How to Jumpstart Your Creative Process with William S. Burroughs’ Cut-Up Technique

The inner crit­ic cre­ates writer’s block and sti­fles adven­tur­ous writ­ing, hems it in with safe clichés and over­think­ing. Every writer has to find his or her own way to get free of that sour­puss ratio­nal­ist who insists on stran­gling each thought with log­i­cal analy­sis and fit­ting each idea into an oppres­sive pre­de­ter­mined scheme or ide­ol­o­gy. William S. Bur­roughs, one of the most adven­tur­ous writ­ers to emerge from the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, famous­ly employed what he called the cut-up method.

Devel­oped by Bur­roughs and painter Brion Gysin, this lit­er­ary take on the col­lage tech­nique used by avant-garde artists like Georges Braque orig­i­nat­ed with Sur­re­al­ist Tris­tan Tzara, who “pro­posed to cre­ate a poem on the spot by pulling words out of a hat.” The sug­ges­tion was so provoca­tive, Bur­roughs claims in his essay “The Cut-Up Method,” that cut-ups were there­after “ground­ed… on the Freudi­an couch.”

Since Bur­roughs and Gysin’s lit­er­ary rede­ploy­ment of the method in 1959, it has proved use­ful not only for poets and nov­el­ists, but for song­writ­ers like David Bowie and Kurt Cobain. And any frus­trat­ed nov­el­ist, poet, or song­writer may use it to shake off the habit­u­al thought pat­terns that cage cre­ativ­i­ty or choke it off entire­ly. How so?

Well, it’s best at this point to defer to the author­i­ty, Bur­roughs him­self, who explains the cut-up tech­nique thus:

The method is sim­ple. Here is one way to do it. Take a page. Like this page. Now cut down the mid­dle and cross the mid­dle. You have four sec­tions: 1 2 3 4 … one two three four. Now rearrange the sec­tions plac­ing sec­tion four with sec­tion one and sec­tion two with sec­tion three. And you have a new page. Some­times it says much the same thing. Some­times some­thing quite different–(cutting up polit­i­cal speech­es is an inter­est­ing exercise)–in any case you will find that it says some­thing and some­thing quite def­i­nite. Take any poet or writer you fan­cy. Here­say, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost mean­ing and life through years of rep­e­ti­tion. Now take the poem and type out select­ed pas­sages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like.

Bur­roughs gives us “one way” to do it. There may be infi­nite oth­ers, and it’s up to you to find what works. I myself have pushed through a cre­ative funk by mak­ing mon­tages from scraps of ancient poet­ry and phras­es of mod­ern pop, clichés ripped from the head­lines and eso­teric quotes from obscure reli­gious texts—pieced togeth­er more or less at ran­dom, then edit­ed to fit the form of a song, poem, or what­ev­er. Vir­tu­al cut-and-paste makes scis­sors unnec­es­sary, but the phys­i­cal act may pre­cip­i­tate epipha­nies. “Images shift sense under the scis­sors,” Bur­roughs writes; then he hints at a synes­the­sia expe­ri­ence: “smell images to sound sight to sound sound to kines­thet­ic.”

Who is this method for? Every­one, Bur­roughs asserts. “Cuts ups are for every­one,” just as Tzara remarked that “poet­ry is for every­one.” No need to have estab­lished some exper­i­men­tal art world bona fides, or even call one­self an artist at all; the method is “exper­i­men­tal in the sense of being some­thing to do.” In the short video at the top, you can hear Bur­roughs explain the tech­nique fur­ther, adding his occult spin on things by not­ing that many cut-ups “seem to refer to future events.” On that account, we may sus­pend belief.

As Jen­nie Skerl notes in her essay on Bur­roughs, cut-up the­o­ry “par­al­lels avant-garde lit­er­ary the­o­ry” like Jacques Derrida’s Decon­struc­tion. “All writ­ing is in fact cut ups,” writes Bur­roughs, mean­ing not that all writ­ing is pieced togeth­er with scis­sors and glue, but that it’s all “a col­lage of words read heard over­heard.” This the­o­ry should lib­er­ate us from oner­ous notions of orig­i­nal­i­ty and authen­tic­i­ty, tied to ideas of the author as a sui gener­is, all-know­ing god and the text as an expres­sion of cos­mi­cal­ly ordered mean­ing. (Anoth­er sur­re­al­ist writ­ing method, the game of Exquis­ite Corpse, makes the point lit­er­al.) All that meta­phys­i­cal bag­gage weighs us down. Every­thing’s been done—both well and badly—before, Bur­roughs writes. Fol­low his meth­ods and his insis­tent cre­ative max­im and you can­not make a mistake—“Assume that the worst has hap­pened,” he writes, “and act accord­ing­ly.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How David Bowie, Kurt Cobain & Thom Yorke Write Songs With William Bur­roughs’ Cut-Up Tech­nique

The “Priest” They Called Him: A Dark Col­lab­o­ra­tion Between Kurt Cobain & William S. Bur­roughs

How William S. Bur­roughs Used the Cut-Up Tech­nique to Shut Down London’s First Espres­so Bar (1972)

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

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