Augusten Burroughs stepped on stage at the MCA shortly after 7 p.m. wearing a frontier-style leather jacket and a well-worn cap; it was as if he were trying to emulate a certain style appropriate for Maine. Whether in mockery or tribute to the state, though, his attire did not matter once he started speaking in his conversational tenor, giving the audience a synopsis of how he had come to be there, “aside from the invitation and driving and all that,” as he put it.
Burroughs began his story by recounting how he began drinking heavily at 18. “Alcohol was what was missing from my life,” was how he put it. He never finished high school and never went to college, but was able to get a job in advertising in his 20s. Although he was successful at advertising, his primary passion was writing, while the primary force that governed his mind continued to be alcohol.
Burroughs went to rehab and Alcoholics Anonyomous meetings at 30 and successfully sobered up, delving into writing for 6-7 hours a day immediately after getting out of rehab.
A year-and-a-half later, a friend’s death triggered a relapse and Burroughs began drinking more heavily than before. Once he started having hallucinations about spiders, he found out that he was in the late stages of chronic alcoholism and immediately continued AA meetings.
He was able to pull himself out of his second alcohol-fueled period by way of AA and, of course the love of his life that refused to leave him: writing. He wrote his first novel, “Sellevision,” in a week and found an agent to publish it. The book did not sell well, but his memoir, “Running with Scissors,” made him a best-selling writer and his second memoir, “Dry,” sold equally well, establishing his reputation nationwide and allowing him to live solely off his writing.
Burroughs knows this is a rarity in the publishing world – nevermind the world at large – and spoke with a degree of gratitude towards the force that allowed him to pull the shards of his life together. That force, of course, was writing, and his talk that night served as something of a spiritual master class on the subject.
Burroughs had no time to give in-depth technical advice, but he did have time to tell the audience, including those who were not aspiring writer, some of the basic maxims to live by. “You have to have something else in your life that you care enormously about,” he said in regards to how to handle a job.
In this sense, writing got him by in his job as an advertiser. Now that it has taken over as his job title, one wonders if there are still things Mr. Burroughs has to care enormously about. A good listen to his reading could give one the answers: He cares about his cats, his boyfriend and being able to log onto the internet during a vacation.
These elements of his life figured into a piece that he read from his latest collection of personal essays, “Possible Side Effects.” The story told of a vacation he and his boyfriend took in which they stayed at an inn run by a strange old woman who owned a doll collection and conjoined with a restaurant that served chowder which cost him half a molar. It was the sort of rambling piece of writing one listens to with a curiosity as to where exactly it will end up.
Burroughs has a tendency to stretch his style too far for the sake of humor; one paragraph of his sarcastic account of his ‘accident’ on the restaurant’s accident report form is overdone. But there are also enough amusing, even droll observations in his writing to make a reader fall for him; a theory about the two types of people who should be permitted to collect dolls and the vastly different responses he and his boyfriend give when asked how their drive went are the details that count for something.
At the end of the event, Burroughs took questions from the audience, many of them from aspiring writers, which he handled with attentiveness and professionalism – he tactfully declined to answer whether he still attended AA meetings or not. He revealed that a movie adaptation of “Running with Scissors,” his book about his misbegotten childhood, is in the works and will star Alec Baldwin and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Towards the end, he slipped into a more playful mood. “I show up at these colleges … and I look like I could be these kids’ grandfather,” he added shortly before leaving.