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Go Ahead, Judge That Book By Its Cover

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Recorded on November 3, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

The author of "You Better Not Cry" didn't start writing till he was 24--when he did he quickly learned the importance of reading random, often "really bad" books.

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