Why William S Burroughs became a writer

Throughout the history of literature there have been many different reasons for people turning to writing as a means of finding fame and fortune. If he is to be believed, it was a stupid mistake while drunk and drug-crazed that led William S Burroughs to become a writer.

William S Burroughs (1914-97) is widely regarded as a seminal figure in 20th century American literature, being a leading member of the “Beat Generation”. His best-known work is probably “Naked Lunch” which attracted both admiration and condemnation (for supposed obscenity) following its publication in 1959.

He claimed that what turned him into a writer was an incident in 1951 when he shot his wife Joan when under the influence of drink and drugs.

The couple were in Mexico City. William was, in effect, on the run from the United States where he faced drugs charges. His wife, Joan Vollmer, joined him and they planned to stay there for five years until the statute of limitations on his charges had lapsed.

William had agreed to sell his automatic pistol but, on the day in question, the buyer failed to show up. The couple then went to a party at a friend’s apartment, where they drank heavily and William started playing with the pistol. They decided to play a game of “William Tell” in which William would shoot a glass off the top of Joan’s head, but the bullet struck Joan instead of the glass and she died instantly.

William was arrested and bailed, but skipped bail to flee back to the United States.

He was to live with the guilt of this event for the rest of his life, and he claimed that all his subsequent work was an attempt to write his way out of his sense of possession by a force he called his “ugly spirit”.

If he was right, this is surely a case where an important contribution to literature is to be regretted rather than applauded. Even Burroughs would surely have admitted that the world would have been a better place if he had never written another word but his wife had continued to live.


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