Kill Your Life: This is How Author Augusten Burroughs Talks with J.M. Blaine about Justifiable Suicide, the Cool Side of Silence and the Importance of Crappy BooksBy TNB Nonfiction
June 05, 2012
I love Dothan. I’ve got family – got kin down there.
I grew up in the South too, listening to those same old black gospel records as you. Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, Mahalia Jackson. I used to sing that high part on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (attempts chorus.) Um, that was before my voice dropped.
Those records are incredible.
So, I learned something about interviews from your new book.
Interviewing is anxious stuff. You worry about your recorder and it never works right and the phone screws up and while they are talking you think about the next question you need to ask because you don’t want to seem –
I know, I know. And it’s all in your head. What are you worrying they are going to think?
That I’m some fumbling idiot wasting their time.
And it’s all imaginary. You just have to stay focused. It’s hard. Especially if you start interpreting the way people sound as meaning something that it doesn’t. It can freak you out. It’s something I’ve had to practice my whole life.
In the chapter about confidence you say to just be present in the moment and listen and let it go where it goes. And to not fear silence because silence is like the cool side of the pillow. That’s what I’m doing here today, Augusten. Sitting on the Christmas light swing, just talking and listening. So, if the interview bombs, I’m blaming you.
No, it’ll be good.
How’s the book tour?
Last night I was in Minneapolis on a radio show and the guy was talking about the suicide stuff I wrote in this new book, the part where I talk about how I was going to kill myself and realize it’s not going to bring me the peace I want because I’m going to be dead. He was saying that eventually I would be at peace and I started arguing with him. You need neurons firing in your brain to feel what we call peace. If you are dead, you don’t have that. You’re not going to feel anything.
I worked a lot of years in suicide crisis and you make some good points in that chapter but I wondered if you ever thought if suicide was justifiable.
I think so. Certain diseases that have a clear prognosis, no chance and it’s going to end up in paralysis or a lot of pain then I totally imagine that I would want to do it. When you were doing that work, what was the youngest person you’d see that might want to kill themselves?
Young as five in really bad cases. And teens, of course. I mostly worked with adults. You know the age group with the highest rate is –
Senior citizens. In our culture, age is almost a disease. You can have health conditions that aren’t even major — with no insurance, poverty and they can collect around you and make your life hell. So I can imagine that old age could make you want to kill yourself and I can’t say that’s wrong. I just wish we were a different kind of people that treated our seniors better. But for young people I think you owe it to yourself to at least try something incredibly drastic that maybe you’ve never even thought of before. Maybe instead of killing yourself you should kill your life. Step out of it and start something completely different and new.
I saw a lot of suicidal ideation steeped in religiousity – if I die I move on to another plane where I can finally be OK.
But isn’t it true that the major religions in the South believe that suicide is a sin? And you’d go straight to hell?
Yeah… but from behind the scenes, I think that what people believe corporately and privately are two different things. People hope for mercy and grace, I guess because they feel they’ve suffered enough.
Man, I don’t know. It’s a tough question. What did you think when Cobain died?
I was totally oblivious. I don’t even think I knew he died when he did.
I was so focused on advertising. A one-track mind. Like being in medical school. You barely know who the president is. But later on when I heard about it I wondered how much of it was drugs. So many drugs are depressants. When you are tortured like that it’s hard to have a good assessment of yourself if you are influenced by substance. Even the normal ones that all your friends use – they have a real effect on your nervous system. And who knows what was really going on in his personal life.
You talk a lot about focus and the importance of work in This is How and mention that it took you a “long time” to become a writer. No college, no programs – I always wondered how you did it.
I wrote my first book in 1999 and don’t really count the ad work because that’s more like crossword puzzles. As a kid I kept a journal — the Running with Scissors era – and both of my parents were well-educated. They were Southern and didn’t swear but they could put words together and were very articulate. That’s how I learned to construct sentences, even if I didn’t know the parts of speech. I just talk, but with my hands, on the page. I’ve never taken a writing class in my life. Never studied writing. I think it would get in the way. I would become self-conscious.
I always figured ad work would be a great place to practice writing. You’ve got to edit ruthlessly and say a lot with very little.
I think you’re probably right. My first advertising boss was a great writer and she wouldn’t let me use words like… delicious. Never cheating with a cliché. Also, she was all about using as few words as possible to say exactly what you need to say. And never feeling like your words were precious. If something isn’t in there to make a point, I kill it. If it’s just literary or beautiful prose, no. I don’t like writing that draws attention to itself. Like craft. You know what I mean?
All that pretentious crap.
So… if you wrote a chapter for new writers in This is How….
Study less, write more. Every writer says read, read, read. There’s truth in that but you need to write. I talk at schools sometimes and I was at this MFA program, Creative Writing something somewhere and it was grad school so most of these people had bachelor degrees in English. I asked them: How much writing do you do for yourselves here? And they were like: Oh none. None at all. I couldn’t believe it. If you are in an MFA program and it doesn’t involve a great deal of writing? You are in the wrong program. It’s like going to auto mechanic school and they don’t let you work on the car. You’ve got to get your hands dirty with the work. You have to make mistakes. I was looking at the reading list of this program and they were all these amazing books. What’s up with that? You should be reading bad books too.
(laughing) Preach, brother.
It’s just as important to know what a crappy book looks like. You should be talking about books that had lofty ambitions but were considered to be garbage. I would say read books that not everyone universally agrees are great. If you are reading – I don’t know – Water for Chocolate, it’s going to be hard to have an alternate point of view. Everybody thinks it’s incredible. I would introduce things like Nora Roberts.
Most MFA students would probably never read Nora Roberts but she’s probably the best-selling writer in the history of the world. Obviously, she’s very good at what she does. I would try to root that pretentiousness out of it. Because the most important thing is what you say and then it’s how you say it.
When you did Scissors, did you have to write a lot to get to the good stuff? Like 10,000 words to get 100 good ones?
No, my writing comes out pretty much as you see it. Just more of it. Omitted chapters, maybe. I mean, there’s revisions, cut lines, mistakes, but the ratio of created text to published text is not that much different. Not a lot of waste. Never is.
If you had become a paramedic, would you still be sober?
I would have liked to be a paramedic. It would have freaked me out but I wouldn’t quit. I can imagine doing that and still writing. Sometimes if you have a day job that competes with your dream job it can work for you. I think I would have been good at other medical things – pediatric oncology or hospice care. The stuff that’s brutal where you can’t be an asshole for even one minute. You have to be understanding and make everything about that other person. I’m good at that sort of thing. I could enjoy it. There’s part of me that likes to do what I can to improve someone’s life. Kinda what this book is, in a way.
I wondered what was coming after the memoirs.
Some might see it cynical and think it’s just the line extension. Grow the franchise and go self-help and then have a line of nutritional products…. That’s not why I did it at all. I researched self-help and could not believe the stuff that is out there. Like with confidence. All these steps and statements and stupid-ass exercises about looking in the mirror and telling yourself all the positive things that you’ve done. And people are going to do that and be frustrated because it’s not going to work. That kills me. Because it’s wrong. I don’t have a PhD or a Masters Degree – I graduated elementary school and was the Mock Turtle in the Alice in Wonderland school play. That was my greatest academic achievement. But I know shit. I’ve survived and I can tell you first hand you aren’t going to get it through a bunch of affirmations. Book knowledge is useful but a lot of it is based on research. I read a lot of research and I am always very dubious of it.
Back in grad school Psych they pretty much taught us how to fake research.
Amherst Regional Junior High gave me the best psychological tests going when I was a teen. I had all of these highly respected exams administered by a Ph.D and the results determined that I had an IQ in the 70s.
That’s around the mild retardation range.
It is! And I was placed in a class for children with mental disabilities. I was just stunned. I guess it’s arrogance on my part but I feel like I’m smarter than that and if the research goes against what I believe, I’m not accepting it. I think I’m right about anorexia. I’m talking out of my ass, but I also think there’s a great deal of truth in what I’m saying. I think anorexia is a symptom disorder like autism. I think it’s related to obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism – neural processing disorders. But I can’t find any research there. They just make people do food diaries and stick needles in them and sit around in circles and talk. I don’t think that’s working because obviously the cure rate is so appallingly low.
The thing I really picked up from your book is that you care about people.
I do care about people.
Well, even if the research isn’t all there, if you come from a true place and you’ve been through the struggle, it gives your words weight and people are going to pay attention. And you can help them. Because you give a damn.
You know, I’m pretty successful and I’m not totally and completely fucked up – and I should be. Totally, after what I went through. I shouldn’t be successful at all. But it’s not an accident. I worked at it. I figured stuff out and I’m not lazy mentally. I went through painful, horrible things and came out the other end and I want to share with people the good that comes from that struggle. I don’t think I hit the nail on the head every time but I’m headed in the right direction. You have to hit your own nail because it all comes down to really being truthful with yourself and hopefully I can show people how to do that.
I’m way past your time and I know you gotta go. Thanks for talking to me today. You were right. It’s a lot better to just listen and let things go where they go.
Hey, this was fun. It didn’t feel like an interview at all.
That’s my goal. Interviews that don’t feel like interviews.
AUGUSTEN BURROUGHS is the author of the autobiographical works Running with Scissors, Dry, Magical Thinking, Possible Side Effects and A Wolf at the Table, all of which were New York Times bestsellers. Running with Scissors remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over two consecutive years and was made into a Golden Globe-nominated film starring Annette Bening. His only novel, Sellevision, is currently in development as a series for NBC. Dry, Augusten’s memoir of his alcoholism and recovery, is being developed by Showtime. In addition, Burroughs is currently creating an original prime-time series for CBS. He resides in New York City and Western Massachusetts.
(photo credit: Christopher Schelling)