Hack Up Your Text

William S. Burroughs reading

Photo of william s. burroughs by duluoz cats via flickr and licensed under CC 2.0

Last Thursday I listened to a This American Life podcast that featured an audio documentary about William Burroughs. I was amazed that somebody who was addicted to drugs for most of his life had such a long and productive literary career. I’ll admit right now that I am not that familiar with Beat literature except for some of the poetry, such as Howl and A Coney Island of the Mind. So, although I’ve heard of Naked Lunch, I haven’t read it, nor any other of Burroughs’ novels. Even without reading Burroughs’ work, I’d say the documentary is worth a listen if you want to know more about him or about the Beat writers.

Among other things, the documentary described the cut-up technique, which Burroughs learned from Brion Gysin, a visual artist.

To perform the technique, you take pages of text, cut them up into snippets of words and phrases, and then re-arrange them to see what emerges. The result may be incoherent or bizarrely meaningful. Or maybe a little bit of both. Burroughs stated that these reconstituted texts could provide insight into the text’s true meaning and may even enable one to predict the future. The idea was that randomness— introduced by re-arranging words— jumps the mind out of predictable tracks and can provide a fresh viewpoint.

If you’ve never tried this, I’m guessing it may sound pointless. But it’s actually a lot of fun. Take a page or two of your prompt writing, cut it up with scissors, and play with re-arranging the words and phrases. Don’t feel like you have to use all the material; just focus on the most interesting parts. I’ll bet you come up with something interesting, maybe even something worth developing into a publishable piece of writing. Another way to use this technique is to get together with a few writer friends and have everybody contribute a page for a group cut-up session. I tried this many years ago in a poetry workshop—everybody contributed a couplet— and we all re-arranged the lines into a new poem. It may not have been a literary masterpiece,  but we enjoyed the process and it sparked our creativity.

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