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Photo by Christopher Schelling

Augusten Burroughs: Happy at Last

A phone interview can be a weird thing.

I like to ground my interview pieces in a place (“she sat at the red Formica table”) or show personality through facial expression (she crinkled her face in disgust). So, to picture the interviewee, I always ask where they are as we chat on the phone.

That’s how I found out that superstar memoirist Augusten Burroughs was sitting in his car—outside a Pilates studio on an arctic Connecticut morning. “I’ve got to keep my core strong,” he explained. “Gotta keep checking the hubcaps as I get older.”

This picture of Burroughs, warm and cozy in his car after a morning of fitness, differs greatly from the pictures Burroughs has recently been posting on Throwback Thursdays. They portray the artist as a young man—including a shot taken a few months after getting out of rehab that showcases Burroughs challenging the camera with his green-monster eyes, practically burning off the screen, literally cornered by a brick wall.

This is a not guy with a weak core.

So different from a recent shot, with its warm eyes behind thin-wire glasses, sitting in an aura of calm and bucolic peace.

When asked what the Burroughs of today would tell his younger self, the memoirist paused for a moment to think.

“He was so much more anxious, always shape-shifting…I would tell him to get it through his thick skull to just be yourself,” he laughed. “No matter what and to always listen to the sort of hunch that you get…in the sternum, there’s this extra bone that always tells you the truth…ignore it and you pay the price.”

Burroughs’ new book returns to the memoir style that brought him into the eye of the bestseller storm. Lust & Wonder is the third in the trilogy. In the first, Running with Scissors, (you may remember the movie adaptation staring Annette Bening),  we meet young Augusten, consigned to the care of his wack-job therapist by his mother, followed by Dry, which chronicled his close-to-death-dance with alcoholism, and now, Lust & Wonder, which ends with him ensconced in a beautiful relationship and looking back on all the couplings that led him to this magical place.

In addition to looking at his own relationships, he also offers commentary on just about the entire galaxy of star-crossed lovers. Slow-cooking his way through mistakes and marvels, Burroughs distilled his top three things to avoid when dipping your ladle in the ‘maybe this is the person for me’ pot.

“When you go on a first date, put your club foot forward—never put your best foot forward. That’s a big mistake,” he emphasized. “You are not that person…you need to be unzipped, to fall out, flaws and all…you need to be with someone who really knows you—a flaw might be endearing. Two, don’t think about the future—this is just one date. Don’t time travel, the bridge is out on that road. Take it organically, as slow or as fast as it goes.”

Finally, he emphasized to really listen to people.

“Listen to as much as they share; people let things sneak out. We’ve all had that moment when we think, ‘When he said that, I should’ve known.’ Really hear what people say. Listen between the lines.”

And dealing with heartbreak? “This is going to be a very unsatisfying answer: it’s just gonna hurt. You’re going to be miserable,” he sighed. “The only thing that makes it better is the ticking of the clock. It dulls the pain. What works for me is writing. When I’m feeling heartbreak, anxiety, joy, or pain, and not writing with an eye towards publishing, just to express myself … I need to look at ‘it’—from underneath, from the side, from above, from all angles to get at it.

“It feels un-survivable, like it will kill you, like heartbreak is going to be fatal. It’s the worst thing, but when you do get through it, you value it, you feel stronger,” he added. “It’s a terrible betrayal—a stripping, a robbery, a thievery of the soul—but there is a measure of gratefulness for it. I felt more ‘me.’”

We can’t force relationships, despite the fact that we are living in a “control” culture, Burroughs says.

“We retouch all our selfies—that’s a metaphor,” he said. “There’s a satisfaction to moving beyond control and breaking out of daily routines…take a class, take a trip and turn off the google maps, take a paper trip. Drive around, get lost—it expands time. When you find beauty, it lengthens the moment. Engage with and meet new people.”

In Burroughs’ way of thinking, experiences—both good and bad—are pieced together in order for us to become our authentic, patchwork selves. “We’re born, and we get older, and we don’t have all of who we are … it’s doled out to us by life experience … I had to go through [the pain of heartbreak] to get the parting gift … to become more me, more myself.”

To finally find your core.

Augusten Burroughs will visit Columbus via the Thurber House Evenings with Authors series on March 31 at the Columbus Museum of Art. For details and tickets, visit thurberhouse.org.