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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