Welcome to my next stay at home author sharing and part 1 of my love letter to Augusten Burroughs. He has written ten books and has been a part of my reading life since 2003, so I’m giving myself the luxury of a two-parter. In this post, I’m going to focus on the craft and style of Burroughs writing, and in the next part, I will share my favorites of his works.
The first Augusten Burroughs I read arrived in a box of books from my grandmother. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I was very ill for a long time, and shortly after I was married, I had the first of many surgeries. Several family members and friends sent books and DVDs (yup, this was way back before streaming in good old 2003) to keep me entertained as I healed. My grandmother, always thoughtful in her book selections, included a note or a clipped-out review of each book, something to tell me why she chose it for me. Running with Scissors had a note that read, “I don’t know if it’s good, but it’s nonfiction (which she felt all good books were), and it’s a best seller so read it.” She included the bestseller list from the newspaper to prove it. I did read it, and I loved it. I’ve since read all his books and am going to tell you about my favorites in part 2.
Augusten Burroughs name evokes strong reactions in everyone I’ve ever spoken with about him. Some love him, and others hate him. I’m not surprised by either response. He crafts his books in a way that’s more clever than some realize or give him credit for. There is an effortless feeling to his writing that some dismiss as lacking in craft, effort, or skill. I wholeheartedly disagree. You can be a tortured soul and a tortured artist, but that doesn’t mean you have to torture your reader.
In this lockdown, I’m watching shows that are a million years old, but hadn’t sparked my interest. For some reason, Season 8 of Project Runway came up on my Hulu recommendations. I’ve never seen Project Runway before, but the whole season entranced me. Some contestants accused designer Michael Costello as having no style, and they said he couldn’t design. He didn’t have the length and breadth of background as some of the others, which came off as snobby on their part. I think it’s more that his pieces projected an effortlessness. He often made several finished versions of each outfit (he’s a pantser in writer terminology) until he chose the one that felt right. His clothes felt as if any woman could wear them, which is huge. I thought they would make someone feel sexy and comfortable at the same time. That takes talent and craft.
When I describe Burroughs’ writing style, I tell them it’s both intimate and conversational. By that, I mean, effortless and comfortable. I feel as if he’s whispering the story only to me. Like “Ok, I’m gonna share this with you, but don’t tell that person over there.” I admire him for that ability. His subject matter ranges from his mentally ill mother giving him away to a psychiatrist at twelve years old, to his struggles with addiction, to the heartbreak of searching for true love, to an abusive father. These are tough subjects that could be tough to read, but he has crafted his work so that you feel not in the story, so you aren’t traumatized in the process, but you can relate and see parts of you in what he’s written. That isn’t easy. Don’t confuse effortless with lack of effort.
He has also done something with each of his works that I think is smart and thoughtful. Each memoir is a capsule of one topic or area of his life. Instead of bits and pieces here and there popping up in various books, or one book covering his entire life. These topic capsules make perfect sense to me as a reader, but also as someone who is encouraging my students to read. My students are adults in jail who are working towards their High School Equivalency Diplomas and many are not readers. I refer them to Burroughs’ work because it’s easy to match them to a topic that connects to their lives. I trust his work will speak to them. My students are just like the rest of us searching for a connection. Burroughs has given it to them.
His accessibility and vulnerability has opened worlds of genres and writers that my students didn’t think had anything to do with them or their lives. His writing has made them feel excited about reading new books. From him, I can bring in other essayists and memoirists. The stories about his life, the kind of life he’s had, and his style allow my students to know they can both read and enjoy books that aren’t James Patterson. However, that’s not to discount his style or craft; it’s something I praise him for and believe he must work hard to create.
A few years ago, I was supposed to see Augusten Burroughs in Saratoga, NY, (a dream of mine since I first read Running with Scissors) and wanted him to sign all my copies of his books. He doesn’t make many appearances per book tour, so that was my chance. Sadly, my job sent me to a training and my ticket wasn’t used. The training was a complete waste of my time, and I was heartbroken at the missed opportunity. I learned the lesson that my life and time are more valuable than work. Especially a three-day training. I hope someday to remedy the situation, but that is one of the hard parts of the stay home orders. You have to stay at home. Some day we’ll figure out our new normal. Maybe my dream of having Burroughs sign all the copies of his books for me will happen!! Before that I will need to replace my copy of Sellevision. My sister-in-law never returned it. In the meantime, be safe and healthy. Next week, I’ll share my favorites of Burroughs’ books.
*****Please continue to support small and local businesses if you can. They are the hearts of our communities. Also, please take on the 5-minute initiative. Check in with a friend, a relative, or a neighbor for 5 minutes every day. Especially those who live alone*****