A decade after the publication of his debut memoir Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs has produced a tough-love take on the self-help genre with his recent book of advice, This is How.
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It’s somewhat of a format departure for the acclaimed author. Here, Burroughs offers welcoming hugs, positive reinforcement and a sharp slap in the face for readers eager to comprehend and process the machinations of excessive drinking, suicide, regret, overeating, finding love, realizing your dreams, getting a job or exuding confidence.
Burroughs talks to us about this shrewd combination of droll advice, dark humor and autobiographical recollection. He also spoke passionately about what it took for him to overcome a drinking habit and why America needs to recognize gay rights now.
Your new book reads like you had a lot of fun writing it. How much enjoyment did you derive from crafting it?
I had an amazing time writing it! I was powered by this sense of urgency. I wanted to get this information across to all kinds of people. I wanted them to know about it. It was consuming, and it was a great experience, but I wouldn’t use the word “fun” exactly.
Was the book your own idea?
Yeah, it was my idea. It took several years, and finally it gelled in 2008. I just had this bias against self-help books, and I was questioning myself: do I really want to be cheesy like a self-help book? But a couple of years ago, I did realize that this is the book I wanted to do. It was a risk but still, I never felt as strongly about writing a book as I did about writing this one.
What makes you such an outspoken, straightforward personality?
I think part of it is by virtue of how I was raised—without any leadership or parental influence. Growing up, If I had a dream to fulfill or a challenge to meet, I didn’t have anyone to turn to, and the only way I could do it was by being really brutally and honestly clear with myself. You can’t sugar-coat the reality of your life—you really have to be bold and direct.
Do you think book audiences are ready for a book like this, one that tells it like it is?
Oh, I think so, absolutely. I think we are all psychologically ambitious people, but we have way too many buzz words to describe so much—overused words like “mindfulness.” People don’t need to be flattered, they need the raw, unfiltered information to empower them to have the ability to fix themselves. They kind of need a slap in the face. It’s the kind of slap that brings you back to consciousness.
Are there any pieces that didn’t make it into the book’s final version?
Yes, and some of them will appear in the next book that I’m working on. With any book, I’ve certainly got a lot to say, but I have to stay within the confines of the covers. There’s always going to be some degree of triage.
The chapter “How to Finish Your Drink” is a tough, opinionated, reality-check for hard drinkers. Was it willpower or an epiphany that cured you?
It’s really not willpower, I stopped drinking accidentally in 1999, and it was because I just decided that I was done. Anything that’s powered by willpower will eventually fail you. You have to arrive at a place where you have simply chosen something else to do. Most people won’t.
On the one hand, it’s not a hopeful message, but for those who actually can do this, and they can be on the favored side of the grim statistics, you need to actually seize control and not give it away and not be a victim of alcohol. It’s very uncomfortable to stop drinking, but it’s transforming to stop. It may appear to be an act of willpower, but it’s actually an act of acceptance that you love drinking more than your own family or your friends. Once you feel that, you can ask yourself, “Wow, is that how I really want it to be?” I personally found writing to be more important for me.
In “How To End Your Life,” you write about pointing a gun at your head. Was it difficult to conjure those early dark days for this book?
That particular piece was difficult to write. But it was essential because the realization I experienced, which was killing myself, was not going to provide me with desired results. I needed to change my life, not end it. It sounds like a game of semantics, but it’s really not.
As it continues to be a hot-button issue, your gay fans may be searching for the section “How to Get Married.” Any thoughts on gay marriage?
I think it’s the theological argument that it will destroy the sanctity of marriage that is the most difficult to deal with. As Americans, you can’t place more importance on the institution rather than on the people living the reality. There should be a reduced tax for gays who want to marry but aren’t allowed to! It’s disgusting, it’s immoral and appalling.
It’s every American’s right to marry whom they choose, and it’s such a basic human right. It’s become a shameful sort of blotch on our nation that will eventually be rectified. It’s one of those things that I believe firmly that people should vote on. It’s not an issue that should be fought on the political landscape. Gay rights should not be a choice for Americans, it should be right for Americans.
What’s the most important take away that you want readers to glean from reading This Is How?
I want people to realize that you can fix yourself and that you can survive the things you may think that you can’t survive. And that there’s always a flip side—you can be that person you may be afraid to imagine you could be. You are ultimately the author of your own life story, and many of the things you might feel hold you back are just not real.