Chiara Micheli

Ascolto rock. Fermo istanti. Traccio segni. Inseguo visioni. Tengo Londra nel mio garage. Qualche volta dormo. E scrivo. Mi piace la verità, per questo invento storie.

William S. Burroughs – On Writing

Letto: 15889 volte


In 1982, at Naropa University – founded by legendary Beat writer Alan Ginsberg – William S. Burroughs gave arguably one of his finest lectures on the art and craft of writing.

Burroughs talks of his friendship with fellow writer Jack Kerouac and explores Kerouac’s art and influence as a writer. Here also, we get a sense of Burroughs’ own unique insights into the craft of writing and a glimpse into some of the important influences that Kerouac had on his own work, as well as the extraordinary impact that the Beat generation have had on the history of twentieth century literature.

In Burroughs’ characteristically quirky yet insightful approach to his subject matter – the question of “who is a writer”, what writers are doing in their work, and what it means to be a writer – Burroughs makes some important remarks about Kerouac, both as a person and as a writer, and addresses a number of questions surrounding Kerouac’s life and work.

The Naropa lecture also provides a major springboard for examining a wide range of questions surrounding the Beat movement.


Can you all hear me? Good.

Someone asked Beckett what he thought of Burroughs’ work and he said rather grudgingly, “Well, he’s a writer.”

So certainly that’s true of Kerouac. I’m quoting here from a historic memoir of Americas greatest existentialist…he was the greatest existing exister. Certainly a meaningless word.

Well, Kerouac was a writer. That is he wrote. And many people who call themselves writers an have their names down on book jackets are not writers and they can’t write. The difference being a bullfighter who fights a bull is different to a bullshitter who makes passes with no bull there. [Laughter] The writer has been there or he couldn’t write about it. And going there he risks being gored.

By that I mean what the Germans call a ‘time ghost’. Fitzgerald wrote the Jazz Age but he never found his own way back. And a whole migrant generation arose from on the road to Morocco and Nigeria and Tangiers and so on but Keroruac stayed pretty much in America.

What are writers doing? I’ll confine the use of this term to writers of novels. Well, in once sense they are creating a universe in which they have lived or where they would like to live. To what extent writers can actually do or how useful it is form it is for their craft to act out there writing in so-called ‘real life’ is a very open question. For example, are you making your world more like real life or are you pulling real life into your work. For example, Hemmingway’s’ determination to act out the least interesting aspects of his own writing and to actually be his main character was I feel very unfortunate for his writing. If a writer insists on doing and doing well what his characters do he very drastically limits his characters.

In the Vanity ofDuluoz Kerouac confesses to being a spy in someone else’s body. He says that all his credentials all his press clippings his birth certificates are completely spurious. They’re not real. And I think it’s a professional feeling that that all writers experience. And this arrises from the dualism of being actor and chronicler at the same time. As you’re pretending to be one of the actors while he is actually one of the scriptwriters or trying to be.

And this tends to give writers a vaguely ill intentioned or furtive manner.

Writers are bad by nature. No trouble no story no film no novel no painting. So if we can’t find trouble we try to make it. Oh, not directly you understand but simply the contagion of our ambiguous presence.

On the surface Kerouac was a completely non-violent person and completely non-hostile. And his sneaky writer tricks surfaced in other ways. For example, I have never been able to divest myself of the trust fund that he foisted upon me. In mean there isn’t

any trust fund. There never was a trust fund. When I was not able to support myself -which was for many years, my family – I was supported by an allowance for my family -my hard working parents who ran a gift and art shop in Palm Beach Florida called Cobblestone Gardens – my father was the only straight man in the industry.


But you see Kerouac thought a trust fund was more interesting and more romantic. Let’s face it there was a very strong Sunday supplement streak in his mind. And he also saddled me with a Russian countess. Well, she was a little bit easier to get rid of than the trust fund. And he nurtured the myth of the Burroughs millions. There are no Burroughs millions accept in the company. And the family got nothing out of it. It’s an old old story how the inventors’ family winds up with zilch. Incompetent executors they advised the children that the whole thing is absolutely impractical and they had better sell out now for what they could get. Which they did. Which was a very small amount.

Then I asked Kerouac about this – what is this trust fund nonsense? And he said, “Oh well you’ll see you will have a trust fund.” Such cheek – he was going to write me a trust fund! Well writers are prone to very very specific character flaws and Kerouac had them all. No doubt about it that he was a writer.

Well since writers inhabit a fictional world there is always an element of spuriousness when they touch down. Keroruac hated fights and I have seen him go way out of his way to avoid fights in bars but he liked to talk fights. You know the left hook syndrome. And what an old fraud was Hemingway the great white hunter dropping his wildebeest neat and clean at three hundred and twenty African paces. Got long legs you know. But people will tend to take these writers roles very seriously and many did see Kerouac as the tough brawling type. And this is what we might call a writers gap. It is most evident and damaging in their personal and sexual lives but I don’t propose to discuss that. It sets a bad precedent. And I don’t snitch on a fellow writer he will snitch on himself sooner or later.

As Maugham said and now and again he did say interesting things – moments of clarity in the incredibly stupid and empty way of life – if you know how to read that is, he says, “Writing marks a man, it reveals a man completely. No matter what he writes about. Any writing stands completely revealed in his writing if you know how to read.” And of course the profession marks someone just as any profession does being a doctor or a policeman or a lawyer. Kerouac never doubted his profession as a writer. He never thought of being anything else. When I first met him – I think he was twenty years old -and he had already written a million words. Never thought of any other profession

I don’t know if Kerouac ever asked himself what a writer is actually doing. It’s a dangerous question for a writer. I mean what us anyone doing. Really doing. What indeed? Well the answer is probably too horrific to be countenanced.

And who was Kerouc? Well a college athlete a merchant seaman a railroad worker a Zen Buddhist a conservative catholic. All these I think. Essentially of course he was a traveller but he was an American traveller.

He hated Europe and he hated North Africa and he never really felt comfortable outside America. So while many people who went on the road after reading On The Road went a hell of a lot further than Kerouac. They were the ones who went out to Kathmandu and the Far East and down into Africa.

Well Kerouac he touched a wide range but he never really went outside this range. He never attempts to contact and transcribe alien data. Even Dr Sax is much too personal and homey to constitute a venture outside his chosen area where fiction and fact are intermingled since everyone assumed that he was writing actual accurate biography.

Actually he wasn’t at all and he achieves an insidious blurring of the line between fact and fiction, which has produced far reaching even worldwide effects. Apart from his writing Kerouac was a figure of worldwide import. The beat movement spread everywhere even to the Arab world and the Far East. It met and blended with Zen and married Castro and Raoul to father the hippies and the yippies. It was a real powder trail.

We see the function of creation to make people aware of what they know and don’t know that they know.

You can see that Kerouac touched many areas. There is a tradition in Europe call the Wunderjahr – the wonder year – during which middle class youths are supposed to hit the road and make it on there own for a year with very little or no money then he will come back and go into the family business or profession. So they had already – the experience was already there but he put new vigour into these rather petrified old world procedures.


And the hippies and the yippies were contacting the third world on very basic levels of drugs sex and money. And rock and roll of course. But Jack seemed sort of anxious to disclaim responsibility but I don’t know how seriously we take this. The spy in his body recants under pressure. The only valid criterion I think of accomplishment is in the words of Christ “by the fruits ye shall be know them and not by their disclaimers.”

What is a writer actually doing? I put forward as a general proposition that any artist -and I include all creative thinkers – they are trying to make the viewer, the reader, the student aware of what he knows and doesn’t know that he knows. People living on the seacoast in the Middle Ages they knew that the earth was round – they believed the earth was flat. And Galileo got in quite serious shit by saying the earth was round. Still is. Cezanne shows people what a fish looks like seen from a certain angle in a certain light. They couldn’t see it but now any child can see Cezannes fish. Once you get the breakthrough there’s a general increase in general awareness.

And Joyce made people aware of their stream of consciousness at least on one level and was called unintelligible. The cut ups which were started by Bryon Gysin – well life is a cut up – every time you walk down the street look out the window your consciousness is cut by random factors. We simply made the random factor explicit with a pair of scissors. Now Kerouac didn’t like the idea and he said I do this in my mind. Well it is

said you have excluded the essential ingredient of randomity – the throw the dice the clip of a coin, the blast of a gun.

I exhibited a picture here created by first painting a piece of plywood both sides and letting my hand have its way just like sat down a typed a page on the typewriter. Now randomity is a vote. I pour paint into a little plastic pot bag and tack it to the plywood -not just anywhere – I know exactly where I’m going to place it. Now with a double barrel 12 gauge shot gun – number six shot – at twenty feet I blast the paint bag throwing paint all over the painted wood. See no one could have foreseen the results in his mind – it’s impossible. This is the big bang theory of creation. We have an outpouring of creation which slowly solidifies into art. Time for a bigger bang. Suppose the whole fabric of reality – what you see out there from your window – grass people trees houses mountains sky – the whole fuckin’ shithouse is suddenly ripped apart and revealed as a backdrop. The sheltering sky as thin as paper here. BB is designed to blow a hole in time. All it takes is one shot with the right ammunition. Well Kerouac with his theory that all life is a dream and nothing is real would have subscribed to that. He couldn’t have done it in his mind and you can’t even figure out how cut paper would come out.

Now novelists also are engaged in the ultimate blashephy that is the creation of life and the creation of living characters. Writing is quite literary table tapping. It’s is a psychic operation. Well it’s very useful to act out – and there are definite rules of evocation – if you don’t use the right evocation your character won’t be there.

Now I think it is very useful to act out a scene you are writing – where is the door where this character came and the door that he went out of. I’ve had the experience of writing a scene and reading it over and saying there is something that’s not right here it just isn’t working. So I acted it out. Well no wonder you had the character coming through the door where there is no door and seeing things that he couldn’t have seen. In other words, I was asking my character to perform impossible acts.

I remember a film called Dead of Night where the ventriloquist dummy starts talking on its own. Well a writer must encourage this phenomenon – create a dummy and induce it to talk on its own. Now this is known as an ear for dialogue in the trade. But you see writing is in fact a magical operation. If you know the right spells – and what are spells but words you can call all writers living and dead to work for you. The use of cutup -the use of cutup – is a key – what better way to invoke a writer than to cut and rearrange his very own words. Like all keys to be used with caution – sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. Somebody changed the lock on that door.

Well another key is certainly image – what does your character look like? I build up an identikit image picture there’s picture in a magazine or a newspaper that looks like the character I’m looking for. And I’ve also used posed photos.

Well writers are exposed to many traps and there are many snares – there’s writers block when the writer can’t write at all and there’s a facility that can become mechanical and lifeless.

Now Kerouac always said that the first version is the best version – well that seemed to work for him but I told him that well that works for you Kerouac but it doesn’t necessarily work for anyone else. It certainly never worked for me I always have to do a lot of editing.

Sinclair Lewis said that if you have written something that you think is just great and you cant wait to show it to somebody he said throw it away it’s terrible. Now this is very often true. I had the experience of say writing something that I thought was just great and I read it the next day and said for God’s sakes tear into very small pieces and throw it into somebody else’s garbage can. It’s awful. And that is one of the deterrents to writing – the amount of bad writing you’re going to have to do before you do any good writing.

I think it would be very interesting to collect all the worst writing of a number of writers starting with Titus Andronicus – remember that great line: “let us repair and order well the state that like events may n’ere it ruinate.” Oh boy, that’s Shakespeare for you!

But of course if the writer is wise he’s destroyed them. I personally have destroyed at least a thousand pages.

Well that’s one. Then there’s the trap of writer’s block. Then there’s excessive facility. The great book that nobody can read. Well, that of course was Joyce – he spent years and years writing the great book that nobody can read.

And of course there is the bargain – the devil’s bargain. I think it’s a tribute to Kerouac essential integrity that he was never approached with the devil’s bargain. Which means that he never laid himself open to the devil’s bargain.


Now the bargain can come in many forms – there’s Hollywood, a rich wife, a best seller. Did Truman Capote ever write anything comparable to Marian and Other voices and Other Rooms after he wrote In Cold Blood 7 . Best sellers are written to the best of the writer’s ability. If the writer makes the bargain than that is his ability from there on out. The bargain is not to be taken lightly.

Of course a classic case of the bargain and he even knew it that he had made the devils bargain was Somersett Maugham. Now the fool’s pact – oh and Conrad said that the devil’s bargain is always fool’s bargain and he was a wary old seaman. But the fools pact goes, as far as Maugham is concerned, “I will make you rich, I will make you a uniquely famous writer, I will give you fame and lunches with the Queen and royalty at your door asking to be invite toe the so sheik so empty so nowhere. Welcome to the biggest closet in the Mediterranean. As you can see there is nothing, nothing here.

You see in his haste to sign he hadn’t even read the large print. Now the devil doesn’t say anything about making him a good writer or even a writer who had written one good thing. Of course not. The devil deals only in quantitative merchandise. So for an

artist who deals in quality the devils bargain is the worst and stupidest bargain possible -it really is a fool’s bargain.

Maugham screamed out petulantly at a party when his champagne was late or something ” I don’t expect much as a thoroughly second-rate writer – I don’t deserve much.” Good sir to the purpose.

I hope to be remembered as being in the first rank of the second raters. Sorry Misteer William, there is no such rank.

Second raters get into the first rank by maybe writing a paragraph or a story that is second rate that lifts them out of the second rate category. You never did. It’s all dead level and mortal. No wonder he didn’t believe in immortality. But he denies it to his readers in every line that never comes alive and never breathes. The whole thing never gets off the ground. If this is the space age Maughman has nothing to say to us – you never feel uplifted or changed or far out after reading Maughman.

In his last years he was wringing his hands saying that he was a horrible and evil man and he was indeed. There was nothing in his work but a dead malevolent spirit a specialised brand of English evil it exports rather well you know.

You try to remember The Hero at Razors Edge – what a profoundly uninspirational book. None of them – you just can’t remember them. There’s really nothing there.

Well of course somebody else who made the bargain and he had a hell of a lot more to sell than Maugham was Hemmingway. He sold out to Hollywood for a safari.

He wrote one of the best stories in the English language on death – The Snows of Kilamanjaro. He knew a lot about it – he could smell it on others. There is a famous story where he met a General – he was a real General lover – so they drive out and meet this Colonel – no Major, Major – it was some outpost and the General says I’ll have to relieve him and Ernie says “You won’t have to relieve him Bucky – he stinks of death.” And by the time they got back to the general headquarters the Major had been killed.

So he wrote this story – and certainly it was the best thing that fie ever wrote – this story about death that is his specialty and he lets Hollywood put a happy ending on it -a real live pilot comes in with Penicillin. Even the vultures flap away in disgust at that sell-out! So he had a unique opportunity it could have been a great film about death and it isn’t about death at all – it isn’t about shit. Thought he could pay death off with Hollywood crap did he!

Remember that old lady: ” It must be very dangerous to be a writer.” Hem: “It is mam, and few survive it…”

There’s – wait a minute while I find it here – there’s a famous line, oh here we are, yes. For years Dryden held undisputed title to the most atrocious conceit in the English

language for his breathtaking lines on Lord Hastings Smallpox. “Each little pimple had a tear in it to raise to wale the fault it rising did commit”. And now Dryden must defend his title against Papa Hemmingway. “The hole in his forehead where the bullet went in was about the size of a pencil. The hole in the back of his head where the bullet came out was the size of a was big enough to put your fist in it if it was a small fist and you wanted to put it there.” Oh boy!

Well, I reckon the whole in the back of his head [Hemmingway’s after he shot himself Ed.] where two barrels of Number 6 heavy duck load came out was big enough to put your foot in even if it was a medium-sized foot and you didn’t want to put I there.

But Kerouac is never approached. There is of course a certain moment of sell out. I think Maughman was born sold out. Hemmingway tended to sell himself a piece at a time, his macho image slowly eating away at his talent.

There was that atrocious letter he wrote about duck hunting. “I’d shoot my own mother if she was flying straight and clean and in formation. And I could lead her at fifty yards with my Wetherby.” Oh my God. My Gawd… [Laughter]

Where are we? Well I put together a poem from here… I was struck the similarly of the ending of the Great Gatsby and the ending of On The Road. And some rather nice lines came out:

“Enchanted moment when man held his tomorrow for the last time history with his capacity to wonder. Dim houses begin to melt away and fold the final shore. Trees whisper to the last forlorn. Dean Moriarty. All that road and nobody, nobody in the immensity of it. Children cry for the transitory father that we never, never found face to face. Old Dean’s gone. An obscene word scrawled by bright stars at the end of Daisy’s dock. The stars are dropping silver dimes. Night blesses the river pier. Old Dean’s is gone. The orgiastic future. The last and greatest of Dean Moriatrty dreaming in future children. No matter they let children cry. Broken human dreams and the stars go out one after the other.”

Thank you I think I’ll…

Oh, I should mention another – speaking of all the difficulties by which the writer is faced. Alcoholism which has been called – which of course killed Kerouac – the writer’s vice. It’s to be remembered that writing is a very stressful activity. When you write you are experiencing hate, fear, war, death. But you are sitting there immobilised at a typewriter and I think that this which is essential whether you are sitting at a typewriter or writing longhand which nobody hardly does now and it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference. But you are sitting there immobilised in a state of stress and I think the alcoholism is often an attempt to relieve the accompanying tension and anxiety.




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  1. Thanks for finally writing about > William S. Burroughs
    – On Writing | Chiara Micheli < Loved it!

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