William S. Burroughs Tells the Story of How He Started Writing with the Cut-Up Technique

In late 1920, the Dadaist writer Tristan Tzara wrote “dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love,” which included a section called “To Make a Dadaist Poem,” and it gave these instructions:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

Decades later, the Beat writer William S. Burroughs took this basic concept and put his own twist on it. Between 1961 and 1964, Burroughs published The Nova Trilogy, a series of three experimental novels fashioned with his own cut-up method. Often considered his definitive work of cut-up writing, The Soft Machine, the first novel in the trilogy, stitched together pages from a series of manuscripts that Burroughs himself wrote between 1953 and 1958.

You can watch Burroughs demonstrating his cut-up technique above, and forever find this clip in our collection of Cultural Icons, which lets you see great writers, filmmakers, and thinkers talking in their own words.

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Comments (4)
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  • There is some overlap between Burroughs/Gysin and Tzara, but Burroughs and Gysin developed the technique much further–Tzara would likely have laughed at the effort expends. So, too, would he have laughed at the objective. Whereas Tzara and Co. were interested in making a clean sweep and revealing, for lack of a better expression, the great Nothing behind systems, artistic and otherwise, Burroughs and Gysin were interested in revealing the latent messages lost in the fog of the word virus.

  • Ian Clarke says:

    The cut up method opens the door to the subconscious mind and the real person.

  • Miss Represented says:

    If you could un write this article that is just wrong from the start that would be best! :)

  • Miss Represented says:

    Thank you! :)

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