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William S. Burroughs on Love

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

“It’s funny that it’s so plain that it’s love that makes the world go round,” Iris Murdoch wrote in one of her magnificent her love letters, “although it’s so very difficult to get it right.” In those rare moments when we’re able — or, rather, willing — to strip away our cynical resistance to sincerity, we can glimpse the plainness of love and relish it as the richest reality of life.

Nothing strips of our self-protective cynicisms more effectively than the approach of death with its inescapable invitation to look back on our days and recognize love as the central animating force that made life worth living. Even William S. Burroughs (February 5, 1914–August 2, 1997) — a writer whose exceptional genius was undergirded by the lifelong darkness of addiction and personal tragedy — reached for the light of love at the end of his days.


In a diary entry from March of 1997, found in Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs (public library)– which also gave us Burroughs on creativity and his his daily routine — he writes:

At 83 just emerging from a stormy adolescence, costly to myself and those around me. Of course, no more nonsense “love” at my old age.

As he approaches the end, he grows all the more intent on disposing of the nonsense and peering into the reality of love. In an entry penned six weeks before his death, he writes:

Sounds sappy, but love is a very definite force, like electricity.

The very last page of his journal, penned three days before his death, read:

Only thing can resolve conflict is love… Pure love.

Love? What is It?
Most natural painkiller what there is.

Complement Last Words with Burroughs in conversation with Tennessee Williams about writing and death, then revisit the advice he gave young Patti Smith, which became a guiding principle in her life.


Civil Rights Legend Rosa Parks on the Meaning of Life

“We are here on earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom.”

“The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately,” Seneca counseled two millennia ago as he contemplated the shortness of life and urged us to live wide rather than long. But the question of how to fill the width of life’s shortness with meaning remains the most perennial inquiry of the human experience.

In 1988, the editors of LIFE Magazine posed this very question before 300 “wise men and women” ranging from celebrated authors, actors, and artists to global spiritual leaders to ordinary farmers, barbers, and welfare mothers. In 1991, they released The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here (public library) — a collection of the responses, illustrated with a selection of beautiful black-and-white photographs from the magazine’s archives that answered the grand question in ways subtle and symbolic.

Among the respondents was the great African American activist Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913–October 24, 2005), celebrated as “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement,” whose historic act of courage and resistance in refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger 33 years earlier had become a major catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Rosa Parks in 1955, the year of her arrest, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background
Rosa Parks in 1955, the year of her arrest, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background

65-year-old Parks writes:

I was born in the South, fifty years after slavery, when racial segregation was legally enforced. I listened to my grandparents talk of their lives as slave children and was aware of the Ku Klux Klan’s activities in our community after World War I. Racial pride and self-dignity were emphasized in my family and community because of the seeming insecurities and concerted efforts of many whites to make blacks feel and act inferior to them. I was, therefore, determined to achieve the total freedom that our history lessons taught us we were entitled to, no matter what the sacrifice.

Echoing Anaïs Nin’s unforgettable assertion that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Parks argues that the wellspring of that dignified freedom is a kind of moral wisdom that sees past our differences and into our shared humanity:

Human beings are set apart from the animals. We have a spiritual self, a physical self and a conscience. Therefore, we can make choices and are responsible for the choices we make. We may choose order and peace, or confusion and chaos. If we choose the former, we may cultivate and share our talents with others. If we choose the latter, we will isolate and segregate others. We can also expand our vision to include the universe and the diversity of its people, or we can remain narrow and shallow and isolate those who are unfamiliar.

To this day I believe we are here on earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom. Differences of race, nationality or religion should not be used to deny any human being citizenship rights or privileges. Life is to be lived to its fullest so that death is just another chapter. Memories of our lives, our works and our deeds will continue in others.

By her own measure, Parks lived a life of extraordinary and enduring meaning, its legacy woven deeply into the very fabric of modern society.

Dive further into the enormously elevating The Meaning of Life with more responses from Carl Sagan, George Lucas, John Cage, Annie Dillard, Stephen Jay Gould, Arthur C. Clarke, and Charles Bukowski, then revisit Viktor Frankl on the human search for meaning, Albert Einstein’s pithy answer to a frustrated young woman’s question about why we are alive, Tolstoy on finding meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, and Martin Luther King, Jr. on enveloping our differences in an ethic of love.


Patti Smith, Umberto Eco, and Other Celebrated Contemporary Authors Offer Their Advice to Aspiring Writers

“Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money… If you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”

For several years, I’ve been compiling an evolving library of timeless advice on writing from more than one hundred of the craft’s greatest masters, dead and alive — authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Neil Gaiman, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and dozens more.

Now, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s Louisiana Chanel offers a bite-sized counterpart of advice to aspiring writers from eleven acclaimed contemporary authors from around the world: Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Alaa Al-Aswany, Herbjørg Wassmo, Richard Ford, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, Lars Norén, Umberto Eco, Patti Smith, Sjón, and Kjell Askildsen. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

Patti Smith, whose most recent memoir remains one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, on maintaining creative integrity, not compromising, and the best advice she ever got, from none other than William S. Burroughs, which stayed with her for life:

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.

Umberto Eco, who has offered his more extensive advice to aspiring writers elsewhere, on working your way up rather than aiming straight for grandeur:

You cannot become a General if you [have not] been before a corporal, a sergeant, a lieutenant… So, go step by step.

Alaa Al-Aswany, echoing Jack Kerouac’s thoughts on whether writers are born or made, on talent and dedication:

You are talented, but you must know that the talent is not the end — it is just the beginning, and you must keep the writing as the most important thing in your life. And whenever you feel that the writing is not the most important thing in you life, you’d better stop writing — because you will never make any difference.

Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, in a sentiment reminiscent of Leonard Cohen on hard work and the creative process, on doggedness as the route to refinement:

The secret of writing is this: Write, write, write, and write again — and you will get it right.

Kjell Askildsen, with all of his 87 years’ worth of wisdom, echoes Steinbeck’s counter-advice and offers:

Don’t take any advice. Write based on who you are and what you’ve learned from the books you have enjoyed the most.

Lars Norén on letting your life speak:

If you want to become a poet, an artist — you can’t fight it. If you want to be that, you will. It’s not about desire — it’s about necessity. There’s no other way.


You have to trust your inner drive, for the disappointments and the efforts are so tough that you must have an inner conviction that this is what you want.

Sjón, calling to mind Maurice Sendak’s insistence on keeping our inner child alive, on the raw material of our individual inspiration:

My advice to a young writer would be that he or she works with he or she is made of, and by that I mean that we should not be afraid of working with the things that fascinated us when we were at our most impressionable… We are all informed by the things that fascinate us and excite us when we are quite young.

Lydia Davis, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s spirited defense of creative integrity over commercial success, on working with love:

Don’t ever cave in to the pressure of publishers or agents… Do what you want to do and don’t worry if it’s a little odd or doesn’t fit the market.

Complement with Seamus Heaney’s words of wisdom to the young, Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Hemingway’s reading list for those starting out, and Jane Kenyon’s magnificent advice on writing, which doubles as some of the finest life-advice you’ll ever receive.


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