- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

William S. Burroughs on Writing, Reading, Language and More


Happy birthday, William S. Burroughs! Here are some quotes from this writer’s provocative writing:


“The word is now a virus.”


“Open your mind and let the pictures out.”


“When you stop growing you start dying.”


“Communication must become total and conscious before we can stop it.”


“The first and most important thing an individual can do is to become an individual again, decontrol himself, train himself as to what is going on and win back as much independent ground for himself as possible.”


“Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.”


“You know, they ask me if I were on a desert island and I knew nobody would ever see what I wrote, would I go on writing. My answer is most emphatically yes. I would go on writing for company. Because I’m creating an imaginary—it’s always imaginary—world in which I would like to live.”


“There is nothing one fears more or is more ashamed of than not being oneself. Yet few people realize even an approximation of their true potential. Most people must live with varying degrees of the shame and fear of not being fully in control of themselves.”


“Most people don’t notice what’s going on around them. That’s my principal message to writers: for God’s sake, keep your eyes open.”




“America is not so much a nightmare as a non-dream. The American non-dream is precisely a move to wipe the dream out of existence. The dream is a spontaneous happening and therefore dangerous to a control system set up by the non-dreamers.”


“A functioning police state needs no police.”


“A government is never more dangerous than when embarking on a self-defeating or downright suicidal course.”


“My characters are quite as real to me as so-called real people; which is one reason why I’m not subject to what is known as loneliness. I have plenty of company.”


“Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape.”


“A chaotic situation is always deliberately produced. Ask yourself who or what sort of creature could benefit from such a situation.”


“Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful—be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”


“What a horrible loutish planet this is. The dominant species consists of sadistic morons, faces bearing the hideous lineaments of spiritual famine swollen with stupid hate. Hopeless rubbish.”


“We intend to destroy all dogmatic verbal systems.”


“I have never known a writer who was not at one time an avid reader. I believe it was T.S. Eliot who said that if a writer has a pretentious literary style, it is generally because he has not read enough books. Some knowledge of what has been done in writing is, I think, essential.”


“Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”


“There is no intensity of love or feeling that does not involve the risk of crippling hurt. It is a duty to take this risk, to love and feel without defense or reserve.”


“Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE.”


“And what does the money machine eat to shit it out? It eats youth, spontaneity, life, beauty and above all it eats creativity. It eats quality and shits out quantity. There was a time when the machine ate in moderation from a plentiful larder and what it ate was replaced. Now the machine is eating faster.”


“A paranoid man is a man who knows a little about what’s going on.”


“This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games. All games are basically hostile. Winners and losers. We see them all around us: the winners and the losers. The losers can oftentimes become winners, and the winners can very easily become losers.”


“The American upper middle-class citizen is a composite of negatives. He is largely delineated by what he is not.”


  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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