William S. Burroughs and Cut-up

By Dan Century

Chain Border

William S. BurroughsInspired by Pan's review of WSB's Interzone in the June issue, I decided to write a piece on the Cut-up technique of writing utilized and pioneered by Burroughs and his associate Brion Gysin.

For the uninitiated, the Cut-up technique was inspired by the collage technique used by artists and photographers. Often the greatest photographs and artwork happen by accident. An unexpected pedestrian walks into your shot, or an odd glob of paint scars your painting, and rather than tragedy you have something unexpected and spontaneous. Take this concept one step further and the artist can juxtapose various visual fragments with great and unexpected results. Gysin and Burroughs wanted to introduce the spontaneity and chance of the collage to the written word, and so they developed and utilized the Cut-up technique.

The technique is simple. Take any page of writing. Take a scissors and cut it into four parts; cut straight across, down the middle, on angles, whatever. Now reassemble the parts at random. You now have a different text. Meaning, time lines and narratives are changed. The result may be quite similar to the original or shockingly different. The more cuts you make and the more sources you use, the more fun you'll have. The beauty of the Cut-up method is anyone can do it, and should do it; anyone can now be a great writer, if only by chance. Unfortunately this technique works better with paper than computer text, because you cannot easily (if at all) make vertical cuts on an electronic page. One method you could use would be to capture your screen as an image, and then use image editing software to cut it up, and OCR software to return it to text form.

Here's some ideas for you:

Experiment #1:

a. Go to Police headquarters and grab up some scary pamphlets on drug abuse, deer ticks, cyber crime, domestic violence. Read them for kicks and then get some scissors and cut them into chunks.

b. Go to your poetry notebook, or that file where you keep the first chapters to the half dozen or so short stories you plan on finishing one day. Get a scissors. Cut them up. Or, photo-copy them, and cut up the copies.

c. Arrange the chunks at random, but not consciously at random. Many times in our conscious effort to be random or spontaneous, we achieve the opposite effect.

d. Now read the results. Prepare to laugh, or at the very least impress yourself.

Experiment #2:

a. Collect an assortment of text sources: your writing, your diary, a few web pages printed out at random, a newspaper, a famous book, some pamphlets from the rack in the lobby of the supermarket, anything!

b. Next time you have a campfire place them at the edge of the fire so they become partially consumed.

c. Sift through the ashes, find the remaining fragments, and you have your story. Granted, this technique is a little extreme and you may end up with nothing but ash, however, imagine the results otherwise.

Music was the final form of art to embrace the power of the collage. David Bowie, inspired by Burroughs and Gysin, used the Cut-up technique to form the lyrics to his songs. Later artists like Gary "Cars" Newman, Throbbing Gristle and even U2's Bono confess to using the Cut-up technique. If it were not for Throbbing Gristle's adaptation of Burroughs techniques and philosophies to music, there would be, without question, no Industrial genre today. Obviously sampling is being used to quite the same effect: creating something new from multiple sources. Sonic terrorists like Negativeland take snippets of found sound, TV broadcasts, and music of many genres and weave the pieces together to a wonderful, insightful and often hilarious effect.

Burroughs states correctly that all writing is in fact Cut-ups. As a writer, in particular a fiction writer, your inspirations come from many sources: a description of a woman's face comes from the cashier at the post office, a character's name taken from your friend's cat, a line taken from an issue of Legends and a plot twist from Shakespeare. All your experiences, whether first hand or taken vicariously through a book or a friend's story, add up to form the text of your next tale. If you want to read more about Cut-ups, William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Throbbing Gristle, pick up the book RE/Search #4/5.

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