Cut it up.

For children, I think that the act of being creative is similar to having fun or being happy: leave them to themselves, and they just do it.

On Sundays when I was young and bored, I would seek out the gossip page from the TV guide and draw pen lines through the columns. My one, self-imposed rule was that I had to make a break somewhere in each original line of text.


My aim: to make a twisted sense of the text on the column’s left-hand side.

Right of the line, the text was left completely to chance — but these words would often turn out to be more interesting and surreal than the story I had tried to tell.

This activity was designed for my own amusement. I didn’t share it with anyone at the time, and I certainly never thought to use it as art: to my compliant ten-or-so-year-old self, that would have felt like cheating.

As an adult, I realise that seemingly simple techniques can be powerful stimulants for creativity.

Amid the sadness of David Bowie’s passing, his creative brilliance seemed to open out from the internet, and I was excited to discover his “cut-up” process via an old BBC news clip [still available via the BBC, if you live in the UK…].

Bowie used the cut-up, which he credited it to William S. Burroughs, to form songs. The unreal connections enabled him to develop strange lyrical pictures by forcing him to consider the words in different contexts.

Thus today’s writing challenge is my interpretation of a technique from the late William S. Burroughs, via the late David Bowie.

Writing challenge #10: the cut-up.

Start by choosing a page of text you don’t mind defacing–you can experiment with other people’s words (eg. newspaper article; the first-year philosophy text destined not to open again) or  your own (eg. that unpublished novel you have sitting in the bottom drawer).

Next, literally cut it up! Here are a few variations on the theme:

  • Tear the page down the middle and reconnect it several lines out of sync;
  • With a pair of scissors, cut out individual words or phrases that jump out at you. Mix them up and match them to unlikely partners;
  • Fold the page in on itself such that more or less of the central text on the page is missing. The resultant left-right reading becomes your new text. This is a borrowing directly from Burroughs, who cut-up the notion of a cut-up himself;
  • In 1920, Dadaist Tristan Tzara developed a specific methodology for writing poems using cut-up. You can learn all about it, and hear William S. Burroughs’ voice, at Open Culture.

You can turn your mixed-up creation into anything you want — a poem, a story, song lyrics, a novel. It might help to decide on the purpose for your cut-up before you start, but I think it’s more fun to mix it up and let the words tell you what they want to be. Above all, enjoy the process.

Not enough for you? Try the process with two disparate texts. You might try an abstract from an academic paper, for instance, combined with a fashion column.

Have fun with your words,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s