Bridging the Gap between Burroughs, Writing, and Drug Use
E. Jayne Forish
(illustration by Chris Kelso)
1. As I sit here drawing parallels between myself and William Burroughs, I discover that I relate more to Burroughs’ life than to his writing. We share the eccentricities of everyday living. We share a similar distrust for people. We share the need to have daily habits (and I’m not referring to drug habits. I am referring to the habits of life—waking up to a cup of coffee, a splash of milk, and Camel cigarette, only to fall asleep to that same cigarette and a beer.) We also share the basic need to fulfill our junk equation—to satisfy the equation of our needs. Our needs, however, vary. Burroughs needs heroin, young boys, and the absence of control systems in order to continue with his daily habits.
Although I enjoy men and lack of control / authority, my daily habits need to include the act of writing and the act of consumption, both of which contribute to my basic need to escape.By constantly questioning myself and my surroundings, I never seem to escape from my own insecurities. My self-doubt keeps me in a perpetual search to answer every question that floats into my brain, as if finding answers meant finding a piece of myself that I did not know existed. Lately, three questions have been crossing my mind frequently; all three begin with why.
Why obsess over Burroughs?
Why do drugs?
All three questions seem to have no exact answer, which only leads me towards more answerless questions. Perhaps I should begin with a question other than “why.”
I stare at the stacks of papers and books scattered across the entire sea of charcoal carpeting that line the floors of the dismal living room. I attempt to do work in this environment, an attempt to vaguely assemble some sort of order into my life and into the mountains of work before me. Papers of all varieties scatter the ground. Some are torn from notebook pages, others printed directly from the computer screen. Most of the papers blanketing the floor include handwritten pieces, either in black or purple ink, which include my own ramblings as well as quotations from books I currently read to fain the idea of research. One notices only the corners of marble compositions books and spiral-ringed notebooks beneath the stacks of papers.
In the dead center of this jumbled pile of work-in-progress sits my weekly planner, a glaring reminder that all this disorganized clutter must eventually assume the form of a coherent essay.
I choose to ignore the planner and instead opt to reorganize my notes one more time. I shuffle through the pages of handwritten quotations, hoping that one will grab my attention enough to inspire me to write. None do, so I continue to look through the writing before me. I reach for papers of already typed work, praying that somewhere I may have already written an essay but somehow forgot. Unfortunately, none of the typed pieces seem relevant either. I toss the papers back to the floor and light a cigarette in a desperate attempt to collect my thoughts enough to just get started.
As the smell of tobacco mixed with the aroma of brewing coffee, I stare aimlessly at the work before me. I sigh as I slowly inhale the smoke, allowing the nicotine to linger in my lungs before exhaling, ashing, and sighing again. I think if I repeat this cycle long enough, maybe my nerves will be calmed. I inhale again, but break the cycle by reaching for the first book on the stack of ten before me.
I suddenly find myself rereading more meaningless research. I say meaningless because the whole process of beginning to write the essay has left me drained. The research has accidentally lost all meaning within this process.
I stare blankly at the front cover of the book. My Education: A Book of Dreams by William S. Burroughs stares right back at me. The cover forces me to confront the essay as a leaf through yellowed pages, searching for an underlined passage that will inspire me to put pen to paper and simply write.
I stub out my cigarette in the ashtray as I toss the book and my frustrations onto the coffee table. I can no longer stare at the book, but as my eyes searched the room for something to distract me, I could not escape the book that stared back at me. This time the back cover confronted me, for I slammed the book face-down on the table in hopes of allowing my frustrations to vanish.
I reach for the book that shakes in my grasp. My nerves are shot. Nothing between the covers peaked my curiosity, but as I read through the text on the back, I realized for the first time that I had never once read the back cover of single Burroughs’ book. The last line on the back read as follows: “My Education is profoundly personal and may be as close to a memoir as we will ever see.”1
I cannot help but to think that whoever wrote that cover had certainly not read enough Burroughs. I then realize that my thinking is faulty because, in reality, I have simply read too much Burroughs. The stack of books from which I originally picked up
1 William S. Burroughs. My Education: A Book of Dream. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
My Education is hard evidence of my knowledge on Burroughs—biographies, stylistic analyses, Burroughs’ novels, and Beat writer compilations.
I placed the book aside and reach for the next book in the stack. As I read through the back cover of Junky, I feel much more connected to the words that lie me: “William S. Burroughs depicts the addict’s life …[in] a memorable and shocking demonstration of the junk equation.”2
Finally, the words resonate for me a series of memories which must be written down. After days—perhaps weeks—of procrastination, I grab my pen, light a cigarette, and allow myself to begin the process of writing an essay.
Burroughs does not believe in conventional thinking.
Burroughs creates his own writing technique, a new approach to utilizing the written word. This technique is known as the cut-up. Essentially, the technique emphasizes the chaotic nature of the written word. By cutting-up various quotes, newspaper clippings, interviews, reviews, novels, etc., Burroughs generates an entirely new narrative form. Consequently, words begin to choose themselves rather than the writer choosing the words. Burroughs chooses his words for a reason, but he also permits the words to choose their own order. He allows the narrative to form around a series of ideas, and the writer, consequently, “learns to leave words out.”3 The words themselves for Burroughs have little to no value. The words are simply the necessary tools which the writer uses to sculpt his ideas; words are simply tools that one must use if one wishes to write.
2 William S. Burroughs. Junky. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.
3 Beat Writers at Work. Ed. Rick Moody. New York: The Modern Library, 1999. pp. 27.
Although Burroughs values the written word as a form of art, he also believes that words work like viruses; therefore, a writer must build up immunity to words. According to Burroughs, words must not obstruct the structure of the narrative; words must not interfere with the philosophical framework of the novel; words must not be the main focus of the writer, for words work in mysterious ways. Words, then, must convey the message of the writer unto the reader, for that is the function of the word—and the nature of the word as a virus.
The hidden demon remains invisible to most, small and undetectable, until he begins to feed on the soul. Black and grinning, it represents the force within us all that swallows our very souls in slow, malicious bites. It nibbles, drawing out the torch so you do not even realize it’s devouring you alive.
Your body writhes in the pain of junk sickness now, as your shivering, aching body reels itself from the couch. You begin to search for your car keys, wallet, and checkbook, and, knowing that you are about to send you checking account plummeting well into the negative, you also sense relief in the near distance.
You feel your vitality rapidly slip away, but force yourself to climb inside your Dodge Neon and make that 50-mile roundtrip ride to Holyoke. The scene this morning is no different than every other day that came before it for the past year and a half now.
You don’t get high anymore, not on an ordinary day, just unsick. You feel feverish with goosebumps rippling over your body’s skin. Your nose runs and you cannot help but to yawn. Your bones ache down to the very marrow encased inside. Your head pounds like a migraine. You really possess no desire to move or function, but force yourself to seek the noxious powder that makes your symptoms disappear for another few hours.
You seek your own destruction in this menagerie of intoxicating chemicals, while loyalty and lust for your inner obsessions blocks away pain and rationality, from the beautiful beginnings to the euphoric ends. We shall never part, my friend.
Her bedroom is her sanctuary, a place of comfort where she seeks peace and solitude—a place where she goes in order to escape. The walls glisten at dawn, when the morning light shines against the golden texture of the painted walls. Salvador Dali hangs above the headboard of her queen-sized bed, where leopard print sheets sprawl against the mattress.
As night settles a small candle on her bureau shoots starlight across the walls and ceiling. She loves the soothing flicker of the candle’s warm glow as its rhythm asks her to sleep.
Old milk crates line the walls underneath her window, draped in purple fabric and used as makeshift nightstands. To the left sits her desk, used solely for storage purposed, nestled in the corner, remaining in silence yet covered by fifteen years of a packrat’s clutter. Above the desk hangs her artwork—phosphorescence—with a yellow tree painted in the center. Next to that hangs her fractal calendar, pinned to the wall to display a monthly pattern of infinity, spinning endlessly towards the center of nothing.
Her wooden nightstand settled at the right of her bed. Atop a doily rests an end-lamp ornamented by palm trees and chimpanzees. When she was younger, the lamp used to be made of plastic, decorated with a dog and clown whom held a bundle of balloons.
That lamp remains tucked away in her memories.
The average day never seem very normal to others. Her ideal days consist of two simple needs: the need to escape and the need to learn.
Escape means the desire to stop thinking and feeling. To escape from inside her own head requires chemical consumption.
6:00am starts with a line of speed and a handful of pills. She showers, dresses, and goes down the stairs for a cup of coffee accompanied by a joint. By 7:00am, she lights her cigarette and steps into her Ford Escort, ready for the morning commute.
By 8:00am she arrives at school. She smokes one more joint in the fifteen minutes she has to spare before a day of classes begins.
Classes mean little to her for she sits there obliterated. When she finds herself coming down, she walks out of the classroom at random. She descends the staircase and walks into the ladies’ room. She enters the third stall down—the last in the row—and locks the door behind her. She pulls out her kit, which includes two inches of plastic straw, a prescription pill container holding amphetamines, a plastic card, and a lighter. She sits next to the toilet as she crushes up a pill or two before putting them up her nose.
She returns to the classroom in under five-minutes time. Her mind feels refreshed. She has managed to escape from her thoughts, at least for the time being.
The bell rings, and the heard of student migrate to the cafeteria. She goes in the opposite direction of the heard, back to the bathroom for another line and also to smoke another jay, knowing no one will enter the bathroom since they are busy eating lunch.
She has no reason to eat. Food kills the effects of the drugs; food kills the desire to escape.
Lunch ends. She eats more pills to satisfy her hunger. She hears the bell and meanders to the next class. She does not care to learn. She cares only of feeding her hunger.
The final bell rings. The school day draws to an end. She walks to her Ford, thoroughly obliterated, turns the key to unlock the door and then turns the key to start the ignition. The car sounds like it wants to die. She feels like she wants to die. She carries on, driving down the road on automatic pilot. She smokes a cigarette. She smokes another joint.
She arrives home around 5:00pm. The smell of pot roast greets her once she arrives at home. “I’m not hungry,” she tells her mother before retreating to her bedroom—retreating back to her sanctuary for one more moment of escape.
She wants to escape every moment of the day.
I write to escape. I do drugs to escape. I read Burroughs to escape.
I write because I need to release the thoughts from my head. By putting my thoughts into words, I feel free.
I use drugs to escape. My writing and my drug use go hand-in-hand because the two form a perfect unity within my life—a marriage where the child is freedom from the self.
Burroughs simply gives me reason to live. If he could do heroin and still publish close to twenty books in his lifetime, then there is still for an addict like me to write my way out of my addictions.
If my life read like a Burroughs’ novel, then I too might outlive my addictions.
I am not a writer.
I am just an addict.
POST NOTE: The Quote that Started the Paper Writing Process
The word BE in English contains, as a virus contains, its precoded message of damage, the categorical imperative of permanent condition. …Whatever you may be you are not the verbal labels on your passport anymore than you are the word ‘self.’ So you must be prepared to prove at all times that you are what you are not.
4 William S. Burroughs, The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs. Ed. Daniel Odier. New York: Penguin, 1989. Emphasis added.