Burroughs on ‘Literary Techniques’

the environment itself becomes educator as it was for primitive man, the hunter (McLuhan, A Garbage Apocalypse)

In the TLS August 6 1964 issue with McLuhan’s Statement of Culture and Technology, William Burroughs contributed a piece on ‘The Literary Techniques of Lady Sutton-Smith‘. McLuhan’s ‘Notes on Burroughs‘ which appeared a few months later signaled that he had found Burroughs’ article highly interesting and suggestive. 

Since late 1958, closely contemporaneous with his admonition that ‘the medium is the message’, McLuhan had been emphasizing the difference between light through towards us in contrast to light on from us.1 Now he found that same distinction in Burroughs along with its corollaries of the organic nature of words and the imperative to perceive behind and below the surface level of things — especially of ourselves.

The great matter lay in Burroughs’ question: “Your words spelt out whose words?”

Our own words are light through towards us, not light on from us!2

In order to hear our own words we must, as Burroughs says over and over again, learn to listen. That is, we (whoever this ‘we’ is!) must first of all learn to re-cognize and inhabit an acoustic world, not (or not only) a visual one! Marconi, not only Gutenberg!3

In an acoustic world, all of our words are retrievals and replays: “muttering voices looking for a role”.

We are always in some role, always wearing some mask, always running some “errand”, always repeating some prior “muttering”; but roles and masks and errands and mutterings are not mine, are not me. As Burroughs directs twice over: “forget [your] me”!

The great matter at stake is just which role and which mask is fitting: You only use the ones that fit you know.” A question of the put-on. At this “intersection point”, who am I? And who should I be?

…”muttering voices looking for a role”…


The Literary Techniques of Lady Sutton-Smith

I do not present the techniques I use in writing as a solemn new literary movement but rather as amusing exercises so introducing Lady Sutton-Smith who ‘haunted’ as she put it a villa in the Marshan (Tangier) overlooking the sea, Lady Sutton-Smith trailing spectral bouganvillia and thin stray cats: “I think of writing as something that is fun to do. Out here we have to make our own fun you know crippled with arthritis I hardly walk so I write my walks. I write my walks in columns.” Every day her servant went to the market to buy food and Lady Sutton- Smith wrote the walk before she sent her servant, wrote what he would see, who he would meet and what would be said. She plotted and timed his walk on her map of Tangier…”Now he is just here by the bouganvillia where the old junky doctor used to live”. When her servant returned from the market she questioned him to see how close she had come and entered the corrections in a separate column. Then she filled a third column with cross column readings and observations . . ledgers she kept stacked up in a dusty room each page divided neatly in three columns. Lady Sutton-Smith is here to answer your questions. Please remember she also has stray cats to feed, that she must organize benefit slave auctions for the SPCA and the Anti-Fluoride Society and teach a class in flower arranging at the leprosarium which is another of the civic things she did.

“Cut ups? but of course. I have been a cut up for years and why not? Words know where they belong better than you do. I think of words as being alive like animals. They don’t like to be kept in pages. Cut the pages and let the words out. Sometimes I take all my old Tuesday walks and fill a column on some future Tuesday with old Tuesday cut ups and see how close that comes when I get there. You would be surprised how I can write a future Tuesday from old Tuesday cut ups or any other day as well I use pictures too in my books…Oh not just any picture…The picture…”

Now back on a 1957 Sunday I wrote : “An old junky selling Christmas seals on North Clark St…’The Priest’ they called him”…And just here is a picture from Newsweek, May 18, 1964…plane wreck .. the priest there hand lifted: “Last rites for 44 airliner dead including Captain Clark (left).” Left an old junky on North Clark St dim jerky far away Lady Sutton-Smith Lady Sutton brings you an article I wrote once for the uplift magasines…My Advice to Young Writers: I had an old city editor once who used to tell his young reporters: “You will never get anywhere sitting on your dead tail. Go out and get that story. Go out and get that picture. Not just any story. Not just any picture. The story. The picture. And that goes double for young writers. Now look at your typewriter. Your words spelt out whose words?“…phantom tape playing over your typewriter, sad muttering voices looking for a role. Listen and record. Before you can write you must learn to listen. Now look beyond your typewriter. Pick up your soft typewriter and walk. Sit down in a cafe somewhere drink a coffee read the papers and listen don’t talk to yourself. (‘How do I look? What do they think of me?’) Forget me. Don’t talk. Listen and look out as you read (Any Private Eye knows how to look and listen as he rather ostentatiously reads The Times)…Note what you see and hear as you read what words and look at what picture. These are intersection points. Note these intersection points in the margin of your paper. Listen to what is being said around you and look at what is going on around you. Cast yourself as a secret agent in constant danger of assassination or enemy torture chambers all your senses on total alert sniffing quivering down streets of fear like an electric dog this is an amusing little literary exercise bringing to the writer what he needs namely: Action. Camera. You will find that a walk, a few errands, a short trip will provide pages of copy when you learn to look listen and read. Yes how many of you know how to read ? Look at Time or Newsweek. Hold a page up to the light and see what is on the other side. Just here in Newsweek, July 6, 1964 page 5 is a picture of a loaf of bread in some obscure way advertising Esso Petroleum Co. On the other side page 6 is devoted to Banking Service American Express. Now ‘bread’ in hip lingo used by old time ‘Yegg Men’ means money. How many of you saw that money behind the ‘bread’? When you read a novel look and listen out. I recently took The Quiet American by Mr. Graham Greene on a short trip from Tangier to Gibraltar so sitting in the saloon of the Mons Calpe cold mist outside fog horns blowing I read ‘Pyle looked dreamily at the milk bar across the street. Was that a grenade? he said’, No that was not a grenade. That was a fog horn . . cold mist through the milk bar. (Note in the margin). Now look around and see if you can find ‘Pyle’ in the saloon. Yes there he is . . bottle of beer . . quiet American eyes. So take any book on a trip and make a reading diary. Now arrange your reading diary in one column. In another column the so called events: arrivals and departures . . hotels . . (‘I wondered peevishly if I might not find every hotel on the Rock full of Swedes’)… incidents …(waiter there with the wrong wine). In a third column enter all the thoughts and memories stirred by the trip…Tangier Gibraltar… Gibraltar Tangier…’Captain Clark welcomes you aboard…Set your clocks forward an hour…Set your clocks back an hour…’ Now read cross column and see what an interesting trip you have made and how much there is to write about really because any intersection point in present time contains all your past times and maybe your future time as well…What’s that? I’m a little hard of hearing…Oh no of course you don’t use all your cross column readings any more than you use all your cut ups or fold ins. You only use the ones that fit you know. Yes it is a lot of work picking them out and putting them just here in the right place. I have often thought much of the opposition to cut ups was perhaps a premonition of the amount of work and precision required to use them properly. So look at a page you have written and move the lines around why not? Read from line one down to line anything: ‘I do not present just any picture…All your senses on Milk Bar Alert’…you can write on North Clark St intersection points…The ‘Priest’ there, quiet hand lifted brings you my advice to young writers…Forget me from old Tuesday intersection pointsI on the other sidesad muttering voices…a few errands…An old junky writes in the margin dim jerky far away — Get that picture? You know how to read behind a novel? Future fog across arrivals and departures? Smell of ashes rising from the typewriter? Fear like this is an amusing literary exercise put away in some remote file…The Nova Police Gazette. Yes I keep all my papers in files and the title of the file tells me what is there already and what belongs there. Inspector J. Lee of The Nova Police like everyone who does a job works to make himself obsolete. I keep files on all my characters with identikit pictures. When I see a picture in a newspaper or magasine that seems to have something of Doctor Benway, AJ or Inspector J. Lee I cut it out and return it to the appropriate file with all the intersection readings from novels newspapers and magasines its all here in the files stacked up in a dusty room and that’s about the closest way I know to tell you and papers rustling across city desks. Always tell my young reporters…”Get the name and address.” Lady Sutton- Smith returned to a cool Sunday file. Fresh southerly winds stir papers on the city desk.

Note: The first cut ups were made by Mr. Brion Gysin Summer of i960 and appeared in Minutes To Go September i960. There are many ways to do cut ups: 1. Take a page of text and draw a line down the middle and cross the middle. You now have four blocks of text 1234. Now cut along the lines and put block 1 with block 4 and block 2 with block 3. Read the rearranged page. 2. Fold a page of text down the middle lengthwise and lay it on another page of text. Now read across half one text and half the other. 3. Arrange your texts in three or more columns and read cross column. 4. Take any page of text and number the lines. Now shift permutate order of lines 1 3 6 9 12 etcetera. There are of course many other possibilities. A throw of the words gives you new combos. Selection and use is up to the writer.

  1. See From world to worlds and Charge of the light brigade.
  2. McLuhan had been thinking of this matter since reading Jung in the early 1940s around the same time that he was finishing up his Nashe thesis. If the trivial arts think us, not we them, how does this all work? See Jung and Dagwood and the ineradicable roots of our being.
  3.  So: Marconi and Gutenberg!