William Burroughs It’s still the William S Burroughs Centennial, and in honor of El Hombre Invisible, we’re posting today another classic from the Naropa Archives – Burroughs on Kerouac – the workshop he gave, in 1982, at the Jack Kerouac 25th Anniversary of On The Road celebrations (We’ve already published Herbert Huncke‘s workshop – see here – from that same occasion).
The transcript follows: (tape begins approximately ten seconds in)
WSB: Can you all hear me? Good. Someone asked (Samuel) 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 America’s greatest existentialist… “he was the greatest existing existentialist” – Certainly a meaningless word.
Well, Kerouac, Kerouac was a writer. That is, he wrote. And many people who call themselves writers and 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 from a bullshitter who makes passes with no bull there. 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” (zeitgeist). (F.Scott) 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 Tangier, and so on, but Kerouac himself stayed pretty much in America.
What are writers doing? (I’ll confine the use of this term to writers of novels). Well, in one 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 for their craft to act out theirwriting 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, (Ernest) Hemingway’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. I mean, if a writer insists on doing and doing well what his characters do, he,very drastically, limits his characters.
In the Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac confesses to being a spy in someone else’s body. He says that all his credentials, his press clippings, his birth certificates, are just completely spurious, they’re not real. And I think it’s a professional feeling that all writers..(that) all writers experience. And this arises 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 (you are), 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 (Jack) 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. I 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 from my family -my hard-working parents who ran a gift and art shop in Palm Beach Florida called Cobble Stone Gardens (my father was the only straight man in the industry
It.. 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, except in the company – and the family.. got nothing out of it. I mean,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 right 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 willhave 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. Kerouac 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 roles, the writers role, quite seriously, and many did see Kerouac as sort of the tough brawling type. And this is what we might call a writers gap. It’s 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 (W.Somerset) Maugham said (and now and again he did say interesting things, just 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 writer 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 adoctor, 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, he’d already written.. that was.. – 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 is anyone doing? Really doing. What indeed? Well the answer is probably too horrific to be countenanced.
And who was Kerouac? 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 of America. So that many of the people that really 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 didn’t venture outside this range. He never attempts to contact and transcribe alien data. Even Doctor 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. (And) 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 world-wide, effects. Apart from his<writing, Kerouac was a figure of world-wide 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 Wanderjahr ( 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 (they) will come back and go into the family business or profession. So they’d already.. they’d already.. the experience was already there, but he put new vigor into these rather petrified old world procedures.
And the hippies and the yippies were contacting the Third World on (the) 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 their 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’re 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 into quite serious shit by saying the earth was round. Still is. (And) Cezanne shows people what a fish looks like, seen from a certain anglein a certain light. They couldn’t see it. But now any child can see Cezanne’s 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 Brion 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, and 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, I said, then 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 I 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 twelve-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, I think would have subscribed to that.So..he couldn’t have done it, couldn’t have done it, in his mind, I mean you can’t even figure out how cut paper would come out.
Now novelists are also engaged in the ultimate blasphemy, that is, (for) novelists, the>creation of life, the creation of living characters, which is… Writing is, quite literally, 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’s very useful to act out a scene you are writing – where is the door where this character came in, the door that he went out of? Now 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 characters 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 the living, all writers living and dead, to write for you, to workfor you. The Cut-Up, (the) use of Cut-Up 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’d 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, 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 always the best – 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 have to do a lot of editing.
Sinclair Lewis said that if you’ve written something that you think is just great and you can’t wait to show it to somebody, he said, throw it away it’s terrible. Now this is very often true. I’ve had the experience, say, of 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 ne’re it ruinate.” [Editorial note – Lucius is speaking (in Act V Scene III) – “Then afterwards, to order well the state/ That like events may ne’re it ruinate.”] – Oh boy, there’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., and excessive facility, the great book that nobody can read. (Well, that, of course, was Joyce) – he spent years and years, twenty years, writing the great book that nobody can read, Finnegan’s Wake
And, of course, there is the bargain – the devil’s bargain. I think it’s a tribute to Kerouac’s essential integrity that he was never approached with the devil’s bargain., which means that he never laid himself open to the 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 ..Other Voices and Other Rooms after he wrote In Cold Blood?. Best-sellers are written to the best of the writer’s ability. If the writer makes the bargain, then 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 devil’s bargain) was Somerset Maugham. Now the fool’s pact (oh, (Joseph) Conrad said that the devil’s bargain is always fool’s bargain – from this 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 invited to the so chic, 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 devil’s 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 Meester William, there is no such rank. Second-raters get into the first rank by maybe writing a paragraph, a story, that is first-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 Maugham has nothing to say to us – you never feel uplifted or changed or far out after reading Maugham.
In his last years he was wringing his hands saying that he was a horrible and evil man.He was indeed. There’s 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 of The Razor’s 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 Hemingway. He sold out to Hollywood for a safari. He wrote one of the best stories on death in the English language – The Snows of Kilimanjaro. He knew a lot about it – he could smell it on others. There is a famous story where the.. 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 he ever wrote) this story about death, this was 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! (You see) 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 by.. oh here we are, yes.For years (John) 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 wail the fault its rising did commit”. And now Dryden must defend his title against Papa Hemingway. “The hole in his foreheadwhere 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 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 hole in the back of his head [Editorial note – Hemingway’s, after he shot himself ], where two barrels of number-six 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 it there!
But Kerouac is never approached. There is, of course, a certain moment of sell-out. I think Maugham was born sold out. Hemingway 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 Weatherby – Oh my God.! – My Gawd!
Where are we? – Well, I put together a poem from here… I was struck (by) 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 in 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. Nightblesses the river pier. Old Dean’s gone. The orgiastic future. The last and greatest of Dean Moriatrty dreaming in future children. No matter they let children’s 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 the.. (and 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’re sitting there immobilised at a typewriter, and I think that this, which is essential, (whether you’re 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’re sitting there, immobilised, in a state of stress, and I think the alcoholism is often an attempt to relieve the accompanying tension and anxiety.
Well, I think we can now have some questions now about our event…
(transcriptions of the Q&A session will appear in forthcoming posts)