I know virtually nothing about her and neither does Wikipedia. I’ve read only a small bit of her work. I know she’s a poet and that people tend to locate her within the New York School and, more recently, among the Language Poets. I get the sense that she’s a fringe figure. She is not H.D. or Elizabeth Bishop or Gertrude Stein.
Details of her life are difficult to come by, most likely because it isn’t over yet. She lives somewhere in New York, I think.
I love this picture of her as a young woman; I don’t know why. She looks slightly unhinged.
More importantly (at least for my purposes), Mayer also composed a widely available and seriously creative list of journal ideas and writing experiments, which you can see here. The list is an open secret, and despite an embarrassment of books, websites, and writers in general itching to advise others on the best way to get a cursor moving, this list is the best collection of writing prompts I have ever seen.
“Everyday Machinery” comes from one of Mayer’s prompts. I keep saying it to myself in my head. And looking around. And saying it in my head again. I can’t get over it. It’s a mantra.
In my return to writing after a long hiatus, I discovered that, of all the things that had atrophied, my willingness to let myself experiment was the only thing that didn’t come bounding back. If my ear, my voice, my vocabulary, and my technical skills startled awake and lept to their feet ready for a fight (drunken master, maybe, but ready to fight nonetheless), my sense of creative possibility was hung over–pulling the shades against the birds, hurling invectives and nightstand junk at me as I shouted from the doorway to GET. THE. FUCK. UP.
So I did the only thing I could think to do. I dug out Bernadette’s list.
I have trouble sorting out what’s so appealing about it. I have had more than a few writing how-to books–though many had the obnoxious habit of considering themselves writing companions. (I‘m not your buddy, Guy!)
All of these books had sections devoted to writing prompts.
When it came to those books, I was the writerly equivalent of a kid in summer, turning to my mother for ideas about what to do.
We all know, or should know, to never, EVER ask Mom what to do. Because Mom will not say, “Why don’t you go bounce a baseball off the aluminum siding? Why don’t you go jump out of the tree so you can break your leg, go to the hospital, and get presents? Why don’t you steal some matches when I’m not looking and go light things on fire in the woods?”
Mom will never say anything cool. Mom will always say you could go clean your room or brush the dog.
Which, theoretically, you could or even should do, and it would be something, but Mom never seems to understand that those things are boring, too.
It’s not just about doing something, it’s about doing something fun.
So it is with a solid majority of writers’ handbooks and companions. They’re boring, matronly cohorts who just want to sit around and do repulsively dull things all day:
“I know you need to get out of the house, how about we go out to eat?!?! Bakers Square!!”
“I could use some help sorting my pantry!”
“Write a description of the room you’re in!”
I can’t tell you, specifically, what some of the most revolting prompts in the books were because, in a fit, I got rid of most the books. I found them practically useless, uninspiring, not very challenging, and generally depressing. I donated one to my English department’s undergraduate literary journal for use in helping them conduct poetry workshops…which, in hindsight, was probably an act of hostility, if not sabotage.
Sometimes the problem was the overbearing detail with which prompts were presented:
“In this chapter, we will work on _______. Here are some prompts focusing on _______. Write with ______ in mind.”
In other cases, the prompt was simply nothing a person wouldn’t think to do on his/her own and obvious enough to be of no help to anyone. The ubiquitous “dream journal” prompt is a good example.
Perhaps it’s best not to focus on the faults of the writing companion industry. Maybe it’s better to try to suss out what is compelling about Mayer’s list.
Though Mayer’s list does include the suggestion of a dream journal in more than one place, what it does not have is an entire chapter–complete with instructions on where in your bedroom to set your notebook–on dream-journaling. Additionally, it contains a prompt that involves day-dreaming and dreaming in every sense of the word, including aspriations, short and long-term goals, pipe dreams, etc.
Under the suggestion to “Write the unwriteable,” she offers the example, “Write an index.” I have no idea what this means. I’ve seen all kinds of written indices. What is going on? What kind of index would be unwriteable? Like a cross-reference? Write a cross-reference? Of what?
On and on in this manner, Mayer’s prompts range from simple to elaborate and from straightforward to high-theory. They are numerous; they are open to interpretation; they come in both long and short-term. There are suggestions for both prose and poetry (fiction and non) and for both the very odd and the very formal. They can be combined or reduced. One size fits most.
The list in and of itself gives the sense of having been composed with relative spontaneity and potentially even in one sitting, in a free-associative way, with little self-editing and no attempt to explain itself or what each prompt is intended to do or generate. Compared to the formally structured and professionally edited and packaged tendencies of most writing manuals and companions, Mayer’s list seems far more conducive to the state of mind most writers would prefer to be in when they are suffering a dearth of their own ideas. As one might expect from a Language poet’s product, the list is elicitive rather than instructive or declarative, making it potentially the single (most) productive application of LangPo theory I have seen.
(I kid! I kid!)
In that way, what is best about Mayer’s list is that it is organic and cooperative. It encourages organic writing and it seems to stem from organic writing–from Mayer’s own genuine tendencies rather than a spirit of punditry. It is a study in meta-functionality; I think there is a good chance that this list was originally a writing exercise in and of itself. It generated a written product, and here I am reviewing it, generating a written product about generating written products.
But a review was not my intent. I have shared this list with a couple of other writer friends and was surprised to find that very few people have heard of it. I can’t say that it’s one-of-a-kind; there may be other lists out there like it. Some may be just as good or even better. But this is the one I know about, and it raises interesting questions about how we, as writers, exercise (as in practice or “do”) our talents. At some point, it seems to me, if you’re doing all the same exercises all the time, you should expect to become a caricature of natural human form.
Stiff, like the greased-up body-builder guys. All the strength of Hercules but comically incapable of wiping your own ass.
I want to be able to wipe my own ass.
Everyone is different. There is nothing worth denying in that statement. But if, like me, you ever get sick of your own voice or your own ideas or, worse, you don’t have any ideas at all, I offer Mayer’s list as a resource.
For my part, I’m making an investment. I don’t consider myself a particularly experimental writer, so this could be painful. But I do bore easily, and boredom quickly gives way to creative lethargy. So, for a few months (or until I get sick of it), I will let Mayer’s list serve as a tortuous Safety Dance-at-high-volume–an intentional rattling of pans, whirring of the coffee grinder, flushing of the toilet, running of the microwave and leaving it to beep, bounding up (and thundering down) stairs. When it comes to rousting my reticent sense of creative adventure, I will make getting up easier than staying in bed.