Augusten Burroughs On the Spot

Burroughs, 37, came to advertising as a teenager with a GED and left a year and a half ago as an award-winning copywriter and author of the best-seller Running With Scissors, an account of his crazy childhood. In between he made the rounds of big-name shops (Ogilvy & Mather, Saatchi & Saatchi and DDB among them), working for clients including Beck’s, the Beef Council, UPS and American Express. And he drank, prolifically—in his new memoir, Dry, some 300 empty bottles of scotch pile up in his Manhattan apartment before his agency boss sends him to rehab. (The industry characters, he cautions, are composites.) Burroughs now writes full-time, with plans for a book a year.

Q: You’ve said advertising is better than grad school if you want to be a writer. How so?

A: You learn respect for people’s time. In advertising there’s not a lot of room to be self-indulgent. I’m not afraid to cut text that isn’t working. Because in advertising you lose things—you have great ideas that are killed by the client, that are off strategy, your creative director doesn’t like them, or someone did them at a different agency. Another reason is, even if you don’t feel like being creative on a particular day, you have to do it anyway. That discipline has been great.

Did advertising also help you learn to get past creative blocks?

I’ve actually never had writer’s block, either in advertising or in my own work. Advertising’s a little different because it’s like a very limiting crossword puzzle. Sometimes it’s not just creative and conjuring up images and ideas, it’s really figuring something out. It’s more scientific in some ways.

You have no formal education past elementary school. How did you get an ad job at 19?

A friend persuaded me to go to computer programming school near Boston. There was a commercial on for this school, and it was one of those commercials in the ’80s shot on video with a $5 production budget, and it was a stupid idea. I was embarrassed that I went to that school, and I thought, “I could do better than that.” So I sat down with a magazine, and I rewrote every single ad in it. I took my portfolio around, each time learning something new. Then one man told me, “This is the best book I’ve seen in years. It’s a mess, but this is great.” And he said I should move to San Francisco. I got a job at the first place I interviewed there [Ketchum Advertising]. I did a campaign for a gourmet ice cream that was shot by Sarah Moon, and that was my first ad. After I got into advertising, I was actually surprised that I did, because I then saw all the really slick portfolios. But once I got in, I loved it. It was absolutely a blast.

So your lack of education didn’t hurt?

Advertising is uncommon in that sense: You can end up making more than a neurosurgeon without any education at all.

You had a blast? At one point in the book you say, “Advertising feels like this piece of dog shit I can’t seem to scrape off my shoe.”

I got really burned out. I love the creatives, I love the ad people, I got tired of the same big corporate clients. Advertising after a while is the same thing again and again. It’s Groundhog Day. I actually got a lot better as soon as I decided I don’t give a shit about advertising and I’m going to focus on my own writing. My work improved because I wasn’t trying so hard and it was a lot more natural and spontaneous. In the beginning I loved presenting because I loved having an audience, and I was thrilled by the approval. But by the end I was sort of disgusted by yet another meeting with yet another brand manager who wanted yet another headline with the word humanity or solution in it.

The book certainly deglamorizes advertising.

The thing about advertising is, it’s a tremendous amount of work, and it can be very thankless. I think that’s why you have so many advertising awards—because ad people sort of have to thank themselves. It’s also, in this culture, sort of sneered at and looked down on, which is a shame because there are a lot of really smart, funny, creative people in advertising. It’s brand managers that give ad people a bad reputation. People get resentful when they see advertising they don’t like, and they blame the individuals who create the ads and not the people who buy them.

How long did it take to get burned out?

The burnout coincided with the drinking. If you want to burn out in advertising, drink heavily. Because it makes you really angry. I’m very good at a certain type of advertising, and I’m quick, so I got this attitude that I don’t have to even try and I can just give up myself to drinking—and in my spare time I can show up at a client meeting with an idea that I didn’t work on for more than two minutes and it will be the one that wins.

Did you want to be a writer as a kid?

I took it for granted because I always wrote. What got me into publishing was a friend, Suzanne Finnamore, who worked at FCB in San Francisco, got a book deal. That lit a fire under me. Here’s a fellow copywriter, when she’s on production she spends all her time writing her book, unlike me, where I sit at the craft table eating M&Ms. I thought, “It’s now or never. I cannot end up being a bitter, alcoholic, miserable old ad guy troll.” Because in advertising, 30 is old. I felt like, I’m going to either rot or write a book and get out.

So, your plan worked out.

It’s a ton of work, but it’s great. It’s what I love to do. It’s exactly what I did when I was a little kid. I would sit in my room all day and write in my journal. The difference is, now the journals are published.