Augusten Burroughs on Q

First aired on Q (30/05/12)

augusten-burroughs-125.jpgAnyone familiar with author Augusten Burroughs, whether from his personal essays or the movie Running with Scissors, which was based on his memoir of the same name, knows he's had an unusual, challenging childhood. Abandoned by his divorced parents at age 12, he was taken in by his mother's psychiatrist, who had his own unconventional, Addams Family-like clan, according Burroughs. But the bestselling writer has owned up to plenty of missteps of his own during his 20s, including his expensive and destructive booze addiction.

"I just made so many mistakes, one after another after another," he told Q's Jian Ghomeshi during a recent interview. "It's like I kept setting myself up."

However, it was through these painful lessons (and stints in rehab) that Burroughs gained experience and survival skills. He also learned what coping strategies didn't work for him. The writer, who has been sober for several years, has now penned a book called This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More.

"I fixed myself sort of every time and this book felt like a really good way for me to put that knowledge to use, as opposed to just sort of having a wasteland of mistakes behind me," he explained. "I can turn them into sort of toolkits. The stuff in the book -- it's not a touchy-feely, feel good kinda self-help book. It's more like a ... friendly slap across the face."

this-is-how-125.jpgThis Is How has been dubbed an "anti-self-help book." This is because Burroughs takes issue with the trend of positive affirmations and positive thinking that is prevalent in the self-help industry. He doesn't believe in turning a frown upside down merely for the sake of doing it. Burroughs remembers a particular instance with a well-meaning stranger in an elevator who told him he should smile more. He had been having relationship troubles with a long-time partner and definitely didn't feel like smiling. He also didn't feel like lying to himself.

"I just don't see how stating the opposite of what you feel is in any way useful," he said. "It is more useful to really recognize ... or at least it's helped me to know ... how far am I from [what I want] really? Then I can look at why. Why am I here when I want to be over there? What is it? You've got to sort of tear yourself apart in a way and reassemble yourself if you have to."

In his book, Burroughs takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to self-help, riffing on common themes found in pop psychology. Instead of a chapter about "How to Make Friends," he has a chapter on "How to Be a Good Mental Patient." Rather than explain "How to Be Happy," he offers advice on "How to Feel Like Shit." One of the points Burroughs is trying to get across is that promoting hyper-positivity can make emotions like grief seem unattractive or unnatural. But people need to feel free to work through their sadness instead of just slapping on a colourful coat of paint.

"There's nothing wrong with smiling if you didn't put there. If you put it there, you maybe need to not put it there."