments of the Bachelor: Bachelorette, Bachelor Pad, Bachelor in Paradise, and, now, in case you wondered what it was like to watch really attractive people who have never done winter sports in their life try to compete in speed skating, Bachelor Winter Games.
When I realized last year how much time in my life was actually spoken for if I committed to watching an entire season of the Bachelor/Bachelorette, I started confining myself to only watching from the hometown dates onwards (once the token, producer-planted "crazy" person gets sent home), BUT STILL... I can't quite figure out what draws me to the show other than- there's no drama like reality TV drama. They can get away with using the most butt-clenching cliches, the kind my editor would immediately blacklist me for writing, as legitimate story-lines (I mean, honestly- they fall in love while making out half-naked in the sand on a deserted island beach after drinking champagne and eating chocolate covered strawberries? How many cliches is too many cliches in one scene?? The Bachelor answer: NO SUCH THING AS TOO MANY CLICHES). To use an old movie quote cliche myself- I'm not even mad, I'm impressed.
SO- when a friend invited me this week to attend Calgary's stop on the book tour for Bachelor Nation, a tell-all, behind-the-scenes exploration of the goliath franchise written by LA-based tv journalist, Amy Kaufman (who was in attendance to answer all our nosy questions!), I accepted the rose, I mean offer.
I had read about this book in the fall before it came out; it was making some literary headlines because ABC, the network that owns The Bachelor universe, was trying their darndest to stop Kaufman from publishing all their secrets.
What drew me to this book, however, was not just the promise of elicit backstage gossip (what ACTUALLY happens in the fantasy suite??), but Kaufman's mindful balance between gossip and social commentary. Because, you see, Kaufman, an avid fan all the way back to the show's inception in 2001 (yep- you heard me- in 3 years, the show will hit its 20th anniversary of showcasing what happens when you put 20 women on lockdown in a mansion with no phones/tv/books/magazines and plenty of alcohol to compete for one mediocre man's "heart" on air), is not only a mega-fan, but also, like me, is mega-conflicted over WHY.
Like me, Kaufman would call herself a feminist; she famously published articles outing not only James Franco but also Brett Ratner for years of covered-up sexual harassment in the film industry. Like me, Kaufman occasionally gets kind of sick, if not downright angry, when she thinks too hard about The Bachelor's insistence at showcasing perfect, tall, model-size, long-haired, tanned, almost exlucisively white women as supposedly the only ones "worthy" of this "perfect" man's attention. Like me, Kaufman harshly judges herself for actually enjoying watching women act like hysterical femme-bots from some medieval century, a tasteless regression back to the days when women literally had no agency or identity apart from their husbands. Like me, despite all of the above, Kaufman still can't seem to look away from the train wreck.
I stayed up wayyyy too late last night blasting through Kaufman's book, relishing in the juicy behind-the-scenes details (did you know the women have to buy all 14 rose-ceremony gowns THEMSELVES?? Many women max out credit cards before going on the show buying outfits, getting hair extensions, lash extensions, tanning, personal trainers, makeup lessons, etc- with the hopes that even if they don't get the guy, they'll at least get enough Instagram followers to quit their day jobs after the show and make $5000 every time they post about a teeth-whitening product... but I digress...). What makes the Bachelor Nation book so great, however, is that, along with all the juicy details, Kaufman, who I'll remind you is an award-winning film writer and journalist, weaves in her own narrative of everything I mentioned above, namely, sharp, insightful social commentary on the whys and WHY THOs of our trans-national obsession with the phenomenon that is The Bachelor.
WEAVES is the key word here, and this is actually what I want to focus on in this post (though I could legit fill it solely with Bachelor trivia... another time.. another time...). I've been working with several one-on-one coaching clients lately and many of them are writing some form of creative non-fiction (or CNF)- that strange genre that combines writing about real-life events/facts in a really engaging and imagistic manner. It's a tricky thing to master, but master it you must if you want to write in the realm of blogging, memoir, autobiography, or essay. So without bogging down too far into CNF structure, since the nuances of how you use it really depend on your own personal writing style, Bachelor Nation the book is actually a great example of one form of CNF structure, weaving, otherwise known as "braiding".
"Braiding" is a technique used in CNF that allows you, the writer, to not only tell a good story, but get some technical facts, background history, political/social commentary, etc, in there as well.
You begin with the fun, salacious story that draws your reader in. In the case of Bachelor Nation, that would obviously be the behind-the-scenes exposé on the show. This is the first strand of your braid, and it's the one you'll use to keep your reader's attention. It's the "story", the part where you'll drop in and tell us EXACTLY how it felt/looked/sounded/smelt like to be in the moment.
Now you can choose to stay here if you want. Strand 1 is fun- it's the "creative" part of creative non-fiction- you use typical fiction techniques like description, dialogue, character, gesture, etc, to really set the scene for your reader. However, I would argue that what separates the men from the boys (or the women who get to visit the Bachelor's family versus the other riff raff), is including a second strand.
Strand 2 of your braid is where you begin to weave in another level. In Bachelor Nation, this is Kaufman's own social commentary on the show, her political musings on how women are depicted, the history of romance reality television, and the show's issues with race. This is where the technical facts come into play, whether that be actual statistics and dates or simply your own jargon commenting on the issue from "outside of the Matrix", so to speak.
Sometimes we can be tempted to only write Strand 2 because it seems the most "helpful" or "serious", especially if our goal in the piece is to teach our readers something or try to change their mind. However, I would caution against only writing Strand 2, because not only is it kind of boring, you often end up "preaching to the choir", ie. people who already think like you. And none of us like to be preached at. We just want to hang out with our friend and have a glass of wine and maybe learn a thing or two. Strand 1, when woven with Strand 2, helps to allow that friendly conversation to go a bit deeper.
Occasionally, in really masterful CNF writing, you'll see a Strand 3. This is often a wild card, and can include literally anything extra that you want to bring to the theme as a whole. In Bachelor Nation, Kaufman weaves her Strand 1 (Bachelor gossip) and Strand 2 (political/social commentary) with Strand 3, which I will call Famous People Tell Us Why They Watch The Bachelor And How They Feel About It. In between her other chapters, Kaufman includes these little snippets from celebrities like Amy Schumer and Heidi and Spencer Pratt, and because it includes elements of both gossip and social commentary, it's the perfect third strand to help weave and hold Strand 1 and 2 together.
When I was little, I remember when my dad would braid my hair. Bless his soul, he had three daughters, so he set out to learn how to braid, darn-it!, but even to this day I can picture the awkward angle of his wrists, and how the pieces fell loosely in between his fingers as he tried to keep them all sorted. When mom braided, that sucker wasn't going anywhere. But when dad braided, I would get these soft pieces falling out, which would probably be lovely now but at the time was super inconvenient when I was trying to play a no-nonsense round of grounders on the playground. Regardless of how you choose to braid- how many strands, how tight they are, how well they keep or rebel against a pattern- using the structure will largely help develop your particular brand of writing (ie. your voice!) and help your voice stand out from the crowd.
I would encourage you, then, before you just leap straight in to the straight, solo ponytail of telling that crazy story or going on that political rant- consider elevating your content by braiding that story or rant with another, complementary, strand. If Amy Kaufman can do it even when threatened with civil lawsuits by a major broadcasting corporation surviving almost entirely on selling the "fantasy" of marrying a stranger, so can you.
In the mean time... who's tuning in to Bekah's season????? And will Nick Viall be back????
As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"