William Burroughs (Intro to Creative Reading)


William S Burroughs (1914-1997)

We begin today serialized transcription of William Burroughs‘ legendary NAROPA lectures on “Creative Reading from the Summer of 1979.  In the first lecture, Burroughs lectures on Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and A Short Trip Home, and Stephen King’s The Shining, as well as. discussing (in this introductory section) exercises for increasing awareness, books as mental film, codes of conduct, heroes, and the film adaptation of his own classic novel Naked Lunch.

Much  of this material was written up and is available in the section, “Creative Reading” in Burroughs’ miscellaneous prose selection, The Adding Machine, and is available for preliminary perusal here


WSB: Two more people….You gentlemen that just came in, do you have book-lists? [Editorial note – Burroughs had created a book-list/reading list for this and his previous courses] – Well, those are the last ones, we’ll have to have some more made if anyone else shows up – Okay – we’ll start then. Well, every book listed is there for a reason, and I hope to go through the list in the course of the lecture and comment on these books….

Okay now some of these books are neglected, out of print and hard to find, and examples are Brion Gysin’s The Process and all the books of Denton Welch,  And some of the books like Jaws 2 and The Nightcomers are listed not for any intrinsic worth but because they illustrate a literary trend. Jaws 2 is not written by (Peter) Benchley but uses the characters from Jaws 1, and The Nightcomers retells The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, using James’ characters. And the, actually, the whole concept of originality is now, as it were, officially dead. You don’t need new ideas or new characters, and if the writer uses sets and characters from another writer, his work will be judged on its own merit . Neither of these two books, incidentally, seem to me successful. Now some of the books are listed because they contain a few good pages (and a film of five good minutes is really a good film). And the list is not complete, (and) I am working with Anne Waldman, Larry Fagin, and others, and we intend to keep adding to the list, and, no doubt, I will be adding books during the next three lectures [sic], And I hope some of you will suggest books that should be on the list for one reason or another (I can remember some good books I read years ago, but have forgotten the name of the book and the writer). And I hope that, eventually, the list will be a sort of Baedeker’s guide to the arts with stars and ratings and inspectors.

And I notice that the course is listed here as “Creative Writing”, actually it’s “Creative Reading”. And when I have taught (or attempted to teach) Creative Writing, there is, of course, an implicit assumption (that) the student can write, that is, put words down on paper. So I’m assuming that the students in this room can already read, in the sense of being able to read words on paper, but being able to read creatively, to see what the writer is trying to do, and how well he is succeeding, despite plans and tricks to devise alternative endings and continuations of the narrative to see the characters in other sets.

I don’t know whether the film Apocalypse Now is out yet, have any of you have seen it? –[small show of hands] 0h,  oh you have – really? – where?

Student: San Francisco where it was showing…

WSB: Yeah, well that was based on Heart of Darkness, and using.. I don’t know if it actually uses the same characters, but it definitely is based on Heart of Darkness by (Joseph) Conrad. Now, in the early days of the Vietnamese war, they has these CIA men in remote outposts where they maybe had thirty… thirty people,  thirty partisans, armed partisans, and it was very much a turn-of-the-century situation – these guys out there, that have set up a little nucleus of power ).(Of course, that really ended when the war really got going). So I’d be very interested to see what they could do with that – Heart of Darkness in a modern setting, that is a modern setting that approximates the setting of Heart of Darkness.

And, also, you should know when a writer is cheating, and how and why a book does or does not hold your interest, and also the whole matter of what is known as “style”, which is a very mysterious thing ( well, this involves a lot more than just reading)

Consider what actually happens when you read. I wrote and recommend a little booklet called The Book of Breething on Egyptian hieroglyphs pointing out the difference between pictographic and calligraphic language and alphabetical language like English. Now, reading an alphabetical language we tend to lose sight of the fact that the written word is an image and that written words are images in sequence. Now, if you were reading an Egyptian hieroglyphic text, it’s quite clearly evident that you’re reading images in sequence (of course, there are arbitrary elements in Egyptian writing beginning with an arbitrary alphabet but.. – (and) both nouns and verbs regularly contain arbitrary pictures). Here, for example, is a glyph for death, which is a man splitting his own head with an axe:


And this is a determinative, indicating that the word pertains to death killing to an enemy and you may be reminded of any number of self-destructive acts from biting your lip or spilling your drink to a serious accident. There is another picture in (a) glyph for death and that is a horned owl:



Now these arbitrary pictures may be compared to what we call “style” in writing – they arise in the medium itself, which must qualify in order to achieve any degree of precision, and style, then, consists of an arbitrary choice of words or images. The writer makes an arbitrary, and therefore characteristic, choice between two or more words with more or less the same meaning. Let us suppose that Egyptian scribes may each have his characteristic owl – pretentious, mysterious, whimsical, dejected, stylish -qualifying death.

As I said, I’ve had occasion to doubt the validity of writing courses, but I think, in reading, comments can be helpful, (as I know from my own experience – someone whose opinion I respect has recommended a certain book at a certain time – and time is very important too –  and I’ve said, “Well, I looked at it and couldn’t get interested”, and then he said, “Well, look again” – This happened with (Samuel) Beckett’s Watt ,and when I looked again, I saw what a really great book it is. In other words, a book that may mean nothing to you at one time may mean a great deal at another time. And that’s one of the purposes of this book list (sic), you may find that your interest in one of these books at just the right time to intersect one of these books, at just the right time, (or) maybe (it may happen) months or years from now.

And there’s another very important factor that may interfere with your appreciation of a book and that is preconceived standards or expectations. You’re looking for something in the book that is not there and lose interest when you don’t find it. The book does not conform to your preconceived standards. Or you may have preconceived expectations. Now some of you may have classified (Joseph Conrad’s) An Outcast of the Islands, (and the same is true of Lord Jim), as an old-fashioned novel, rather like (Charles) Dickens, far removed from present-time realities. And you may fail to perceive that personifying the weather is not just a creaky old-fashioned device but is here used (that is, I’m talking now of An Outcast of the Islands, rather than Lord Jim), is used decidedly to evoke a hollow cardboard world where white shadows play out charades of greed and selfishness, and stupidity and corruption, like so many animated cartoon figures. I think that An Outcast of the Islands would make a very good film. But I don’t see either Lord Jim or The Great Gatsby (two books that I will be talking about in this course) as film material.

Now the written word is an image, and when you read words you are seeing film, a moving film made up of millions of associations. Just read a paragraph of (Joseph) Conrad.          Here you see Almeyer leaning on the railing of his porch, looking at the river. Now the film you are seeing is made up of pictures you may have seen, or imagined, of such a jungle outpost. Of course, we aren’t all seeing the same film when we read the same book. Someone who had actually been to the islands would see a different film from one whose pictures of the area are all second-hand or derived from the movies or the National Geographic, novels, or paintings (and many of my own pictures of Conrad sets are derived from my personal experience of South American jungles).And, similarly, someone who has actually lived through the (19)20’s (as I have), will see a different film when he reads (F.Scott) Fitzgerald, as someone who has not had personal experience of the Jazz Age. The point is when you read, you’re seeing a film, and if you don’t see anything, you won’t read the book.

Now ask yourself exactly how this film is being evoked, how successful the writer is in making you see and experience what he is writing. And I am postulating that the function of art (and I include in this category, creative work in science, that is, creation in the widest sense),  is to put us in touch with what we know and don’t know that we know. You can’t tell anybody anything he doesn’t know already.

For example, in the Middle Ages, people living on the sea coast. knew the earth was round, they believed the earth was flat because the church said so. In the same way, when (Paul) Cezanne first exhibited his pictures, the public was so incensed that they even attacked the canvases with their umbrellas! – (they couldn’t see that these were pictures of apples, fish, simply seen from a special angle). And it took (James) Joyce’s Ulyssses to make people aware of their own stream-of-consciousness. The same thing happened in 1959 when Brion Gysin introduced the “cut-up” method. Now the “cut-up” simply applied the montage technique to writing, which had been used in painting for more than fifty years. And these first “cut-ups” appeared in Minutes To Go. People were upset, angry, (especially critics and other writers), and we were accused of cheating. People felt that it wasn’t fair to produce writing with a pair of scissors. We were accused of plagiarism and promulgating a cult of unintelligibility. Now, in order to see something, (he, thre artist) puts it on canvas or paper or film, and at first the public does not see it, there is rejection, ridicule and anger, and,  (then), after a few years, everybody sees it. The “cut-ups” are now a more or less accepted technique (it was used in Performance and Anthony Balch, a filmmaker of my acquaintance, who was one of the ones to use this technique, showed Nicholas Roeg the film “The Cut-Ups” and explained the technique, and pretty soon the expansion of awareness becomes common knowledge.


Now, in my creative writing courses, I suggest some exercises designed to increase the focus and range of awareness, by making us aware of what we know and don’t know that we know. These exercises are equally applicable to reading, and, like all exercises, they’re not ends in themselves but simply intended to develop habits of observation and awareness.   Well, just take a walk, paying close attention to what you see and hear, and particular attention to what you are thinking when you read that sign, passed that person, saw that car. Now, come back and sit down and write what you have just experienced. Now you are examining a definite time session – and this will teach you something about the basic nature of time, and events in time. You can carry the exercise further with a tape-recorder, recording as you walk and then playing the recording back, placing yourself back where you were a few minutes, or however long, ago. And you’re actually learning to travel in time (we travel in time all the time, actually). And, of course, you can also take..take along a camera and take pictures. Do this for a few days and you’ll begin to notice that street signs, car licence-numbers, passing strangers are saying something to you.

I can cite examples from my own experience. Yesterday, on the way back from the Liquor Mart, I was thinking of a book called The Wicker Man I’d been sort of reading (at – it isn’t very good), well, anyway, the protagonist is a religious policeman, a religious police-sergeant (that’s the worst kind, religious cop!), and this phrase from the book crossed my mind –“I’m a police officer. When I ask questions, I expect answers”. And just then, a police car cut in from Grove Street, right on cue. Now things like that happen all the time if you’ll just pay attention. And some people get very paranoid on this exercise. I remember one of my students saying, “Everything seems to mean something”. Well, I said, everything does mean something!. And you will notice that people seem to recur, like they were on a conveyer-belt. –  “Isn’t that the man I just saw in the grocery store? There he is again and again” – No, he’s not following you, he’s just in the same groove as you are.

I recall in New York I was on 72nd Street, way out of my neighborhood (I lived downtown below Canal on Franklin Street at the time), so I decided to stop in a grocery store and buy a few things that I needed. In the store I noticed a young man and our eyes met and we saw each other. When I got on the subway, he was sitting opposite me, and I thought, “I bet he gets off at Franklin Street” –  and he did. Now this is synchronicity, there’s no cause-and-effect there, we were both at the same place at the same time for the same reason (I mean, well, we weren’t there for the same reason, but we both had the same idea that, since we’re here, we might as well pick up a few groceries). Now this happens all the time, but you won’t notice it, unless you see him or her the first time.


Another exercise I learned from a Mafia don in Columbus, Ohio. He said, “See everybody on the street before they look at you”. Now, well, if you do this, (if) you see everyone before they see you, as a rule, they won’t see you. You feel a sort of invisibility. And then someone will see you. Now, notice that person. I recall I was doing this exercise and on the subway, a Chinese (man) looked up and saw me (well, the Chinese are old hands at that game – you notice.. you take laundry into a Chinese laundry and you go there once and he’ll remember you, and he’ll remember the color of your laundry bag – you can go into a watch shop, man, and, ten times, twenty times, they still won’t notice you – thinking about something else)

And here’s another exercise. See yourself as a bodyguard, (maybe one of De Gaulle’s bodyguards?). Instead of looking straight ahead, looking out to sides, into doorways, into shop-windows, and up, at windows and roofs. Here, you are, literally, expanding your field of observation and awareness, from straight ahead and more or less on one level, out to the sides, up and down (actually, few people look up when they’re walking),  and also look down, of course, into basement windows.

Now, to apply these exercises to reading. You’re examining a section of time (and, of course, a novel is a section of time), and if it’s a good novel, you will find that certain basic considerations about time and events in time is reflected. That is..well, you might call them laws of light…And here is one of the most important basic facts – lightning always strikes twice in the same place. If you meet one rude clerk, that is a warning that you will meet another. The first…the first time gives you a notice, or warning of repetition (and that will apply to good events or bad events, you know, good days or bad days). Any event will tend to reproduce similar events, because events come in series (and that is the only law of gambling that has any validity – that winning and losing come in streaks). I mean, when you’re.. .So the only law of gambling is – “double-up when you’re winning and quit when you’re losing”. Now, just as people recur in your field of vision..the exercise..( yeah..this’ll happen), just as people will reoccur in your field of vision, so events will reproduce themselves. The exercise teaches you some of the laws of repetition, recurrence and synchronicity. If you don’t see it the first time, you will miss the second time, you’ll miss it the second time. That is, if you don’t see something the first time, you’re going to miss it and miss a second chance (and both of these books are essentially about (Lord Jim and The Great Gatsby) are about second chance.

{Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at at the beginning and concluding approximately nineteen-and-three-quarter minutes in]

to be continued

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