There’s just something about the way the type looks when it’s made using a typewriter. The edges of the characters are slightly fuzzy. Sometimes, they don’t quite line up as they should; a single letter can look like it’s resting on an invisible platform, peering out over the rest of the sentence. And you can tell how much effort was exerted from the amount of ink that’s deposited on the page. Allowances are made for these irregularities. You can see the human behind the machine.
As someone who can (almost) remember life before digital publishing, observing a typed letter or manuscript makes me more than a bit nostalgic. Using a typewriter was work: pages of paper to load, ribbons to change, components to oil. Whether it’s done by hand, computer, or typewriter, any kind of act of writing is manual, but the clanking of keys, pushing the platen (that’s the cylindrical roll) back into place—these steps make a user hyper-aware of a typewriter’s manual operation.
That American writer William S. Burroughs used a typewriter to compose his work isn’t surprising, but the fact that he then carved up the pages as part of his creative process is, and the results are so compelling that NYC art space Boo-Hooray (in collaboration with Emory University) has brought a selection of the writer’s radical letters, interviews, books, and records together in the new exhibition, “Cut-Ups: William S. Burroughs 1914-2014.”
Employing the method his friend Brion Gysin discovered while preparing mounts for paintings, Burroughs cut up his manuscripts and rearranged the sections to produce new work. These text collages built upon ideas of temporal and narrative disruption from the Dadaists, enacting different readings of a single text.
Burroughs’ wasn’t precious about his method. “Cut-ups are for everyone. Anybody can make cut-ups,” he said. “It is experimental in the sense of being something to do. Right here, right now.”
He even included instructions: “Slice page into three columns, label them A, B, and C. Rearrange columns into assorted positions. The resultant prose reads like stream of consciousness, forcing the reader to let go of conventional ideas of proper literary form.”
After applying the method, Burroughs’ work takes on a nonsensical quality. The meaning becomes blurred—or is missing entirely. Yes, anyone can make cut-ups, but the challenge is letting go of the tendency to order what’s been written first and to simply revel in the absurdity. It’s also a sure-fire way for a writer to go beyond the bookstore and get their written work into a gallery—how many other authors can claim that?