William S. Burroughs Teaches a Free Course on Creative Reading and Writing (1979)

According to Ted Morgan, author of William S. Burroughs biography Literary Outlaw (which Burroughs hated), the hard-living Beat writer added “teacher” to the list of jobs he did not like after an unhappy semester teaching creative writing at the City College of New York. He complained about dimwitted students, and disliked the job—arranged for him by Allen Ginsberg—so much that he later turned down a position at the University of Buffalo that paid $15,000 a semester, even though he desperately needed the money. That Burroughs had recently kicked heroin may have contributed to his unease with the prosaic regularities of college life. Whatever the story, he later remarked that the “teaching gig was a lesson in never again.”

What then could have lured Burroughs out to Boulder Colorado five years later to deliver a series of lectures on creative writing at Naropa University? He’d picked up his heroin habit again, and his friendship with Ginsberg—who co-founded Naropa’s writing program—must have played a part. Whatever the reasons, this assignment differed greatly from his City College stint: no student writing, no office hours or admin. Just Burroughs doing what came naturally—holding court, on literature, parapsychology, occult esoterica, violence, aliens, neuroscience, and his own novels Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine.

Burroughs’ lectures are heavily philosophical, which might have turned off his New York students, but surely turned on his Naropa audience. And if you stopped to listen, it will probably turn you on too, in ways creative and intellectual. Ostensibly on the subject of creative reading, Burroughs also offers creative writing instruction in each talk. His discussions of writers he admires—from Carson McCullers to Aleister Crowley to Stephen King—are fascinating, and he uses no shortage of examples to illustrate various writing techniques. Fortunately for us, the lectures were recorded. Says Dangerous Minds, who provide helpful descriptions of each lecture: “now you can have your very own creative writing class from William S. Burroughs, all thanks to the wonders of YouTube.” Hear all three lectures above, and be by turns inspired, instructed, enlightened, and warped.

You can find Burrough’s lectures on Creative Reading listed in our collection of Free Online Literature Courses, part of our larger collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Related Content:

William S. Burroughs Explains What Artists & Creative Thinkers Do for Humanity: From Galileo to Cézanne and James Joyce

William S. Burroughs on the Art of Cut-up Writing

William S. Burroughs Reads His Controversial 1959 Novel Naked Lunch

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • Ryan says:

    Thanks for posting these! Do you know if the book list that Burroughs mentions in his first lecture is floating around anywhere on the net?

  • Carl Franke says:

    Great story. I interviewed Burroughs in 1995, a few years before he passed away, at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. Check it out here: http://www.amazon.com/Burroughs-And-Blizzard-Carl-Franke-ebook/dp/B00K2X7PBM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1399158028&sr=8-1&keywords=carl+franke

  • shazzyshoegaze says:

    I am disappointed by the correlation the writer has made between Burroughs’ initial dislike of college life, and his heroin use. Please add some references to ground this. Even though the writer has used the word “may,” the tone still implies the correlation. Otherwise, thanks very much for posting this!

  • Bob says:

    I wondered about the reference to Aleister Crowley as a writer Burroughs supposedly “admires” according to this article ’cause I knew I’d listened to a Naropa Burroughs lecture where Burroughs specifically said he did NOT think Crowley was a very good writer (evidently a different lecture than presented above).

    Burroughs also makes reference to Crowley in “Creative Reading,” Pt. 3 of 3 above (near the beginning). But all Burroughs says about him there is Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” dictum echoes Hassan i Sabbah’s “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” from 700 years earlier. Burroughs does not here say he admires Crowley the writer, nor does he give Crowley points for originality.

    And Burroughs the dedicated cat appreciator would not have appreciated Crowley’s being on record as having been a serial cat killer deserving to be eaten by a tiger.

  • Richard says:

    Burroughs says a movie with 5 good minutes is a good film. Same for novels (a few good pages).
    What a fool.

  • Ethan says:

    Yeah, that part is a totally foolish idea.

  • Mucho Maas says:

    Its not a foolish idea from the perspective o a writer as it can trigger a creative process and be reused and transformed by the writer elsewhere.

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