The Art of Memoir
Augusten Burroughs was born Christopher Richter Robison in Pittsburgh, PA on October 23, 1965 and raised in Western Massachusetts. Augusten's parents struggled with alcoholism and mental illness and they separated when he was twelve. Augusten stopped attending school and his parents' longtime psychiatrist became his legal guardian. At seventeen, he moved to the Boston area and graduated from Control Data Institute with a diploma in Computer Programming and System's Analysis and Design but never worked in the technology industry. Instead he moved to San Francisco and at 19 became the youngest copywriter in the city. His work attracted national acclaim and in 1989 he was invited by Ogilvy & Mather, New York, to work on their flagship American Express account. Augusten found great success in the Manhattan advertising community, eventually working for many of the top agencies where he created global ad campaigns for worldwide brands. Almost eighteen years after accepting his first advertising job, Augusten left the industry to pursue a career as an author. Two years later, his 2002 memoir, Running with Scissors, became a publishing phenomenon, spending over three consecutive years on the NYT bestseller list. It was made into a movie starring Annette Bening and Alec Baldwin. All of Augusten's subsequent books — Dry, Magical Thinking, Possible Side Effects, A Wolf at the Table, You Better Not Cry & This is How — were instant NYT bestsellers. In 2013, Augusten married his literary agent and best friend, Christopher Schelling, received a Lambda Literary Award, and was honored with a Doctorate of Letters from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Augusten is also a self-taught gemologist with a special interest in jade. He collects and sells vintage and estate jewelry, photographs people, and recently directed his first music video. Augusten and his husband Christopher live in a 200 year old house in rural Connecticut with their three dogs.
Question: How do you maintain objectivity?
Augusten Burroughs: I think what you do is you- or at least what I do is I’m able to go back. When I’m writing I’m on- always on a laptop. I am kind of looking-- Well, I’m not really looking anywhere. My eyes are not focused but I’m sort of staring at the little bar between the keys and the screen so that little aluminum strip. I am back there and I am writing kind of as fast as I can to keep up with the action. It’s almost like watching a movie so I don’t ever pause and think oh, should I maybe add a blizzard to this day? Would that make it better?
Here’s an example of memoir, what I feel, because we- there’s a lot of discussion in the media about memoir and fake memoir and all of that. Let’s say that you are in a car and you’re driving down the highway and you are on your way to a party so you’re going fast and all of a sudden on the side of the road you see a terrible car accident. The whole front end of the car is mashed up. It’s devastating. It’s so bad you look away and you look to the person next to you in the passenger seat and you say, “My God, did you see that, those people?”
And you’re shaken by it. And you arrive at the party and they open the door. “Welcome. What’s the matter?” they say.
“Is something wrong?”
And you say, “Well, I just- we were driving here on our way and we saw this horrible, horrible car accident and all I can think about are the children. The parents-- What if they had children and now the parents are dead?”
And just all these awful thoughts you would have. It would kind of shake you for the rest of the night to see a profound car accident like that. Now let’s say that you are the person inside that car. Okay? And let’s say that car happens to be a Mercedes S class or a Volvo, one of the safest cars, so the air bags have deflated and you look down at your arms and your legs and you look at the person next to you and they’re looking and you’re- there’s not a scratch and you look down and you see the heel of your high-heeled shoe is not even broken.
Nothing has in fact protruded into the passenger compartment and you realize- you see there that the radio is still on and working and the dashboard is beautiful and it looks like nothing has happened, but the front end of the car is all crunched up. So you get out of the car and you kind of stretch and you bend over. Nothing hurts. You’re fine. So you get on your cell phone and you call and you say, “Hey, guess what. We just had a horrible car accident. Yeah. The car is totaled. No. We’re fine.” Now let’s say that both parties involved decide to write a memoir.
The people who were on their way to the party and witnessed the car accident, they write a memoir called Car Accident. The parties involved in the car accident, they write a memoir called Car Accident. They’re going to be two very different accounts of the same thing so which then is the fake memoir, which then is the correct perspective?
And the answer really was given to us by Albert Einstein who said, “There is no preferred point of view in the universe,” and in a way that’s an appropriate answer for us because both of those memoirs are a correct version of the story. The passengers in the car who witnessed the car accident reported what they witnessed, what they saw, how it made them feel, what they imagined what must have happened to those people in the car. The people in the car accident wrote what happened to them in the car and how it made them feel. Now when it becomes a fake memoir is when either party says, “Remember that car accident?
It would have been really cool if there had been a bus filled with school children and maybe that’s what the car hit” so they add a bus of dead school children in and then they add weeping mothers standing over the bodies of these school children. That is when a line has been crossed. A memoir for me, and I think for all memorists who take it seriously and care, is one’s retelling of one’s memories and experiences and how those memories and experiences made them and made them feel and what they did to them in their lives. Memoir is important.
It would be easy for me to go out there and say A Wolf at the Table, a novel, and just publish it as a novel and never have to answer sort of fake memoir questions, but I would never do that. I would never sort of be bullied in to doing that or to writing a novel because I believe in memoir. Memoir is important because as a reader when you read a memoir and you come across a sentence or a paragraph or it’s- or it can be the full story in the memoir that stuns you because it expresses so perfectly what you yourself have felt or experienced but never told another living person or never admitted to yourself or maybe never even realized that yes, this is me too, that is a profound transformative experience between reader and author and that’s valuable. And I guess in the MFA programs they teach that writing memoir shouldn’t be therapeutic, you shouldn’t use memoir as therapy, but that’s I believe illogical.
No art should be therapeutic. In other words, if that’s the case Picasso should be the same person he was at the beginning of his career as he was at the end. So the author should grow and should be transformed through the process of writing the memoir and so should the reader through identification. It’s-- The power of memoir is the power to connect. It’s blogging. It’s You Tube. It’s similar. It’s we want to connect with other people. We don’t want to feel like we’re the only one. We want to know we’re not alone in the universe in every way.
Question: Is memoir the middle gound between fiction and nonfiction?
Augusten Burroughs: Memoir is a word that can encompass many different styles. There can be experimental memoirs where someone may play with, intentionally play with, reality and facts.
Memoir, because it is memory based and memory is never perfect, because memoir is one person’s account and does not take in to account all parties involved, memoir is not like say a biography of a President where a hundred people have been researched, every document ever written about that person has been researched, and there is a level of sort of reportage that is removed, less interpretative, less emotional and more objective, more factual.
Memoir is an art. So yeah, I think it’s- it is somewhere probably in that area.
Question: What is an author’s responsibility to their subjects?
Augusten Burroughs: I change names and I change identifying characteristics. Whenever you write a memoir about a family people may get angry and they may want to lash out.
The only reason it’s worth it is to get to the truth, to be able to tell my true story, what happened to me. My responsibility was to the story. My responsibility was to the facts of the story. My responsibility was to myself. I needed to get this experience out of me.
Recorded on: April 30, 2008.
Augusten Burroughs agrees with Einstein: "There is no preferred point of view in the universe"
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