To write in a personal, confessional way you have to feel you’re writing the truth. It’s not about ability at this stage but breaking through to something in our personality, psychology, consciousness – whatever we choose to call it – we feel is where the writing begins from.
I’m going to refer to two radically different writers, William Burroughs and Karl Ove Knausgaard as examples of what a breakthrough is and means. Both Burroughs and Knausgaard broke through to a way of writing that felt true enough to enable them to write. When they did so, the words poured out.
Shitting out values
The big breakthrough in Burroughs’s work came in Tangier in the late 1950s. Holed up in the Hotel Muniria, he surrendered or broke through to another part of himself. Liberated words flowed onto the sheets of yellow legal paper that piled up in his room. He described the process as ‘shitting out my Middlewest educated background once and for all.’
At the end of Naked Lunch, the book that resulted from Burroughs’s break through, he says ‘There is only one thing a writer can write about, what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing … I am a recording instrument … I do not presume to impose “story” “plot” “continuity”…'
(Of course, Burroughs was extraordinarily lucky to have the support of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac who typed up his work and gathered it into one manuscript. Even though they found the material baffling and revolting. So much so in Kerouac’s case that he had horrible nightmares.)
Burroughs’s writing was, he believed, his weapon in the fight against the ‘Ugly Spirit’ that possessed him and caused him to shoot and kill his wife Joan. No wonder he always said he wrote to change reality not to reflect it.
Flaring with shame
I thought about Burroughs when I read these words in an interview with Knausgaard: ‘after 10 years of trying, I sat down one day and wrote a few pages about something that happened to me, something I felt so ashamed about I had never mentioned it to a living soul, and did so using my name’.
Knausgaard goes on to describe the enormous sense of freedom this gave him. But he also describes himself as ‘flaring with shame’. This didn’t stop him writing the six books that make up My Struggle.
Burroughs, too, returned again and again to the terrible shame he felt at disappointing his mother and father, killing Joan and failing to save his son Billy from a tragically early death. (Admittedly, there is rather a lot there to be ashamed of.)
True for who, shameful for who?
One of Burroughs’s mantras was ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted’, which comes originally from Hassan bin Sabbah, ‘businessman, scholar, heresiarch, mystic, murderer, ascetic, and political revolutionary…born in Persia (Iran) around 1034’. For Burroughs, both writing and how we live are about rejecting what is accepted as conventionally ‘true’ and used as a mechanism to keep us under control. By ‘everything is permitted’ he meant we need to find and stick to our own individual truth.
Shame, related purely to how it’s defined by society and religion, can be horribly corrosive and also another method of control. If we want to write the truth, we can’t afford shame.
It is, of course, possible to argue that Burroughs and Knausgaard have simply introjected an external notion of truth at odds with the constricting conventions and forms in which they were trying to express themselves. They convince themselves they’ve broken through because of the psychological pressure they’ve put themselves under in attempting to get to ‘truer’ writing. They find a way forward because they have to.
Simply reading Burroughs and Knausgaard, I don’t need to know precisely how they’ve arrived at ‘true’. But as an example of how to write, the fact that they had a breakthrough and were able to write so powerfully and well inspires hope.
But it's important to remember that Burroughs and Knausgaard worked at their writing relentlessly. To find a way of writing that feels true is only the start. We have to be brave enough to go on and ready to accept whatever we find along the way. But we also have to write, write, write.