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Writing With Scissors 

Augusten Burroughs Headlines the Woodstock Writers Festival

click to enlarge Augusten Burroughs, Manhattan, March 12, 2012. - ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel
  • Augusten Burroughs, Manhattan, March 12, 2012.

Augusten Burroughs is cleaning jade. Gemology is one of the Running With Scissors author’s many obsessions, and he’s immersed in the task. So immersed, in fact, that he’s forgotten he scheduled an interview at TriBeCa’s Odeon Café half an hour ago. A cell phone reminder prompts a gasped, “Oh my God. I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

Burroughs pushes through the door and approaches the corner booth, dripping apologies. “I am so sorry. I’m so not that person.” He shucks his leather jacket, revealing a skull-patterned T-shirt, two tattooed forearms, and a neck thickly covered with ginger stubble. A baseball cap with an embroidered beaver logo shadows his ice-blue eyes. He orders the first of two Diet Cokes and starts talking.

Burroughs’s conversational style is a disconcerting mix of effusiveness and distance. His gaze often drifts upward, away from his listener—he finds eye contact challenging, due to a self-described spectrum disorder—and he tends to lock onto a subject and run at it from all directions until he feels he’s got everything said. Though he can be scathingly funny in print, his scattershot monologue is heartfelt, his voice sometimes rising in near-evangelical fervor. At one point, he looks over his shoulder at the couple in the next booth, explaining, “I tend to shout.”

The object of Burroughs’s excitement is his forthcoming book, This Is How: Help for the Self: Proven to Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike. It launches May 8, and Burroughs’ upcoming appearance at the Woodstock Writers Festival is a sneak preview of what his website calls a “Big-Ass National Tour.” He loves doing author events. “People always apologize for asking the same questions, but they’re never, never, never the same,” he attests. “I don’t get jaded or tired of it.”

(Click here to listen to an audioclip of Augusten Burroughs reading from the complete audiobook version of This Is How: Help for the Self: Proven to Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike.)

Lucky for him. Since he published his first novel, Sellevision, in 2000, he’s fired off three bestselling memoirs—Running With Scissors (2002), Dry (2003), and A Wolf at the Table (2008)—and three volumes of black-comic personal essays—Magical Thinking (2003), Possible Side Effects (2006), and You Better Not Cry (2009). That’s a lot of ink to give to one fortysomething life, but Burroughs’s past is as gothic as his tattoos.

Literally all the adults in his childhood orbit were wildly dysfunctional—not just eccentric or quirky, but DSM diagnosable. In Running With Scissors, he describes his mother (played by Annette Bening in the 2006 film adaptation) as “a rare psychotic-confessional-poet strain of salmonella.” Between mental breakdowns, she gives her son up for adoption to her priapic shrink, whose treatment methods and family lifestyle are outlandish even by 70s standards. One of his longtime patients, a man in his thirties, becomes 14-year-old Augusten’s first sexual partner.

Burroughs’s alcoholic philosophy-professor father, a shadowy figure in Scissors, takes center stage in A Wolf at the Table, emerging as an icy, sadistic sociopath. The stablest presence in Burroughs’s young life may be his much-older brother, John Elder Robison, who has Asperger’s syndrome (subject of his own memoir, Look Me in the Eye).

Burroughs emerged from this Dickensian childhood determined to “live a big life.” Though he left school after sixth grade, he earned a GED at 17, legally changing his name from Christopher Robison (Augusten, he writes, has “the subtle sheen of celebrity to it”; Burroughs was after a favorite computer). After a brief flirtation with community college, he moved to New York City, where he worked in advertising and nearly drank himself to death; Dry is a chronicle of bottoming out, rehab, and recovery. The anguish of losing a friend and ex-lover to AIDS triggered a relapse. What finally allowed him to break the cycle was the writing cure.

“When I decided to be a writer, I thought, ‘I’m going to be writing the rest of my life. This is it.’ I knew I would get published, because I knew I would never stop writing,” he says. “Writing about difficult experience can be painful, but it’s never harmful. People get afraid of reliving intense emotion, afraid to go back into that experience, but the dread of it is so much more significant than the act of it. Especially if you have been victimized, especially at an early age, there is wired in—you can’t even call it mistrust, that’s too many syllables—a really tender vulnerability that you don’t want your writing to expose. You’re afraid to let that exposure happen, but writing strengthens you.”

Burroughs’s writing has strengthened his readers as well. “Over the years, people have been telling me that Running With Scissors or Dry was such a huge help to them, and I feel like I’m giving out some lookalike celebrity’s autograph. I didn’t write any of my books to be helpful. But now, I’ll give you helpful!” he says with a Wicked Witch of the West cackle.

This Is How may be the first self-help book written by someone who hates affirmations (“the psychological equivalent of sprinkling baby powder on top of the turd your puppy has left on the carpet. This does not result in a cleaner carpet”). Though he frequently uses his life’s thorny path to illustrate points, This Is How is not about Augusten Burroughs. It’s about you. Rather, it’s about all of us: flawed, self-judging, in-our-own-way human beings.

This Is How is an example of the thing I’m absolutely the best at,” Burroughs avers. “This is who, I am with my friends. I’m very, very good at common denominators—not math, I can’t do math at all—but maybe because of how I was raised, without school, outside of society, without any adult guidance... you learn how to figure things out when you’re in survival mode.”

He pops a piece of nicotine gum into his mouth, displaying a bright flash of jade in a striking gold ring. “This is a book that’s going to help people improve themselves and their lives. And it’s really going to work, because I’ve done it.”

Done what, exactly? What could possibly conquer the host of ills in that neo-Victorian subtitle? Burroughs’s magic bullet is unflinching honesty. “Recognizing the very deepest truth of your circumstances is what allows you to change them, or accept them,” he says. “Truth is accuracy. We’ve kind of lost, as a culture, a tight hold on the core of truth. It’s become, ‘Well, it’s your truth...’ There’s this question of legitimacy about memoir: Did you make it up?”

This is a loaded question. The family known as “the Finches” in Running With Scissors took Burroughs to court, seeking $2 million in damages for invasion of privacy and defamation, claiming that some of the book’s incidents were fabricated. The lawsuit was settled in 2007, and while Burroughs agreed to acknowledge the family’s conflicting versions of events and apologize for “unintentional harm” in an author’s note, the entire text remains intact. Burroughs considers the settlement a victory, calling his book “an entirely accurate memoir.”

“Truth is both absolute and often unknowable,” he says. “It varies depending on your point of view. Either the tree fell on the car and crushed the roof, or it didn’t. There’s no ‘your truth or my truth’ there. But there are different vantage points. You’re in the car, or you’re outside at a distance, or you’re outside up close. Each vantage will deliver a different narrative.”

Running With Scissors’s breakout success—eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, rave reviews—surprised even Burroughs’s publishers at St. Martin’s Press. “They published very few copies. They liked it, which was great, but we had no idea it would connect to people the way it did. For me, it was that that history wasn’t just going to be tossed away. I wanted my side of the story to be told.”

“Writing about being a child is easy, because I have complete recall of being that age, in sensory detail. I have not lost it. Growing up and becoming yourself is a very active thing. Thing?” Burroughs says, frowning. “I don’t have the right noun. This is why we write. Writing gives clarity.”

Indeed, his prose is clear as a bell. And while This Is How is studded with quotable aphorisms (“Everybody feels a bit like a dented can inside”), it rises into a blaze of sincerity:

“We are all, every one of us, living on a round rock that spins around and around at almost a quarter of a million miles per hour in an unthinkably vast blackness called space.
There is nothing else like us for as far as our telescopic eyes can see.

In a universe filled with spinning, barren rocks, frozen gas, ice, dust, and radiation, we live on a planet filled with soft, green leaves and salty oceans and honey made from bees, which themselves live within geometrically complex and perfect structures of their own architecture and creation.

In our trees are birds whose songs are as complex and nuanced as Beethoven’s greatest sonatas.

And despite the wild, endless spinning of our planet and its never-ending orbit around the sun–itself a star on fire–when we pour water into a glass, the water stays in the glass.
All these are miracles.”

Is it risky for somebody famous for gallows humor to turn earnest? Burroughs doesn’t care. “I didn’t feel I needed to be funny. Where the book leads—I take it really seriously. I didn’t care about being entertaining. I cared about being clear.” His voice rises to warn-the-next-booth levels. “I feel better about this than any book I’ve written. It’s the most me. I’m certainly not a shining example of mental health—in some ways it’s the blind leading the blind. But if you’ve just gone blind, who would you rather have leading you? Someone who knows how to be blind.”

Augusten Burroughs will appear at the Bearsville Theatre 4/21 at 8:30pm, hosted by Jonathan Van Meter. Admission $12/$35/$59 (includes author reception).
For more information and festival schedule:

(Click here to listen to an audioclip of Augusten Burroughs reading from the complete audiobook version of This Is How: Help for the Self: Proven to Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike.)

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