Born This Day: William S. Burroughs


I was about 18 when I first encountered the work of William S. Burroughs…I was in my college library and just literally stumbled upon The Ticket That Exploded. Never heard of him, or the book. Just took it out of the library, read it, and became obsessed with his work. Completely obsessed. Decided right then and there: I was going to be a writer like he was.

My creative writing teacher told me that Burroughs was a hack and gimmick—a fad. Not true writing. I got a C in that course.

The work of Burroughs wasn’t just writing—it was poetry and clear shamanic shenanigans. It operated in a paranoid, liminal world that I immediately related to in a way that up to that point in my young life I thought wasn’t possible.

You have to pay attention when things strike you that strong.


In addition to probably his most well-known work, Naked Lunch, he wrote Junkie, Queer, The Yage Letters, The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Wild Boys, Cities Of The Red Night, The Place Of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands. A recommended anthology is The Burroughs File by City Lights Publishers, the first book from the author I had purchased for myself. Another one, if you can find it used, is RE/Search #4/5, featuring Burroughs and associated artists like his collaborator Brion Gysin.


In terms of his esoteric work, Burroughs was cited by author/philosopher Robert Anton Wilson as the “originator” of the “23 Enigma”—no small praise, if you understand the lingo. He also pioneered the “cut-up” technique to writing, where you cut a piece of paper down the middle and then line the words up in a different way—creating a whole new, spontaneous text. Both the 23 Enigma and the cut-ups are testimony to the esoteric elements infused in his literary practice.

Finally, for those just being introduced to Burroughs, you might want to check out his musical collaborations with musicians like Kurt Cobain on the EP The “Priest” They Called Him, and R.E.M.’s “Star Me Kitten,” recorded for the Songs in the Key of X: Music from and Inspired by the X-Files soundtrack.


And of course there is the 1991 David Cronenberg film Naked Lunch, based loosely on the Burroughs novel. Similar to my reaction to a number of biopics of cult figures in the Nineties, including Man In The Moon & Ed Wood, I was a little “let down” by Naked Lunch the movie—but it has some interesting visuals and may just be what you need to get started.


In sum—a big influence on me, and a true original.