The Surreal Life

While many writers can lay claim to dysfunctional childhoods, Augusten Burroughs’ memoir of his upbringing, Running With Scissors (St. Martin’s Press), shocked even the most unflappable readers. The book chronicles a life with a self-absorbed poet mother who left him to be raised by her deluded psychiatrist and his equally disturbed clan. His education tops out at ninth grade.

And the follow-up memoir, Dry (St. Martin’s Press), based on Burroughs’ early adulthood as an alcoholic, follows the Madison Avenue wunderkind as he gets forced into rehab by his bosses.

Burroughs’ seemingly endless well of extraordinary life experiences has given him plenty to write about. He’s followed up his bestselling memoirs with a collection of essays based on his personal life. Magical Thinking: True Stories (St. Martin’s Press) records childhood events, such as being chosen for a role in a Tang commercial, to a vignette of his horrifying response when a mouse invades his New York City apartment. Burroughs tackles, with uncommon truth and a self-deprecating sense of humor, subjects—such as his early homosexual experiences and the scourge of alcohol addiction—that many writers would shy away from.

Though he seems to be on easy street now, Burroughs, 39, came to writing success the hard way—through raw life experience and a need to rebuild the remnants of his life into some meaningful whole. While preparing for his Magical Thinking book tour, he shared with Writer’s Digest his hard-won wisdom about writing fiction vs. nonfiction, what his advertising background taught him about the writing life and how writing can help you put the pieces of your own life back together.

Magical Thinking is a collection of essays pulled from some of your life experiences from childhood to adulthood. What links these essays together?

What really links them is my character, my personality, which is summed up by the phrase “magical thinking.” It’s the delusional belief that I can control everything with my mind. But this theme is mostly meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Magical thinking is a psychological term. For example, I have a friend who’s terribly afraid to fly, so whenever she’s in a plane, she concentrates—no nap, no reading—on keeping the plane flying level without any turbulence. She knows it’s irrational, but she can’t stop thinking this way.

I had more fun writing this book than any of the others because it’s not about one big event. It’s not about being raised in a cult by a crazy psychiatrist, and it’s not about being an alcoholic. It’s the kind of book you can pick up on a plane or a train and just start reading. That’s what I like about books of essays. That’s also what’s great about writing this way. If I get sick of writing about my cleaning lady, I can write about buying laundry detergent at Kmart.

In Magical Thinking, you vacillate between writing in the present and past tenses. Is this a conscious decision you make before writing?

No, it’s not something I think about. I write instinctively. For whatever reason, it’s the way it seemed it needed to be when I was writing it.

Can you tell me about your writing process? Do you have any regimens or a writing schedule you stick to?

I don’t have a schedule. I write all the time. I count all writing as writing with a capital W, even if it’s just scribbling notes or writing e-mail. There’s a story in Magical Thinking, “The Rat/Thing,” that came, almost exactly, from an e-mail I wrote to a friend. When I’m working on a deadline, I put in eight or nine hours at a time. But I don’t get writer’s block. I think writer’s block is really just an excuse. It’s anxiety. The best way to get through this is to sit down and write about your writer’s block. This works like Drano. It will unclog you immediately.

You’ve said that you kept extensive journals as a child and even carried a tape recorder around, recording conversations. Did you always have an instinct that you were going to be a writer?

It’s true that I had a little blue Panasonic tape recorder I used as a child. And I did always know I was going to be a writer. It’s like growing up knowing that you’re going to inherit money or some dilapidated farm. My mother, who had the M.F.A. disease, encouraged daily writing. Writing was just a constant. She told me I was a writer, and although she wasn’t nurturing in many ways, she did nurture in me that sense of being a writer.

You’ve written at length, especially in your memoir Dry, about your battle with alcoholism. What effect did drinking have on your writing?

There’s absolutely no connection between drinking and the creative process. A lot of people like to connect drinking and writing. They have that romantic image of a writer working with a glass of scotch. That’s so wrong. It’s very difficult to drink and write. In fact, I did very little writing in the years I was drinking heavily. When I went to rehab at age 30, I began keeping a journal out of desperation. That’s when I really started writing. My writing exploded when I stopped drinking. That journal turned into my memoir Dry.

With the exception of your first book, the novel Sellevision, most of your work has been memoir and essay form. Obviously you’ve had some rather extraordinary life experiences, but what draws you to this very personal sort of writing? Is it cathartic?

I think writing about yourself is just a lot easier than writing fiction. You don’t have to think about it nearly as hard. So, I guess in that sense I’m lazy. But writing definitely helps me to understand myself better. I’ve trained myself to know myself through writing. Writing fiction is definitely harder, but I have some ideas, and I’m definitely going to write another novel.

I wrote the novel first because I wasn’t sophisticated enough at the time to know there was such a thing as narrative nonfiction. I let my Sellevision publisher take a look at the journal I kept in rehab, and they loved it. And that’s when the idea for writing Running With Scissors first came up. I said, “If you guys like this, I had a really unusual childhood I could write about.” And Running With Scissors came out before Dry so it’d be chronological.

What’s it like having so many people know the intimate details of your life? Are you just completely open and comfortable with this, or are there times when it’s been awkward or caused problems?

It hasn’t been that difficult, and I don’t really know why. It’s probably because when I’m writing something, I’m not really thinking about the fact that people are going to read it. I’d never be able to write if I thought about that. And most of the people in my life don’t care at all about my career. They don’t even read my books. It’s important to have a safe and secure personal life.

Since so much of your material is based on your own life experiences, do you ever worry that you’ll run out of material?

No. I’ve had many more experiences that I’d like to write about. And if I ever get sick of this kind of writing—of writing about myself—well, I guess there’s always technical writing.

Do you feel that your life as an advertising copywriter helped shape your career as an author?

Definitely. Advertising is a great way to learn the discipline you need to be a writer. Because even if you’re not in the mood to write, too bad, you have to write anyway. Advertising also gave me a tough skin. I don’t worry about rejection. And I don’t have a fear that there are a limited number of ideas I’ll use up. In terms of the actual writing, I wrote advertising copy the same way I write now, in that I’d try to find the truth about something and write about that.

And the marketing of your books—has your advertising background helped in that regard?

It’s so difficult to predict what’s going to sell and why. I designed the covers for Running With Scissors and Dry to have in my back pocket in case I didn’t like what the publisher came up with, and it turned out they liked what I designed. But I don’t think you can really market a book. I think books sell based on word of mouth. People like to read what their friends read.

I’ve read that your long-time obsession with New York City has passed and that you really just want to settle down in the suburbs. What’s the status of that, and how has it affected your writing?

My partner, Dennis, and I are building a house on a cul-de-sac in Western Massachusetts. My brother lives just down the street, and I get to see my 14-year-old nephew all the time now. We even visited the Chrysler dealership the other day to look at minivans. I love New York City. New York is great when you’re 24. But I wasn’t going to Broadway shows and swanky restaurants: I was holed up in my tiny apartment writing. So I thought, If I’m going to be stuck inside writing, I might as well at least have a washer and dryer. That’s what it’s all about now-having a washer and dryer.

Entertainment Weekly called you one of the funniest people in America. What’s your secret to distilling humor into the written word?

That was a typo. I have no wisdom whatsoever on this topic. Actually, I often don’t realize until later that there’s humor in what I’ve written. It’s not something I strive for. When I was writing “The Rat/Thing” I thought, This is really horrifying. People are going to hate me for this. But a lot of things that are really dark and horrifying are kind of funny later.

Who are you favorite writers?

I have so many—it’s so hard to choose. Haven Kimmel, Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Berg, Eudora Welty. And I love to read good food writing. There’s a food writer from the ’50s, M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote a book of essays called How to Cook a Wolf. It’s about my favorite. I’m not even a cook—my idea of gourmet is Kraft macaroni and cheese. I just love to read good food writing.

So, what’s in the works now?

I just finished a book of essays—Possible Side Effects—that’s due out next year. And I’m getting ready to start another book of essays called The 13th Day: Christmas. I can’t wait to get started on that one. I’ve had some really horrifying Christmas experiences.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Write every day. Write even 10 minutes a day if that’s all you can do. It’s good mental hygiene. It’ll keep you limber. If you get stuck, just get a clock and put it over your computer, set the alarm for 10 minutes and write your stream of consciousness. Don’t read it and definitely don’t edit until later. Writing this way will open you up.

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