William S. Burroughs & Surrealist Writing Methods

Posted November 19, 2010 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature, Writing / 2 Comments

Post-modern author, William S. Burroughs is best known for his experimental writing style.  He was a primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major influence in popular culture as well as literature.

In 1959, he released Naked Lunch which he described as “Automatic writing gone horribly wrong”. Previously, I have posted about Automatism, but it is a process of writing where the writer tries to avoid conscious thoughts.  Burroughs has said that Naked Lunch wasn’t a book he wanted to write, but he had no choice but write it: he couldn’t write anything else.  When it came to using André Breton’s method of automatism; where the subconscious focuses on one image or phase, Burroughs found his subconscious was taken over by a hostile entity. The results speaks for its self, Naked Lunch is not only full of obscene language but completely weird.

William S. Burroughs moved to Paris in the 1960’s where he met a painter named Brion Gysin. The two of them are often credited for rediscovering an old surrealist method known as Cut-up. This technique is when you take a finished piece of text, cut it up and rearrange it for a completely new novel. Burroughs experimented with this technique, which resulted in The Nova Trilogy; also known as The Cut-up Trilogy. The first book in the trilogy, The Soft Machine, was the result of the two on a journey (with the aid of some recreational drugs) to find hidden meanings in Naked Lunch. Using the cut-up technique, Burroughs wanted to find the answer to the question that had been plaguing him; the question of control; why did he have no control over the writing of Naked Lunch? The Soft Machine was first published with 182 pages; though in the second edition Burroughs removed 82 pages, replacing them with another 82 pages & with the other 100 pages, he rearranged and restructured using further cut-ups.

William S. Burroughs will always be known for his Beat influences, political trenchancies, cultural influences, his satirical writing and hopefully his experimental use of surrealist writing methods.

2 responses to “William S. Burroughs & Surrealist Writing Methods

  1. I happened to reread Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto just the other night.

    I think automatism can be a fantastic method for first drafts, or just loosening any creative blocks. However, to me, it’s a starting point. In very few instances do you ever come up with a readable work without tons of revision and editing.

    Very interesting post. I hadn’t known Burrough’s used the “cut up” method.

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