At first, Augusten Burroughs wasn’t quite sure he wanted to write his latest book. The bestselling author of Running With Scissors, Dry and A Wolf at the Table was dubious about venturing into the world of self-help: “It was not a genre I was dying to get into,” he says wryly. “It kind of grosses me out.”
But when you write about your past, your crazy family and your personal problems in several memoirs and such personal essay collections as You Better Not Cry, Possible Side Effects and Magical Thinking, readers tend to open up to you about their own issues whether you like it or not. Fortunately, Burroughs likes it, and since he’d always gotten such positive responses from his fans, he figured he’d write a book “for people who were psychologically ambitious, who wanted to do their best to fix themselves and move on.”
This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t (Picador, $15 in paper) — which Burroughs will discuss Saturday and Monday in South Florida — is the result. But don’t expect a touchy feely guide to gazing in the mirror and repeating affirmations to make yourself feel better about feeling low. Burroughs has a healthy skepticism about affirmations.
“Telling yourself you feel terrific and wearing a brave smile and refusing to give in to ‘negative thinking’ is not only inaccurate — dishonest — but it can make you feel worse,” he writes. “[I]f you want to feel better, you need to pause and ask yourself, better than what? Better than how you feel at this moment, perhaps.”
That practical approach to self-improvement is the cornerstone of This is How’s philosophy.
“It’s just about learning to be brutally honest with yourself,” says Burroughs, who has written about his battles with depression, family issues and alcoholism. “You may think you’re being honest, but sometimes what you believe or are told are not true. That was something I experienced so frequently as a child, when the rug was pulled out from under me so often I became accustomed to never taking stability for granted. That turned out to be an advantage.”
From that perspective, Burroughs, 47, may be the ideal author to write a self-help book, says Jennifer Enderlin, associate publisher and executive editor at St. Martin’s Press, of which Picador is an imprint.
“Augusten has been through so many difficult things himself that it gives him perspective on how to survive,” she says. “Plus the honest nature of his memoirs make him a magnet for readers to talk to him and tell him about problems in their own lives. Over a decade of talking with and listening to people from all walks of life gives him an insight few authors have.”
Personal problem-solving is never so easy as it sounds, Burroughs says. That’s why honesty is the best policy.
“So often people dodge right past the solution,” he says. “If you’ve been on a diet for 15 years, and it’s not working, is it because you want to be thin or do you just wish you wanted to be thin? Maybe you’d be happier if you weren’t thin. That’s the kind of thing I wanted to talk about.”
But This Is How doesn’t confine itself to tips on how to find love or how to be confident or even how to fail. Burroughs also touches on serious subjects, such as confronting suicidal thoughts and coping after the deaths of family members.
The chapter on drinking may be the most controversial; in it Burroughs challenges long-held beliefs about Alcoholics Anonymous.
“Some people have bristled,” he admits. “I’m not telling people not to go to AA. If you’re in AA and you’re sober, great! No problem. But the truth is AA doesn’t work for a lot of people, and they use that discomfort as an excuse to keep drinking. I also think there needs to be more research. Alcoholism is a disease. But if you walked into the doctor’s office with breast cancer and were told ‘Let go and let God,’ that would not be acceptable. We do not treat disease the way we approach it through AA.”
Burroughs’ own battles with alcohol were chronicled in Dry; he hasn’t relapsed since the late 1990s, he says. He’s wary of the AA mantra that relapse is part of recovery. “Relapse is part of drinking,” he says flatly, adding that he prefers to believe there’s an element of choice involved in sobriety.
“I relapsed over and over again, and there was never any mystery to it,” he says. “I was always the one who did it, and it was always a choice. It’s infuriating to admit we have a choice and that we have power. If we have no power, and we drink, it’s not our fault.”
Burroughs’ troubles are behind him these days. He’s married to Christopher Schelling, and they live in New York City where, if you follow Burroughs or his publisher on Facebook or Twitter, you know he’s got a new dog, too. During a recent book-tour stop at WGN in Chicago, he fell in love with one of the adoptable pets in the studio for a TV spot and texted a photo to Schelling, who immediately contacted the rescue group.
“The puppy is apparently so good, he makes our 2-year-old Italian greyhound look bad,” Burroughs says. “I can’t wait to see him.”
As for achieving happiness or even a little peace of mind, the book has no perfect recipe, he says.
“It’s not a bunch of steps you follow and land on the other side of your problem. This isn’t the kind of book that will win a National Book Award. It’s not going to be a movie. But maybe it will be useful to someone.”