Chapter 16
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Surviving the Unsurvivable

Augusten Burroughs talks with Chapter 16 about his new survival guide for all manner of tragedies

“This is how you survive the unsurvivable, this is how you lose that which you cannot bear to lose, this is how you reinvent yourself, overcome your abusers, fulfill your ambitions and meet the love of your life: by following what is true, no matter where it leads you,” writes Augusten Burroughs in his new book, This is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike. Covering topics that range from “How to Ride an Elevator” to “How to See the Truth Behind the Truth,” he offers both practical and spiritual advice for a huge range of situations.

And though Burroughs is known for his comic voice even in dark times, his advice here isn’t all tongue-in-cheek. Unafraid of confronting life’s more challenging (and, sometimes taboo) issues, he gives tips for staying healthy, dealing with mental illness, and even suicidal thoughts. Along with a heaping dose of tough love, he addresses these difficult topics with examples from his own experience, though also, at times, with surprising tenderness. “If you believe suicide will bring you peace, or at the very least just an end to everything you hate—you are displaying self-caring behavior,” he argues. “You are still able to actively seek solutions to your problems. You are willing to go to great lengths to provide what you believe will be soothing to yourself. This strikes me as optimistic.” And it is clear by the end of This is How that Burroughs does want the reader to be optimistic—or at least entertain new perspectives on old issues.

Author of the bestselling Running with Scissors, as well as five other memoirs and a novel, Burroughs has long since proven that his wisdom is hard-won. When he describes his own struggles with these issues—including addiction—his writing begins to sound less preachy and more grounded than the usual armchair-psychology book. Some of his best advice emerges in the simplest observations. Although he risks trivializing the big stuff, there’s a familiar comfort in his words when he says, “Bad news should be followed with soup. Then a nap.”

From big questions to small, Burroughs has an answer for them all, even the grand questions people tend to ask themselves only in the confines and security of their own minds—questions about truth, about why bad things happen to good people and vice versa. But, “Miracles do happen,” Burroughs says. “You must believe this. No matter what else you believe about life, you must believe in miracles.” Prior to his Nashville appearance on May 7, Burroughs recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email:

Chapter 16: This is How is a new genre for you—what moved you to shift from memoir into self-help/advice?

Augusten Burroughs: It seemed like a natural progression to move from telling people what I survived into explaining how. It’s a book for do-it-yourselfers, really. Like me.

Chapter 16: You discuss a variety of topics in this book, from “How to Ride an Elevator” to “How to See the Truth Behind the Truth.” Do you have a favorite among them?

Burroughs: One of my favorite sections is where I talk about how to go on a date. And how you should never put your “best” foot forward; instead put your actual, as-you-really-are foot forward.

Chapter 16: Along with your own experience, you fold in various scientific studies to support your recommendations. What was the most interesting thing you found in your research?

Burroughs: I was very pleased with Canadian researchers for discovering that affirmations don’t work: think sprinkling baby powder on puppy poo.

Chapter 16: If this book had existed during the difficult parts of your own life, would you have followed your own advice?

Burroughs: No, probably not. But only because I always have to figure everything out myself, reinvent the wheel every time.

Chapter 16: “Given the tremendous life challenges Burroughs has overcome, it’s fitting that his best advice involves some of the darkest topics,” wrote a reviewer in The Boston Globe. Don’t you find it difficult to unearth these subjects?

Burroughs: I don’t find it difficult; I find it exciting to help people through difficult things. I’m really, really good at it.

Chapter 16: You’ve been compared to David Sedaris, who will also be visiting Nashville this spring. Do you agree with this assessment?

Burroughs: I think we’re pretty different.

Chapter 16: Now that you’ve branched out from memoirs, do you have any plans for tackling new genres?

Burroughs: Well, if my next book is any indication, the answer is yes. Because my next book is a thriller.