Killing John Updike

First of all, it saddens me that John Updike is dead.

Second, this piece was written by Augusten Burroughs before the writer died in 2009 so I’ll forgive the offensive title and just focus on what’s good about the writing.

Have I mentioned that good creative nonfiction writing is honest? I believe you’ll notice that’s a popular theme with me. Well, here is no exception.

And what do you know? He’s often compared to David Sedaris. An article written for The Washington Post about his most famous novel “Running With Scissors” makes mention of the fact. What they have to say makes perfect sense.

“Burroughs’s material makes that writer’s tics and wacky affectations seem quaint and normal. Sedaris is a finer prose stylist and funnyman, but young Augusten has much more material to work with.”

It’s true. Sedaris is much more refined. He’s more sophisticated and intelligent with his sentence construction and narrative. But I like Augusten Burroughs for the sheer fact that he can make a story from anything and everything.

In, “Killing John Updike,” he and his friend come up with the idea to begin purchasing first editions of books by authors who will soon be dead. They figure that they’ll be able to sell the books once the author has died and become rich at the expense of a dead John Updike. So they brainstorm ways for him to die, mentally concentrate on killing him, and act all kinds of crazy and sadistic in the hope of making a profit.

Eventually, Burroughs weaves this anecdote into his own book, “Running With Scissors,” wonders if other people are doing the same for him, and by the story’s end, feels like a horrible human being.

The reason I like Burroughs is the same reason he can be frustrating. His essays are so simplistic it seems like there is hardly ever a point. I like to call them breezy.  They’re light reads with amusing subjects and unsophisticated language use. Call him the antithesis to Cynthia Ozick or Virginia Woolf. Burroughs is the everyday man who knows how to tell a story from the smallest occurrences.

It’s why I can’t help but commend him. To be a good creative nonfiction writer, you have to be hyper aware of the world around you. Every event should be scrutinized. Remembered. Taken in and encapsulated.

With life comes stories, and Augusten Burroughs tells great stories. Even if his writing style isn’t impressive enough to score him in the league of Sedaris and other contemporary essayists, that’s okay with me. Not all creative nonfiction has to be masterful.

APA Citation:

Burroughs, A. (Ed.). (2006). Killing john updike. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Stuever, H. (2002). Growing up truly absurd. The Washington Post, Retrieved from


The Seam of the Snail

Here’s something traditional. It’s called, “The Seam of the Snail,” by Cynthia Ozick. It’s nothing crazy like Sedaris. It has no over reaching political message like Orwell. It’s just plain old good storytelling. And that’s why I like it.

An article in the New York Times puts it well by saying,

“As an essayist, Cynthia Ozick is a very good storyteller. Her arguments are plots more than carefully reasoned proofs. They twist and turn, digress, slow down and speed up, surprise with sudden illuminations, and only occasionally end predictably. The author’s voice and personality pursue the reader with selective autobiographical insistence.”

The piece contrasts Ozick with her mother. It paints a clear picture of what the woman is like. “Lavish: my mother was as lavish as nature.”

And it goes on with perfect rhythm in the sentences to explain that Ozick’s mother is never perfect. “She thought herself capable of doing anything, and did everything she imagined. But nothing was perfect.”

On the other hand, Ozick is a perfectionist. And she details her writing style as such. In one of my favorite sentences from the essay, Ozick writes:

“It is my narrow strait, this snail’s road; the track of the sentence I am writing now; and when I have eked out the wet substance, ink or blood that is its mark, I will begin the next sentence. Only in treading out sentences am I perfectionist…”

Two words. Active verbs.

And one other. Imagery.

Ozick doesn’t just write sentences. She “ekes” them out. They are wet. They are described as ink…or blood. All those word choices are powerful. They bring life to the description. And it takes a subject that should put the reader to sleep..who cares about an author’s mother and an author’s writing style…and makes it captivating.

Unlike David Sedaris, there is hardly any humor. And well, writing without humor is a hard sell for me. But Ozick proves that good creative nonfiction writing doesn’t have to make you laugh or be something off the wall. It can be something as simple as a character sketch. That’s what Ozick does with her mother.

Again, and I may repeat this until my keyboard croaks, but good creative nonfiction writing brings out truth. Ozick doesn’t hide the fact that she’s stuck up about her sentence structures. She admits that she’s a perfectionist because she knows that’s just who she is.

It makes for a great theme to contrast against the imperfection of her mother. And the title, “The Seam of the Snail” comes from a story Ozick shares about how she would wear dresses her mother sewed; they always had a hidden flaw under the seams. And the comparison to the snail comes from this passage:

“I measure my life in sentences pressed out, line by line, like the lustrous ooze on the underside of the snail, the snail’s secret open seam, its wound, leaking attar.”

That’s a well constructed sentence if I’ve ever seen one. And it proves the point Ozick is trying to make. She knows how to write. And she takes it slowly, carefully, writes like a snail, and puts out highly impressive works of creative nonfiction.

APA Citation:

Kiely, R. (1989, April 23). Watching her spin and sparkle. Retrieved from

Ozick, C. (Ed.). (1985). The Seam of the snail. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

A Plague of Tics

Sometimes, I think I am Sedaris.

With prose so deceptively ordinary, stories so gosh darn relatable, and a sense of humor that I can’t help but relate to, I often dream of making this man my father. I just want to give him a hug or something because after reading so many of his pieces, I truly feel like I know Sedaris. And that’s when my identity crisis strikes (A man can dream).

I know I’m being sadly predictable by choosing to highlight David Sedaris. I know he is canon for contemporary readers everywhere. And he’s already in the hands of Stuff White People Like so it’s not like I’m going to try and claim originality.

But I did choose a lesser known piece by our literary god.

It’s called, “A Plague of Tics” and it comes from the collection of stories in “Naked.”

In a word, it’s an absurd piece of writing. And it hit me in my weak spot, made me fall head over heels in love, after only the first sentence.

“When the teacher asked if she might visit with my mother, I touched my nose eight times to the surface of my desk.”

What? Touching nose? Nose to desk? Of all things, why?

I hate to use the cliche, but it pulls you in. If there’s anything that is going to make me want to keep reading, it’s an absurd statement. Sedaris is a master of strange statements.

The rest of the piece describes a boy with a childhood obsession with touching things, counting things, and being an all around weird dude.

Remember how I said good creative nonfiction is honest? Even though Sedaris doesn’t outright say this is a story based on him, (or anybody special for that matter) it is honest (But wait until we get to Burroughs).

So who cares? The piece is quirky and it’s weird. Anyone can do that. What takes it to the next level?

Conversational readability. And for the record, I just made that term up. But it makes perfect sense. Reading Sedaris’ prose is like listening to a wonderful person speak. It sounds natural. And once you get a taste of his voice, you’ll hear it in everything he puts to paper.

This is the golden standard all creative nonfiction writers strive for. And one of the ways this is achieved is through fearless dialogue. Take a look at this example I’ve pulled from the essay.

“The sounds were delivered not in my voice but in that of a thimble-sized, temperamental diva clinging to the base of my uvula. “‘Eeeeeeee — ummmmmmmm — mmm — ahhhh — ahhh — meeeeeee.'” I was a host to these wailings…”

It’s modern. It’s unusual. But you know what? I think it works. He’s able to convey sound and the sight looks striking on the page. It’s not every day you see an author taking these kinds of modern risks. It’s why I love Sedaris. It’s why his prose is so distinct. He does his own thing, does it well, and makes it look so frustratingly easy.

APA Citation:

Lyall, S. (2008, June 6). David sedaris talks funny: but is it real?. Retrieved from

Sedaris, D. (Ed.). (1997). Naked. New York: Little Brown and Company.

Shooting An Elephant

On the surface, this is a concise little essay about George Orwell’s time serving in Burma during the early 1900s. And I’ll be honest with you, the first time I read this piece, I read it for the story and I read it for the writing. I’m a writing arts major. I look at sentence structure, diction, and stylistic themes.

It wasn’t until after I revisited the piece, considered it, scratched my head a few times and pulled pensively  at my finger tips before I understood Orwell’s real message.

It’s a commentary on human nature. It looks at ethics and the politics of imperialism. Who would have knew? There’s a deep message in Shooting an Elephant. But like I said. I’m a writing arts major. It’s not entirely my job to critique meaning and themes and everything that comes with comparative literature. Sure, it shows up in great pieces of creative nonfiction. And building themes and having a message could give great value to a piece. I’d just rather focus on the style.

So here it is.

Orwell relies on emotion. From the opening line where Orwell gets straight to the point and says, “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people…” you quickly get the blunt tone Orwell is going for. He continues to use “charged” words throughout the essay.

You’ll see, “guilt,” “hatred,” “evil-spirited little beasts” and even “guts.” Orwell is able to level with the reader. He’s not using fancy prose. He’s being real. You can see that his service in Burma is something he feels strongly about, has vividly experienced, and isn’t trying to sugar coat.

Then there are the descriptions…or rather one major description in particular. And this is what made me a fan of Orwell.

It’s the death of the elephant. And anyone who has read it, knows what I mean. Because the elephant does not just die. Orwell makes him writhe. The sentences find a rhythm of urgency. It’s fast paced. It’s descriptive. It’s shocking. And most of all, it’s human.

I’m not about to write the whole passage, but here’s an idea.

“…he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. Once could have imagined him a thousand years old. I fired again into the same spot…I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs.”

It works because it is honest. And in my opinion, that’s what makes for a great creative nonfiction writer. Why hide the details? If it’s as horrendous as an experience as bringing down an elephant with multiple gun shots, it needs to come across in the writing. Orwell is renowned for this trait of brutal honesty and that’s something that I’m going to focus on in the next few posts.

APA Citation:

Bertonneau, T. (2002). An Overview of shooting the elephant. Short Stories for Students, Retrieved from

Keskinen, K. (1996). “shooting an elephant”-an essay to teach. English Journal, 55(6), Retrieved from

Orwell, G. (Ed.). (1936). Shooting an elephant. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

The Basics

Before we get into the good stuff, I feel obligated to get some facts down about the genre and how you would go about writing a creative nonfiction piece.

For starters, creative nonfiction can be about ANY subject. Think of it like an essay. Only forget the five paragraphs, throw out the details that will put the reader to sleep, and hope you’ve got yourself a subject that will entertain. As long as the story comes alive for the reader, the subject possibilities are endless.

It is nonfiction so keep to events that actually happened. And maybe you can say that writing creative nonfiction is a little like writing an essay. You have to draw from your own personal experiences. Write concisely. Wrap everything up in a few pages and essentially tell a story.

But take some creative freedoms. Use descriptive language, imagery,  and symbolism. Because all the techniques normally reserved for fiction are fair game here. Dramatic story? Character development? Scene setting? By all means, bring it on. Even if details are a little fuzzy, even if something may not have occurred 100 percent how you remember it, that’s okay. The reader expects the truth, but also understands that they are reading something almost like a story. Obviously, not every minute detail can be perfect so I think a good way to put it is to say that even if it’s not gospel, it has to at least have the potential. In other words, this WOULD HAVE occurred.

And maybe the most important thing of all is the first person point of view. This is the technique that distinguishes the genre from the nonfiction shelf. With the use of “I,” creative nonfiction suddenly becomes personal and gives the writer a voice. Memories can be shared. Pictures can be painted. And it’s not just that the reader becomes informed. The reader becomes moved.

There’s not much complication to it. Creative nonfiction is a flexible thing. Over the course of the next few posts, I’m going to go deeper into the genre by looking at four different creative nonfiction writers. Some may even call them essayists. But whatever the technicality, the writers are distinct for their ability to write nonfiction…with flair.

Oh and like I said. I’m a smidge biased.  So I’ve chosen four of my favorite essayists in four of my favorite pieces. If you’re curious, too lazy to read any further, and just want to know my taste I’ll tell you. I like David Sedaris. Augusten Burroughs. Cynthia Ozick. George Orwell. And many many more. But for the sake of this blog, they’ll be the only ones I will highlight.

My sources:

Druker, P. Goals of creative nonfiction. Retrieved from

Hally, J. (2009, October 29). What is Creative-nonfiction writing?.Retrieved from

And it also might be helpful to click around on my blogroll where I’ve collected a few great resources for creative nonfiction.

Why I’m Here

I’m a literary minded kind of guy.

I like my Dave Eggers, Miranda July, David Sedaris, and Augusten Burroughs as much as the other post modern readers. And if there’s one thing that all these writers have in common, it’s that they’ve developed a great voice for telling their life stories.

This blog will attempt to look at the techniques of creative nonfiction. Those writers are only the latest and most well known to emerge on the scene. But who are the originators and classics of the genre? How is the style crafted? Why is it becoming so popular? And what is it that makes creative nonfiction so fun to write?

Sure, I’m a little biased. I like my books in paperback. I lean to the political left. And I don’t look very favorably on writers who take 8 pages to get to a single point. But I’m a writing arts major in college. I’ve been around the block when it comes to critiquing essays. And I think I’ve located my niche with creative nonfiction.

Here’s to sharing all that I know and all that I pick up in my studies along the way.