See What I’m Saying


First sentence of William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys: “The camera is the eye of a cruising vulture flying over an area of scrub, rubble and unfinished buildings on the outskirts of Mexico City.”

Burroughs thinks in pictures and his books contain a lot of references to film and its techniques.

Starting with “The camera …” Burroughs is diving right in and telling the story as it’s natural for him to tell it, immediately telling what’s in his mind as he visualises it. It’s unconventional. It was written in the late 1960s and even today it is unconventional to cut straight to the visuals in this way.

There’s a lot of “…” in Burroughs’s work. These ellipses tell us how Burroughs’s mind works. A lot of us – I won’t say all of us – think in fragments, the thoughts not really running together but appearing in stops and starts. The continuity of thought is something constructed later, a way of rationalising past experience. We apply logic after the fact. If you want to capture what is happening in the moment, sometimes it’s better to just put down the series of unconnected images as you experienced them, before you tried to make sense of them.

In other words: the camera doesn’t lie. Show what the eye, the camera, sees. Let the reader do the work of processing what they’ve been shown, just like they do in real life with their own experiences.

The camera in the story is not metaphorical: at the end of this first section it’s hit by a bullet and cracks, and falls over so we see the rest of the action at an angle. Burroughs shows the story for what it is: unreal, a fiction. But we knew that anyway. What difference does it make to the story, this revelation at the end?

Burroughs tells the story in the way that suits him best. We might call this his “voice”: immediate, fragmentary, and so on. The reference to the camera might seem puzzling, intruding on the story and even a bit silly. But this device was what gave the story’s author the freedom to tell the story as he chose. He writes as he thinks, putting down as simply as he can the movie running through his head.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

This entry was posted in Beat Generation, books, Literature, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to See What I’m Saying

  1. jamienauthor says:

    Very interesting. Over the last few years I’ve tried my hand at writing fiction. I battle down to the coffee house where I write my initial manuscript even when it’s wet and windy, not because I have a brilliant idea for the next chapter to write but because I have no idea at all what’s going to happen. It’s only by sitting in the familiar surroundings with a coffee and my computer that I begin ‘to see’ what the characters are doing next. So, I agree with that last sentence about how Burroughs writes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leewatkins says:

      Thanks for sharing! I’m glad you found you can relate.
      I realised after reading your comment that the last sentence of my post is ambiguous. I didn’t mean it to mean that Burroughs was making it up on the spot, though I’m sure he must have sometimes (since you have to start somewhere).
      It’s interesting to look at his journals and see how he would work and re-work a small piece of writing to make the thing as simple and natural as he could make it. “He writes as he thinks”: meaning through a lot of hard work he’s able to make the words into a simple and impactful picture, like a newly formed thought. I’m really in awe of Burroughs’s writing, I think it’s exceptional.
      Good luck with your own writing! I’m glad to hear the bad weather hasn’t been stopping you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lily Pierce says:

    Hey, that’s pretty neat actually!

    Liked by 1 person

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