Every now and then, a book comes along that really opens your eyes. Shocks you. Lights a spark deep down. For me, that book was Dry, a memoir by Augusten Burroughs. At age 14, it was the first piece of non-fiction I’d ever read. I felt uncomfortable while reading it. Writing had never previously gripped me in that way. Made me laugh. Made me cry. Made me cringe. Made me think. Solidified the desire to write.
10 years later, an anniversary edition was released and although I’m not one to re-read book- I read it again. I was still moved but this time everything resonated from a more visceral mature place. I saw the darkest parts of my adult self in the struggle.
I’ve read almost every book Augusten Burroughs has published. I’ve yet to read Sellevision, because I am too enamored with his non-fiction. And A Wolf at the Table reached out and choked me about 4 pages in, so it is still in a box in the basement.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to meet Augusten Burroughs. I spent about a week preparing for how to act around him. I sat in a booth with my friend, B, and rambled on about what I would say to him. I told her about how my ticket got me priority in the signing line, so I’d be standing right in front of him at some point. I’d read that celebrities don’t like to be acknowledged for one piece because they’ve done so much more than that. I knew I didn’t want to fan-girl out, or be obnoxious, or get up and babble.
I arrive in Menlo Park intentionally early and in my favorite sundress. I loiter in the book store where the event is to take place. I use their bathroom and ask them about the reading. They tell me I’m hella early. I know that, I think, and, I want to get a good seat. I spend time reading the first chapters of select books until the seating area opens up. They start checking people in and I feel relieved that I’m not the only person who has arrived well ahead of schedule. They write my name on a yellow sticky note and slap it inside on the title page of the hardcover book. I’m also handed a match book and told to sit in the priority seating section.
While I wait, I begin reading. I have to re-read every few sentences because I am so distracted by the eclectic people around me. Finally, a man gets up on the microphone and welcomes us to Kepler’s books. And then he’s here. The man I feel like I’ve known since I was 15 comes swooping in, wearing a t-shirt, and a fringe leather jacket. And I want to tell him I have that jacket, it was my Dad’s and I wore it for most of 8th grade while I was finding myself. His glasses sit perfectly on his nose and I am in awe of his masculinity. Into the Q and A portion, someone asks about resiliency, he thanks them and replies, with a thorough answer about being “dropped off” at his mother’s psychiatrist’s house as a child, and how he grappled with feeling as though he feared he might die without his mother. He stated, “Parents are a luxury,” and tells of how he eventually coped with the abandonment and the crazy house and the fact that he might never get out of it. He cocks his head to one side and explains, “Writing helped a lot. And the reason that writing is useful is not so much reporting what happened but getting to the actual truth and sometimes the truth is the thing that hides behind the thing you think is true or have been told your whole life is true or that you desperately wish to be true or that you assume to be true. Sometimes the thing that’s really true is behind all of that and it can be tricky to find because you don’t think to even question the thing that’s true, you don’t think about it.” I think of all the things I think I know to be true. I think about why he changed his name. A person standing near the Sci-Fi section asks him about rehab and alcoholism and how he began to write afterwards. Augusten comments that rehab is like “alcoholic college,” and explains the necessity of replacing one addiction with something else. I admire the man for falling into a way to fill his emptiness and wonder what I accomplish through my own desire to write. He continues that writing became everything alcohol had been in terms of a complete escape of something else to focus on and “ignore my own life and just focus on the work.” He mentions how he would lose track of time. I sigh at the shared secret, of losing track of time. I think about how he relapsed and nearly died.
“Thinking about writing is not relaxing. Thinking about it is horrible. Starting it is horrible. When I’m actually in it, I like it. But that’s like everything. Every horrible thing I’ve been through, when you’re actually in it, it’s okay. Even when it’s horrible-moment by moment it’s okay-it’s there-you can survive it.”
Eventually, they have to take the final questions. I marvel how the people with their hands still raised will wonder on their drive home, “what would he have said?” We clap and after a few minutes rise as a group and look to the man shuffling us to the signing line. Almost each person in front of me spills their guts out to him. Augusten graciously takes it all in and listens. The girl I was sitting next to is up, with her mom. “I’ve read all your books,” she says. “All of them,” the mom chimes in. The girl asks to take a selfie with him. I roll my eyes and think a selfie, with the #1 best-selling author and cringe for my generation. And then I’m up. Time hangs in the air above us. “Are you Emily?” I hear him ask. “Yes,” I say and add, “You’re my favorite author.” “Thank you,” he replies. I take the hardback and he thanks me again for coming to the reading. I walk out of the store feeling accomplished, knowing how surreal that all just was and how I can’t wait to do it all again.
Author’s note, if you enjoyed this piece, and would like to listen to an audio recording of Augusten Burroughs from April 7, 2016, comment and we’ll arrange it. Augusten Burroughs announced an upcoming tour in March 2017 for the paperback release of Lust and Wonder, dates to be determined.
Want to read his work but unsure where to start? My favorite order: Dry, Magical thinking, running with scissors, This is how, possible side effects, lust and wonder.
It’s amazing to me the things people measure out their lives in. For me it is books. This post is a part of a series of careful reflection in homage to the best books I have ever read.