Dear William S. Burroughs,
Each week in ‘What am I meant to do with my time?‘, Christopher Hocking turns to an intellectual figure from the past to see if it can tell him how to live a digitally native life in 2013. Today, it’s the celebrated and chemically-enhanced American novelist William S. Burroughs.
A friend and I were discussing how writing was once not a thing of “discipline” – not a thing where you felt the weight of obligation on you, but rather a thing that could be done for enjoyment in a private moment. In our youth, we would take up pen and paper whenever we pleased and write whatever, then put it down and probably watch an episode of a TV show e.g. Seinfeld. Neither activity would feel more or less pleasurable, more or less a chore. If the writing was ignored for a few days, then who even cares? Nobody was expecting nothing from you. We both took a sip of beer and stared off into space. In the next room, a man with a mohawk racked up a game of pool.
Now in contrast, writing is like an ugly oceanic thing, crawling out of the unknown and sliding across the floor at you whenever you’ve spent too much time ignoring it. Oof. It is the Project crawling up your sleeve, coming in at your ear. You have to excuse yourself from tea to go and work on it, chip away at this bready hump on your back with a pen or with a knife.
When writers are asked how they do the do, again and again the answer comes back – discipline. Make it a habit. Force yourself to write every day. Turn it into a job, a goddamn job. Get up in the morning and put your hands on the keys and don’t let them leave until you’ve written a thing. Have a friend or loved one come in occasionally to check up on you, set a deadline, all the things.
So you set aside time in a day to do it, to chain yourself to the desk or the kitchen table and work. Other rituals fall into place around it – it has to come before breakfast, during or after coffee; it can’t be too late in the day, because then there’s the feeling that you’ve been slovenly, neglectful. Today will not be a good writing day.
If someone tries to talk to you before you’ve attended to it then aaah no I’m sorry I have to go quickly, now, I have this Project slithering around the room of my mind that I simply must attend to. Inspiration knocks once and the door slams shut behind you.
But then, gosh, what about that book that’s perched just so, there, on the edge of the desk? I’m only so far through it and I think there might be some great ideas in there that might INSPIRE me and besides I’m not really feeling v. alert, there aren’t a great many things going on, dull dull and dead in the head. Or maybe a walk first to get a little whatever going – wasn’t there some philosopher who said he didn’t rate any thought that hadn’t come at the end of a walk?
“I shall not rate
Unless it should come
At the end of a walk”
It rhymes and everything, I’m sold, throw the papers on the fire, today isn’t a work day anyhow. There’s too many things in here, too many people, too much talking.
You walk out under the midday sun and feel like, “Yes. This was the right choice.”
I’ve thought a lot about the idea of building an isolation tank that I could climb into – down into, like perhaps beneath the floorboards? – that would just be in total darkness, in peace. Sensory deprivation. I would be free, then, to think. The mind reeling away from itself, pitching into the corners and rebounding. The bigger fish of ideas down there, big shrimp that you can only get to using the deepest, most Roy Orbison-like meditation. I would climb out a new kind of horror, broken clean, split down the middle and exploded, wrapped in a pair of dark Ray Bans. Deconstructed and ready to write a pretty good article or perhaps short story. Maybe even a handful of Tweets.
But then if you get that shot of inspiration in the tank, what do you do? Climb out sodden (I just decided that it could even be in a water tank, so) and go hurrying for a pen? Or worse, what if you feel nothing? You sit in the bird feathers and dust (it could be in a disused chicken coop) and think about how when you get out you’re going to look up that recipe for roasting chickpeas.
(one and a half cups of chickpeas, one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil two tablespoons of honey, one teaspoon of cinnamon, half a teaspoon of ground ginger, an eighth of a teaspoon of salt and a pinch of nutmeg)
I use the Google to look for answers RE: sensory deprivation. Some suggest converting a bath into a sensory deprivation tank, or alternatively taking hallucinogens and sitting in a bath. A lot of the results intrinsically link it with drug-taking, actually, forums bubbling with people talking about building tanks that are basically giant hotboxes.
“Imagine turning a hot tub into a bong”
“Imagine being in a space suit but it is filled with dope smoke”
“Imagine if you could be the stalk of a mushroom”
They do say that every good artist should be steeped in vice? Or at least that is a maxim that I half-heartedly pull out whenever I’m drinking a glass of wine and feel a flush of guilt.
All of the greats were into something or other – Bukowski swimming in beer and wine, Kerouac slipping benzedrine into coffee, Hunter S. in…everything? Stephen King I think had some problems? Layne Staley from Alice In Chains? The list goes on, probably. So romantic! So glamorous! Wired in to the machine (the writing machine), fuming, maddened. Pacing the chicken coop, screaming and howling, pumping out pages of wild, raw prose. But the risk is even greater than the sensory deprivation idea – because what if you invest fully in a drug addiction and have no output? Nothing to justify your new hobby? I spent ~30 dollars buying seeds to grow herbs and a full season later have nothing but a dirt patch to show for it. What does a drug addiction cost a day? What if that cost was being sown in to the barren garden of my mind? Your friends coming in occasionally to check up on you, set deadlines for your withdrawal.
Half an hour passed just now where I become distracted and walked out into the backyard just to check whether maybe something had grown out there, but still no good. Also the shed seems too small/haunted to use for sensory deprivation. I came inside and watched videos of Alice In Chains on YouTube and found it equally as haunting.
And so at a day’s end of having discipline, here I am. Can you discipline yourself into being talented or funny or do you have to wait for that genius hand to strike? Has the experiment worked? Am I a model worker? Am I a philosopher? Is my head filled with junk?
Christopher H., Eastwood, ADL
NEVER HAVE I READ ANYTHING MORE PATHETIC/SELF-PITYING THAN YR. LETTER (06/08/13)
YOU STRIKE ME AS A REAL GRADE-A ASSHOLE
SUGGESTION WOULD BE DROP OUT OF LIFE QUICK SMART
GET THE DOPE ADDICTION YOU DESERVE
BUILD AN 84 BY 28 INCH WOOD ISOLATION TANK AND CLIMB IN
YOU ARE THE KIND OF DANDY BLOW HARD THAT SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED NEAR A TYPEWRITER
HAVE HALF A MIND TO CURSE YOU LIKE I DID TRUMAN
BUT YOU ARE ENOUGH OF A CURSE ON YRSELF
I WOULDN’T WASTE THE BLOOD SACRIFICE
HERE’S TO YOU NEVER WRITING ANOTHER WORD
BARRING A SO LONG NOTE TO YOUR MOTHER
W. S. BURROUGHS
Christopher Hocking is an Adelaide writer who has been published on Scum Mag and rejected by McSweeneys, Voiceworks, Stilts, Bumf and more. He is not good at marketing himself and sometimes wonders if he should have been a boiler maker.
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(Top photo by Prairie Kitten)