Riley Perez began writing What Is Real? on the backside of legal paper, advertisement cards from magazines, and any other surface that allowed him to record the events that he was living. Throughout his incarceration, he maintained his notes in a stamped envelope, addressed to his legal counsel—in the event he was separated from his property, he hoped his notes would be kept safe.
After serving nine years in the California Department of Corrections, Riley organized his experiences that had survived on paper. Riley set a regimented schedule that allowed him to finish a draft in a nine day period—the draft was written in longhand. Once familiar with Word 15.0 (after last using version 10.0), Riley typed the draft that he gave to family and friends to read then he gave the manuscript to Scott Caan who had encouraged him to write his story every time they spoke over the nine year odyssey.