Big Think Interview With Augusten Burroughs

Big Think Interview With Augusten Burroughs

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Augusten Burroughs: I'm Augusten Burroughs and I'm a writer. 

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Question: What does Christmas mean to you?

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Augusten Burroughs: Well Christmas has always been, as far back as I can remember, my favorite holiday. Actually, holidays don't mean anything to me except for Christmas. Now the thing is though that every Christmas that I can remember has been really cruddy. In fact, it has seemed to me that each Christmas is worse than the one before and sometimes that's my own doing. I'm the author of the ruin. But at other times it has seemed that Christmas itself hates me.

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So the book is a compilation of not all but a few of these holidays and the thing that I have found is that no matter how nasty the Christmas was, there has always been usually in retrospect -- always been something perfect and small and shiny hidden within it. That has made me appreciate the holiday even more.

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Question: When you think of being “home for the holidays,” what is home?

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Augusten Burroughs: I don't have a sense of that. I suppose it is, for me, more of a state of mind. Well probably in front of my laptop computer, actually. Wherever that is. I don't have home as a place in the chest that many people have. Home is like a -- how many ribs do we have? What? 15? 12? It's the extra rib. Home is the -- for people it's like a hammock. But I've actually never had that; I have tried to create that as a structure, which is actually the last story in this book. That structure flooded. So for me it's really more of about being where I want to be with people I care about.

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Question: For memoirists, is the past a gift that keeps on giving?

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Augusten Burroughs: Well it depends, I suppose, on who you ask and how you define gift. From my perspective, I could continue to write memoirs probably for many, many, many years. I don't want to say the rest of my life, but many years. However, I could never do that because it's just not interesting to me, at a certain point. But certainly the material is there. 

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What I have found is yes I've definitely had some unusual circumstances in my life, but I've also just paid attention. I pay attention to what happens to me and -- but I pay a lot of very close attention. I fixate, I focus, and I'm a visual thinker; I don't -- and a lot of people are visual thinkers and analog. They kind of flop back and forth but I'm only visual, only. Like if you had a shopping list, for a split second I'm going to see the hieroglyphics that are there. When I am writing anything, a memoir or a novel or whatever, I'm translating these images. So there is -- I suppose there is a limit to how much time I want to look at myself, at the past self. I'll always write about what's going on in my life and the reason for that is it's not actually because I'm so fascinated with myself, it's because I can't think. I can't think like have thoughts in my head like juggling them up there and think them through and come to a conclusion. It's like math for me; I can't do that. I have to sort of storyboard my circumstances at any given moment in order to see them and appreciate them. By appreciate them, that's probably the wrong word. In order to understand them.

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So I'll always write because now at this point I'm kind of trained to think that way but I like many other things, many other topics.

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Question: Is living an ordinary life a handicap for a writer?

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Augusten Burroughs: Well what I would say is that there is no such thing as too ordinary to write about, whether that's life or a scene in a novel. Now what's interesting to people, whether it's memoir or fiction, is the truth, true. Now what does that mean? What does that mean? Well, sometimes, often the truth is difficult to arrive at and the reason is not because we know the truth, but are going to sidestep around it, but because we individually have not faced it. Have not faced it or have not looked close enough. There is a scene in a book, it's a novel, and I can remember the author. I think it might have been Updike but I'm not sure. And I believe it took place in the 1930s in a farmhouse in the Midwest and it was a very hot night and somebody was upstairs in one of the bedrooms getting ready to go to sleep and they were naked underneath a sheet. The window was open because it was so hot and out the window they heard a gun shot; a rifle.

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What they did is they moved the sheet off their body and listened. When I read that, it stopped me. And I thought, "Yes. That's right. That's right." Now, it's a little bit odd if you think about it, if you've heard a gun shot in the sweltering summer evening in the '30s or the '40s and why would you move the sheet off your body. And it doesn't make any sense when you think about it like that. But if you put yourself into that bed in that farm house and you hear that gun shot, you will very quickly discover that even the slightest movement of that sheet over your skin will generate noise in your head, like a sound. So you have to immediately get rid of it so you can listen.

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Now a less careful writer would have said something like -- I don't know. What's a good 1930s name? What is a good 1930s name? Gordon angled his ear to the window and listened for whatever sound. You would read that then you would move on and you wouldn't think about it and you wouldn't object to it and you wouldn't probably have any opinion at all. And you certainly understand what had happened. But when you read the scene with the sheet, that puts you there; you've experienced it. That's, at its heart, is a pretty ordinary moment. The thing for someone just starting off is to write. A lot of people in writing programs spend a lot of time writing assignments and very little time on their own writing.

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You need to -- there is a certain athletic quality that you need to take into consideration. You need to have a limber fingers, whether you write with your fingers or you type on your laptop, but you need to have a limber mind and you need to be able to -- the goal is to write without judging what you've written, at least right away, and without editing right away. Because if you have an opinion too quickly, it could be wrong. So the most important thing for a writer to do is to write. It really doesn't matter what you write as long as you are able to write fluidly, very quickly, very effortlessly. It needs to become not second nature but really first nature to you. And read; you need to read and you need to read excellent books and then some bad books. Not as many bad books, but some bad books, so that you can see what both look like and why both are what they are.

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You know one thing was so helpful to me was to read books that I -- I didn't begin reading until I was 24 and when I did begin reading, I could read, I just didn't. But when I did begin, I chose books because of the cover. I didn't have any sort of formal education so the names of authors didn't mean anything at all to me but the covers did. That proved to be a very interesting way to chose books. It did expose me to some that I wouldn't chose on my own that are among my favorite books.

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A lot of guys starting off writing, like Seattle skateboarder guys want to write, they might not pick up "The House of Mirth," but they should. They should pick up "The House of Mirth" because that's a very, very good book. Or I don't know, "Moby-Dick." "Moby-Dick," I don't want to read about a big fish. About a whale. I don't want to read about it. But I remember when I read the first page of "Moby-Dick" I thought is this -- wait a minute. Is this what I think? You can sort of tell that it must have been kind of subversive in its day. Kind of Dave Eggers of its day. Just like "Rosemary's Baby."  The novel "Rosemary's Baby."  If you just read the first three pages, it might even be two, but I think three pages, you'll see that of its period it's just piss-elegant. It is a piss-elegant book that is brilliantly constructed to create just very, very uncomfortable tension.

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I think it's on the third page when the time is announced and the clock is set. While these aren't things you necessarily will take notes on and become consciously aware of, if you read them and you're fully in the book you have now experienced them and that will help your writing. So I think I would try to encourage people to write less with their brain and more from a subconscious, from a subconscious area. It's a trust. You've really got to make a leap of faith and trust that you will know what to do when the time comes.

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Question: Is it harder to write tragedy or comedy? 

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Augusten Burroughs: Well, I probably should clarify my spoonful of sugar. The way with "Running with Scissors," the humor was like a spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down, that's true. Just as humor is a life raft in terrible, terrible circumstances. It can kind of float you to the next safe spot. With "Running With Scissors," it's not that I would sprinkle some sugar on to a bitter piece, it's that I would just leave out the bitter piece. Wolf at the Table is a much darker book, much darker book. Both books, though, are like icebergs: tiny, tiny, little chunk above the surface of the water, very small. But you kind of know what else is underneath the water. It's pretty much going to be the same but more. 

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For that reason, the period of my life in "Running With Scissors" was a lot more fun. It was absolute madness and I mean I didn't know how I was going to turn out from that oven but it was fun. But the time of my life before, with my father, was not fun. In order to write that "Wolf" book I had to go back in my head to that time in Shutesbury, Massaschusetts and I had to be with him again. Even though I am a lot older now and he was dead, that is interesting information that matters not at all because these memories are very vivid. So while I was writing that book, I was going through all the emotions you would go through during -- I wouldn't want to do it again. I wouldn't want to do it again; it was not fun. I did it. I kind of had to do it for me and then I decided to publish it because I thought, "You know, if I've learned anything from this memoir thing, it's that all the ways I thought I was a freak it turns out there are other freaks or people that have just experienced exactly the same stuff."

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So I bet there are a lot of other guys, or I thought of guys, who had the same father, who went through the same thing. Even if there is only a few of them, this is going to be useful for them. So that was the story over there with that.

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Question: If you could live someone else's life, whose would it be?

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Augusten Burroughs: That's a trick question because you know what the answer is to that? Everyone's life is more interesting than mine. Everyone's life is, to them. It really is all relative. But of books, of memoirs. Okay. I'm fascinated with Edith Wharton then, "House of Mirth."  What fascinated me by that book, even though it's not a memoir and I'm not quite answering your question, is that when you read it now, you can read it and you can say, "Oh you know, this is kind of like a nastier Sex in the City." In a way, or some other kind of urban book that I haven't read, but then you realize that this was written with ink and a piece of bird. The women had to write it in her head before putting it on paper. There was no laptop and it's a complex book. She would have been fascinating to know.

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Mark Twain interests me. He would have been a very interesting person. Oh, okay. No. I can give you an answer. I have a better answer for you. The person that fascinates me in Emily Dickinson. I never cared about Emily Dickinson. I grew up in the same town, I walked past that house every day of my life, my mother loved Emily Dickinson. I was not interested at all and then like two years ago I picked up one of her -- the Collected Poems and I picked it up and I just started looking at it and really reading it. It was absolutely astonishing as I'm the last to know, but what I find most astonishing is that she didn't leave her room. She had a very, very deep sea of wisdom about so many features in life and yet with her mind alone, which is interesting when you think about it because don't they say you use ten percent of our brains. If that's the case, that makes us very unique in nature; we're the only wasteful thing. I think we probably do use 100 percent of our brains but we don't know what that other 90 percent does.

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Emily Dickinson seemed to have been in touch somehow with a lot more than she was in touch with. So I just find her fascinating and I want that cookie recipe.

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Question: Do you worry that the Internet will kill long-form writing?

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Augusten Burroughs: I don't worry about anything in the Internet age. I have been online since I was aware of it: 1985 in San Francisco with an Apple Macintosh and back then it was just a black screen and you typed and someone typed back. I loved it. I loved it. It has changed everything in my life. I would not want to even be alive in an era that did not have it because it is essential to our evolution as a species. It, to me, feels utterly inevitable. We have to have it because if you think about it, we've created a system where there's sort of a global caste system. What happens if you're the genius 9 year old girl living in a dirt poor unnamed country with nothing and there is not one eye trained on you and you don't even know enough to hope but you're a genius. One day someone drops from the clouds some peculiar little durable computer thing that you've never seen and you pick it up and you poke at it. You kind of figure it out. What you realize is that this little thing connects you but more than connecting you to other people in the world it masks you.

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Now a lot of people can be afraid of the masking because people can misrepresent themselves and they can pose as people they're not. Well, yeah; that's true. That's one side of it. But the other side of it is that it equalizes you and if you happen to be a person who is not equal in the eyes of the greater society that's a damn good thing. Because now, guess what, you are. You are every bit as valid as the Stanford graduate. We have to have that not for politically correct reasons, I don't give a shit about that, but we have to have it because these people contain essential things. Essential things. In order for us to progress, we need brilliance and brilliance isn't fair and it's not polite and it's not -- we can't grow it. It happens. It happens. Genius happens and it doesn't always happen in a zip code where we can access it. Therefore, we kind of need not to keep tabs on everybody but we need to give them access to everybody else.

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So I think that the Internet is our most profound and beautiful achievement. It is magnificent and it's just a baby. It's just a baby. I cannot wait until we can know things because we have the Internet as a layer of our thinking that doesn't control us, we control it, yet we don't have to be aware of it. It will be like a suit that really fits well.

Recorded on November 3, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

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Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

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  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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The most culturally chauvinist people in Europe? Greeks, new research suggests

Meanwhile, Spaniards are the least likely to say their culture is superior to others.

Image: Pew Research Center
Strange Maps
  • Survey by Pew Research Center shows great variation in chauvinism across Europe.
  • Eight most chauvinist countries are in the east, and include Russia.
  • British much more likely than French (and slightly more likely than Germans) to say their culture is "superior" to others.
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To remember something, draw it

It works better than other memorization techniques.

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  • Drawing something that you want to remember is more effective than using other memory techniques
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  • Even if you're terrible at drawing, it's the neurological underpinnings that make it worth a try
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