Augusten Burroughs isn't a professor of English. And he doesn't have a master's in creative writing, or even a bachelor's degree. In fact, his formal education ended in grade school. Still, the 46-year-old author of one of the most acclaimed memoirs in recent memory, Running With Scissors, is a hell of a writing teacher, even if he did teach himself the craft.
And that's what he'll be doing this week in Bend at The Nature of Words literary festival where he's leading two workshops and also giving the keynote address at the event's author dinner. He's excited for the workshops, but doesn't seem to care too much for the standard author presentation speech, opting rather to inspire aspiring writers with a Q and A approach to most of his appearances.
"The last thing I want to do is stand up there and talk about myself. A lot of people, whether they're writers or whether they dream about being a writer, they might find themselves intimidated by writing. They try to write with a big fat capital W. I try to make it a lower case W," says Burroughs.
When he calls in from his home in Manhattan last week, Burroughs says he's working on some TV stuff, but that's as much as he can elaborate. He says the scripts he's writing aren't necessarily for pilots, but again, he can't say much more. Whatever these projects turn out to be, they won't be Burroughs' first foray into bringing his writing onto the screen. He served as a producer on the film adaptation of Running With Scissors, a memoir about his bizarre childhood that included his mother sending him to live with her deranged psychiatrist and his odd ball family. The book (and the film, too) is simultaneously hilarious and tragic as Burroughs reveals both the pain and the absurdity that constituted the environment of his youth. He has also penned a book called A Wolf at the Table about his experiences with his shadowy and rarely present father and another memoir, Dry, which details his struggle with alcoholism that plagued him from his teenage years until he composed his first novel about 10 years ago.
Reading these deeply personal stories can be painful to the reader, but Burroughs says writing his own history wasn't done with catharsis or personal therapy in mind. Rather, he wants to preserve and share these moments in his life.
"What use was it to have gone through if I don't capture it and put it in a box? What point was there? There was that sense of wanting to at least recycle it and pass it off," says Burroughs. "For some reason it was just this gnawing sense of not wanting that experience to go to waste at an age when such an experience can change your life."
During our conversation, Burroughs, perhaps out of habit, maybe out of pure skill, pours out a few personal experiences that seem like they could easily serve as the foundation for a chapter in his next memoir. When he's talking about wasting experiences, he segues into a story about the summer that his father ordered a dump truck-load of wood chips, but never spread them, leaving the pile to sit and rot in the yard. The family's wood deck met a similar fate. He's a collector of these sorts of memories, in the same way that he collects gemstones and photographs. While some might find a thread of intimidation or fear in laying bare personal (and often embarrassing and painful) experiences, Burroughs has had the opposite reaction.
"I realized a long time ago that it doesn't make me uncomfortable because so many people have experienced similar stuff and I meet them all the time. If anything, it's had the opposite effect of what you might expect. Instead of feeling vulnerable, I feel more like other people and less isolated," says Burroughs.
And this is part of what he wants to share in the two workshops he's leading this week (the one for the public is already sold out), one of which is specifically for at-risk children, which strikes a personal chord with him. As he puts it, he would have "definitely been described as an at-risk kid" and he sees a unique trait in these youngsters.
"These are the kids with the most potential in life. They have the most to lose and they've already lost a lot. If you're born into extraordinary wealth and you double that wealth, that's not impressive to me," says Burroughs.
From his own experience, Burroughs never had what some might call a "positive roll model" in his life and he doesn't mind serving as one of those to young aspiring writers.
"There was no adult in my life that was acting reasonably in any way at all. Every adult in my life was completely off the rails," says Burroughs.
If you've read his books, you know this is true and that truth led to some horrific sadness and, somehow, hilarity. But you also know that it gave him some great stories.
Augusten Burroughs at
The Nature of Words
Keynote speech at the Author Dinner. 5:30pm Saturday, November 5. Century Center, 70 SW Century Ave. Tickets are available at thenatureofwords.org.