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Augusten Burroughs' Magical Thinking

"I didn't plot any of it"

Augusten Burroughs: heartbreaking and shocking tales of his life
  • Augusten Burroughs: heartbreaking and shocking tales of his life

Magical Thinking: True Stories

St. Martin’s Press, 2004; 288 pages; $23.95

FROM THE DUST JACKET: From the author of Running with Scissors and Dry comes Augusten Burroughs’s most eagerly anticipated collection yet: true stories that give voice to the thoughts that we all have but dare not mention.

It begins with a Tang Instant-Breakfast Drink television commercial: “Yes, you, Augusten. You were great. We want you.” I can now trace my manic adult tendencies to this moment. It was the first time I felt deeply thrilled about something just a fraction of an instant after being completely crushed. I believe those three words “We want you” were enough to cause my brain to rewire itself, and from then on, I would require more than other people.... (from Magical Thinking's “Commercial Break.”)

A contest of wills with a deranged cleaning lady. The execution of a rodent carried out with military precision and utter horror. Telemarketing revenge. A different kind of “roof work.” Dating an undertaker who shows up in a minivan. This is the fabric of Augusten Burroughs’s life: a collection of true stories that are universal in their appeal yet unabashedly intimate; stories that shine a flashlight into both dark and hilarious places. With Magical Thinking's Augusten Burroughs goes where other memoirists fear to tread.

From Publishers Weekly: A psychological term, “magical thinking” describes the belief that one exerts more influence over events than one actually does. Burroughs, who spent childhood days stepping on cracks to see if his mother’s back would break, possesses a wealth of magical thought. Like Dry and Running with Scissors, this collection showcases Burroughs’s sharp, funny, and sometimes brilliant writing. Burroughs views his life through a lens of self-deprecation, and the result is pieces like “My Last First Date,” describing the first time he met his current boyfriend.

From Booklist (starred review): Burroughs...the self-described “alcoholic, high school dropout raised in a cult by a crazy psychiatrist,” unleashes a new collection of lurid true tales. In “I Dated an Undertaker,” a sexual act is performed in the onetime viewing room for Rose Kennedy’s wake. “Telemarketing Revenge” reveals a raunchy solution for relentless nocturnal callers. And in “Debby’s Requirements,” a diminutive, passive-aggressive cleaning lady takes the unsuspecting author to court. ...Steroid-induced cleaning sprees; prickly encounters with priests; a nerve-shredding session with a sadistic dentist’s drill — brimming with bawdy language and bodily fluids, this volume by a man “made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions,” offers an irresistible display of sanity hanging by a thread.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Augusten Burroughs is the New York Times bestselling author of Dry, Running with Scissors, and Sellevision. He lives in New York City and Amherst, Massachusetts.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Mr. Burroughs and I began our talk one late summer afternoon. He was at his desk in the Manhattan apartment near the United Nations that he shares with his companion of many years, Dennis. I was at home in California. I mentioned how funny I found his story about hiring a maid, a veritable madwoman who became more and more demanding of Mr. Burroughs’s time and treasure. “You were finally working for her,” I said.

Mr. Burroughs agreed, “I totally was. She had a weird power over me.”

“You were going to an office every day simply to get the money to pay her and buy the expensive cleaning products she demanded that you purchase.”

“It was just a nightmare, a nightmare.”

Mr. Burroughs, to date, is known primarily as a memoirist who brings to paper heartbreaking and shocking tales from the now almost 40 years of his life. I asked Mr. Burroughs how he separated, or differentiated, the Burroughs who wrote with the Burroughs who walked the dog and ate the dinner that Dennis prepared.

“For me it has been very different. Writing Running with Scissors was very, very different because in a way it was my journal. I was not a ‘writer.’ I was a guy who had just gone through this kind of a war zone of a childhood, and then this fast career in advertising where I was making a lot of money and spending every dime and living in squalor and just drink, drink, drinking, and I went to rehab and got out. I just did not know what to do with myself, and I was just ready to fucking explode, so I would write.

“I immediately started writing all day, after work. Every available moment was spent writing, so I wasn’t aware of any sort of narration at all. It was just purely stream of consciousness, and I was doing it to burn off anxiety and because I had, when I was a kid, living with the psychiatrist in Scissors, just retreated.

I was so upset and terrified and furious and confused that I retreated into writing in journals as a way to have something to look at, and it was almost like the pen and the notebook where I could hide, because if I was writing, maybe people wouldn’t talk to me. They wouldn’t look at me, and I could be invisible.

“So I tucked into my book and I started writing, and it was all anxious thoughts and anxiety and what was happening at that moment. When I grew up and was drinking and doing advertising, I didn’t write a word for myself ever. As soon as I was sober with all this time on my hands, I didn’t know what the hell to do. So I exploded and wrote constantly.

“Now, Running with Scissors was a different experience because I’d sold the book on a proposal. It was a product, and I had to write it.

“I knew that I’d had a very big, big childhood. It was a big story. It was very unusual, and so much had happened that I didn’t know how I was going to create a document that would reflect it, so I remembered something. And I’m terribly, poorly educated. I don’t have a lot of quotes I could pull out of thin air, and I don’t know a lot. But I did remember something that I had read. I think it was Bret Easton Ellis, of all people, who said, ‘When you’re writing and you’ve got a story in your head’ — I’m butchering the quote, but it was something to the effect of— ‘Be happy if you can get 40 percent of what you see on paper.’ I think it was something like that.

“I thought, ‘Okay, what I need to do with Running with Scissors is that there can be no humor from me as narrator. The events themselves were so funny that I need simply to open doors for people and let them see what was happening.’

“So, in a way, I was a reporter. You know, trying to be very simple. So there’s not much of me in that book. I’m pointing to things and saying, ‘You know, look at this. Okay, now, look at this one over here. Now, look at this.’ ”

Dry, your third book, is very accomplished, the work of a writer who knows what he’s doing.”

“Well, thank you. That’s a huge compliment, because I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Did you feel desperate when you wrote Dry, writing out the anxiety?”

“Yes, exactly, that’s what it was, writing out the anxiety. There was no purpose for me to be writing other than for myself and to vent it. Writing, as you know, is something that you can do to get it out, to vent. So in that sense — and I even hate saying that because it sounds so...” Mr. Burroughs paused and began again, “I hate to talk about memoir and all that, ‘Oh, it was very therapeutic for me.’ ”

“I do too. I hate ‘therapies’ and therapy talk.”

“I hate all of it. But it’s true in a way, and the reason it is, is because I know what I think and feel about something only when I write about it. It’s the way that I give it shape. I’m not good at keeping ideas floating around in my head. I’m not good at thinking, at holding thoughts in my head. I need to write them, you know; I need to process the information.

“I don’t have this written in Dry because it seems like too much. But in my real life I got alcohol poisoning at the end of Dry. I realized I was going to die, because I could see how swollen my liver was. I knew I was going to die. I decided it was okay because I felt like I had lived an enormous life and I’d had so many experiences. I’d lost Pighead [Mr. Burroughs’s now-deceased friend].

“I thought, ‘I can’t die because I’ve never tried to write anything. I’ve never done one damn word. I need something to write about.’ Now, during this period, I was devastated by Pighead’s life; all I could do was watch the Home Shopping Network and QVC. It wasn’t with any kind of cruel irony. I wasn’t looking at it and laughing at them. I was watching because it was live television, and it was comforting and hypnotic. It was a few months after I wrote the first page of Sellavision, and it made me laugh. Nothing had made me laugh for over a year. I began nonstop writing for seven days, and it was done.

“I had no idea. I didn’t plot any of it. I just wrote from page to page.”

“I never plotted anything. I don’t know how people do it.”

“I can’t either. Wouldn’t you just not want to write anymore after you knew what was going to happen?”

“It’s just like being a factory.”

“Exactly. Maybe it’s different if you’re writing some incredibly complex thriller, but I would find that so joyless to know where every character is and what they’re going to do.”

“I’ve never read thrillers,” I said, “so I never would write one. I have to feel in love with a manuscript. To me, having a manuscript is having this best friend to whom I can always turn.”

“I know exactly what you mean. It’s so comforting, isn’t it? And it’s much more interesting than real life. It’s the place I live.

I live in my computer screen. I absolutely live there. That’s why I could be at home, in a crack house, or a motel as long as I have AOL so I can have that familiar screen and a document. I wouldn’t write if I had to write longhand. It’s too slow and my writing is too sloppy.”

“Why do you think people look down so on memoir?”

“Because people feel that they’ve had interesting experiences, too, and that they could write a memoir if they just had the time. Not realizing how difficult it is and how it’s only going to be good if you’re totally honest, and to be honest is humiliating and scary sometimes.”

“I think, too, that one of the reasons that the memoir remains so popular is that people are starved for intimacy.”

“You nailed it. Think of reality television. That’s so huge. People want desperately to connect. That’s why I don’t think the memoir is dead as a genre. People are interested in other people.” “Another question I wanted to ask is why people expect from memoirists that the memoirist will get the colors right on blouses and be correct about a house’s floor plan.”

“Exactly. I get taken to task on that sort of thing all the time. I don’t even know what to say because it’s just shocking to me that it would even enter someone’s head. I say the pants were brown, they might have been blue, but I know that they were polyester. I can tell you that. They were very polyester.”

“And they had a little crease.”

“Yeah, and they had a little crease. I was lucky with details in Running with Scissors because I kept journals at the time. So for example, when my mother is in a Newport, Rhode Island, hotel room, I never would have forgotten that. Never. With her in her black sweater with baby powder all over her, looking crazy. She had that little poodle sweater. I wrote about that so I remembered it. So a few of the details I just lucked out. But things like that you’ve just got to do your best.”

“Did you save journals from your younger days?”

“I did. I never knew why I kept them. I threw everything away, and I couldn’t throw those away.”

“I’ll write absolutely anything about myself,” I said. “I’m not embarrassed at all. But when I am out to dinner with someone or on a walk, and we talk, I am incredibly secretive. Are you?”

“Yes. It’s odd, isn’t it?”

“You will write absolutely anything, and are you embarrassed?”

“Not at all embarrassed. In person I’m reserved. People, when they meet me, they expect me to be wild and kooky. And very serious. I’m somewhat analytical. I have to pretend and force myself to be perky because otherwise I am just serious. I’m like a German.”

“I think it’s so interesting how it’s possible to write things and so many people will read them, and you’ll meet people who have read them...”

“It’s weird, isn’t it? And you’re going to forget everything you put in your book and then people are going to remind you of it, and you’re going to be, like, ‘Did I say that?’ And they stop in the street and hug you. It’s sweet, you know, it’s sweet. It’s very sweet But the days when you could be like Joyce Carol Oates and sit in your dark little closet and write and skim the top of your yogurt are gone.”

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