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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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gus Van Sant Adapts William S. Bur­roughs: An Ear­ly 16mm Short

William S. Bur­roughs Shoots Shake­speare

William S. Bur­roughs’ Clay­ma­tion Christ­mas Film


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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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