Bernadette Mayer.

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.

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BECKY PALAPALA is the author of many unpublished poems, diatribes, and terse letters, which she holds captive in a homely tote bag in her bedroom. The poems that escaped can be found in online publication at Strix Varia, Paper Darts, and in other nooks and crannies of the internet. In 2008-2009, she served as a poetry editor for Ivory Tower. After an iliadic battle with higher education, Becky graduated with a B.A. in English Literature in the spring of 2010. She currently lives with her husband, daughter, and dog on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, where she pines for her rivertown home and attempts to befriend the rabbit that lives in her yard.

88 responses to “Everyday Machinery”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    I’d never heard of her, or this…thanks, Becky, for sharing.

    Here are my two favorites:

    “Rewrite someone else’s writing. Experiment with theft and plagiarism.”


    “A shocking experiment: Rip pages out of books at random (I guess you could
    xerox them) and study them as if they were a collection of poetic/literary
    material. Use this method on your old high school or college notebooks, if
    possible, then create an epistemological work based on the randomly chosen
    notebook pages.”

    The picture, though…I mean, that is you, right?

    • Becky says:

      Ha! Really? I don’t think she looks anything like me. I wish my nose were that dainty.

      And yeah, those two are good examples.

      What struck me is not their tendency to be universally appealing ideas in and of themselves, but the the fact that I had to think about many of them so much that they generated related, but different, ideas of my own. I suppose, theoretically, any writing prompt could do that, but hers are just way more compelling and consistent in that regard.

  2. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Hah! I saw you on top of the tombstone and thought to myself “hey, Becky’s up, shall I go start some trouble?” Fortunately or unfortunately I have a bunch of matters to sweep up before the holiday weekend. Anyway actual comment follows:

    Wow. There is so much of which I’m ignorant in the modern writing world. Don’t know the first thing about writer’s companions, and never even heard of prompts. I do occasionally run into historical anecdotes such as Henry James’s practice of chaining himself to desk during routine writing time, or Flaubert’s exercises for de Maupassant, but that’s about it.

    I must say a great set of prompts seems to come from the cool stuff you were hoping your mother would tell you to do. Maybe I should write a book of prompts with stuff such as:

    “Sneak into a freemason lodge before a meeting and saran wrap all the toilet bowls. Find a good hiding place near the bathrooms to wait with your notebook.”

    • Becky says:

      Meh. I’m exhausted from a long week of arguing. I’m not sure I could have been enticed to do so at this point. I’m ready (and conveniently so, now that my piece is up 😀 ) to get along.

      I thoroughly and absolutely approve of your idea for a list of writing prompts, as long as “unscrew the Christmas lights from the deck rail and throw them at the concrete walk below” is among them.

      I am happy that my piece about prompts that stemmed from a list of prompts which was probably in and of itself a prompt could help to generate such a creative list of prompts.

      Aiiieee!!! My head!

      • Matt says:


        YOU’RE tired of arguing?!

        Holy shit.

        I guess it’ll be Lucifer serving up the snowcones to the kiddies this 4th of July weekend.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        You mean we have a kinder, gentler Becky to look forward to until you use up the glow from this post?

        Hmmmmph! 😉

        Anyways too bad the TNB forums never really seemed to do the trick. That would be a great way to build a stable of “TNB writing prompts”.

        “Forge a press pass and stalk stalk Cameron Diaz for a week”

        • Becky says:

          I am ashamed to admit that I do become quite agreeable at times, independent of my posts here at TNB. It’s not on purpose. Nobody’s perfect.

          The forums…I’ve posted there to no real effect. At the risk of being pegged a WP rabble-rouser, at least part of the problem is that, from what I can gather, there is no good way for non-contributors to register for just THAT part of the community, and TNB contributors don’t seem too interested, potentially because they’ve got enough going in managing the blog/post portion.

          In the end, honestly, I think it just needs to be primed–if enough contributors just started to use it, it would come to life. I’m not sure if people can be bothered, though.

          I’m sticking with the kid theme: “Dig through mom’s dresser drawers; describe contents.”

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I’m ambivalent about forums, but then again nothing’s perfect. WordPress sucks, and we live with it.

          I think it’s a fine balance with some going for the kids themes and some for adult misbehavior, but I’ll join you for one.

          “TP the principal’s house with this: http://gizmodo.com/239300/brain-training-toiler-paper

        • Becky says:

          I feel partially responsible; I advised Brad to try the forum thing. Now I am a chump. Much to my chagrin, it appears that even I cannot be right all the time. It haunts me.

          Brain training toilet paper. What will they think of next? I want some drinking establishment to use it. So when you walk into the bathroom there’s a din of evacuators slurring out colors.



        • dwoz says:

          The problem with the forums is that there isn’t a separate login/user maintenance mechanism for just the forums.

          So if M. Listi wanted to let us hoi polloi in to the forums, he’d end up letting us post all across the site.

          And you know what would happen then. It would be a mess.

    • Gloria says:

      If I’m going to get this book written, I might actually try the chaining myself to my desk thing.

  3. Matt says:

    That’s an interesting list. I’m going to have to study that one in greater detail.

    I’ve always thought the how-to writing books were one of the biggest crock cottage industries in publishing. My family invariably gave them to me as Christmas gifts, and I would always regift them or donate them. They’re either, as you say, “mothers” with practical, uninspiring advice, or lifestyle manuals for people who want to be writers rather than actually write.

    The only two I’ve held onto/refer back to from time-to-time are John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist. Gardner is combative to the point of hostility with the prospective writer, and very blunt about his opinion that writing isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s a craft that demands as much attention, focus, and attention to detail as any other. And AOF contains some of the best fiction writing prompts I’ve ever seen.

    I have to say, I kind of agree with Greg: that photo of Mayer does kind of resemble you. If only it were pulled into a goofy sneer. Or had tiger stripes.

    • Becky says:

      Two things about that photo that I’ve realized since posting it: Her mouth is smirky, kind, and coy. Her eyes, especially, the right (her left) one are like black holes. Some kinda crazy depth there, not sure if it’s working for the good guys or the bad guys.

      The two sides of her face are totally different, too. I’m mesmerized. I can’t figure out what’s going on.

      One thing I had in my discussion of how-to books, which I removed for being political and blustery in a piece that wasn’t really about that, was that I think, in some cases, the writing manual is an easy one-off in publish-or-perish academic culture. It’s a textbook that can also be billed as a non-fiction consumer product, too.

      And hell, if you co-write one…slap that into the CV. Behold my powers of creative collaboration.

      • Sarah says:

        I need to study the photo more but it’s kind of creeping me out at this point. First, I don’t think she looks like you but something about her reminds me of you – like you two would have gotten along swimmingly.

        This photo reminds me of those duck/rabbit, princess/witch, faces/candlestick pictures. You know the ones? Almost exactly divided by the midline, the right side (her left) seems like a picture of a completely different person than the other side. Her left is much more masculine, harder, meaner. Perhaps it’s all a matter of angling, shadows, etc but it’s really freaky. I’ll have to check it out again later.

        And finally, the first thing that struck me was the ratio of wideness of eyes opened to bushiness of eyebrows. It’s rather jarring.

        • Becky says:

          “This photo reminds me of those duck/rabbit, princess/witch, faces/candlestick pictures. You know the ones?”

          Yes. I do know, and that’s it exactly.

          The funny thing is that I asked Palani if it looked like me and he kind of furrowed his brow and said…”Kind of…” then put his hand to cover the non-masculine side and said, “This side more than the other side.”

          I am a mean, macho dude.


    • Gloria says:

      I will say this: I have found inspiration from On Writing by Stephen King and bird by bird by Anne Lamott. I can’t speak to whether or not either of these are good or bad books, or whether or not they’re writing nannies. What I can say is that when I was a very young writer, they inspired me and kept me going – encouraging me to keep writing and providing clear instruction about how to put wind in your own sails, as well as what pitfalls to avoid at the onset of the whole writing thing. I mean, sure now that I’m older and such a polished writer, I clearly need no advice from anyone. But sometimes, when you’re young and you’re trying to figure out if writing is a thing you want to dedicate your life to (though, if you’re a writer, you usually don’t really have much of a choice – like being a redhead or being caucasian) then books that encourage and direct you and speak to you can be quite valuable. And I still own both of these books. They’re like old friends.

  4. Irene Zion says:

    I agree with you about her picture.
    She definitely has a teeny tiny screw out of place a tad.
    Thank you for bringing her to my attention, I had not heard of her before.

    • Becky says:

      She’s kind of neat. In the course of writing this, I came across more of her poems, and they are compelling too. In that sense, I’m glad about the list in more ways than one.

  5. Irene Zion says:

    I should have written more.
    I think I am an anomaly.
    I always have something to say.
    My problem is that I’m too busy.
    (And sometimes I’m too lazy.)
    Probably means I suck, but, hey, I never get writer’s block.

    • Becky says:

      It’s not just about block, at least not totally, for me. It’s also about, as I said, getting tired of the kinds of things I come up with. Like, wondering what other ideas are out there that I’m not generating on my own.

      Experimentation, exploration, etc. Expanding. Being a multiple-trick pony.

  6. Irene Zion says:

    I think that perhaps I am just crazy enough to have the multiple-trick-pony in my head, day and night.
    That is most probably not a thing to admit to on line, eh?

    • Becky says:

      More often than not, just because it’s natural, I speak of my thought processes in terms of arguments between multiple voices. Or there will be indignant interjections from one part of my brain while another is talking.

      Certainly we all have competing and varied interests and ideas, but one person can’t have all the ideas in the world. There is always more, Irene. More! MORE!!!!

  7. Irene Zion says:

    I know. I know. I know.
    I just haven’t run off my mouth enough yet.

    • Becky says:

      Absolutely run until you can’t or don’t want to anymore.

      But when and if you do get there, other people’s ideas are good. And sometimes jarring.

  8. Irene Zion says:

    I understand & I believe you.
    I will print the prompts for future use.

  9. Sarah says:

    Printed and bookmarked. Thanks, Becky.

    Yet another timely TNB post comes to my attention. In just the past few days I’ve been thinking and talking with Dave about starting to write again. It’s been a long time. Pretty much since Olivia was born, which almost exactly coincided with the death of Simon’s The Double Agent site that I was writing for.

    During these 18-ish months, I’ve been going through a lot, probably most writers’ wet dreams when it comes to material, but everything has been so personal for me, too personal for me to put out there. Plus, I keep wondering who the hell would want to read my crap about my life. I’ve found many rationalizations reasons to not write.

    But this list is marvelous. This is my favorite: “Attempt writing in a state of mind that seems least congenial.” I thought about this and it turned me towards thinking about the excuse we all use about not having time to write or being too busy or needing to wait until we can devote serious blah, blah, bullshit, bullshit. Instead of waiting for the perfect set of circumstances, mood and inspiration to hit me, I’m going to start writing, even just a paragraph, when I’m at my most stressed, when the kids are their loudest or when I’ve had only one (horror!) cup of coffee in the morning.

    My brain needs to be exercised and hopefully good ol’ Bernie here will help get it going.

    • Becky says:

      Good ol’ Bernie.

      Writers talk a lot about not writing when the wound is too fresh, when you’re too close to something.

      My feeling is, yeah, it can be detrimental sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write about it. You can write about it and get the demons out–put it in the demon folder–then move towards writing the REAL story-of-what-happened.

      You may even get lucky and find that the cathartic piece turned out okay. It has happened to me before. Bonus! But fear of writing something that isn’t publish-ready is no reason not to write. You know. You have to get moving somehow. If “The cat sat on the mat….and the cat is a dirty motherfucker and I hate him!” is it, then that’s it. Roll with it.

  10. Tawni says:

    Oooooh. I love the writing prompts too. As Sarah says above, printed and bookmarked. Hours of fun. Thanks for sharing.

    I can see a bit of coloring resemblance between you two, but Bernadette’s eyes look a wee bit crazed, and your eyes always look very calm and intelligent to me. xoxo.

    • Becky says:

      Haha! I have mastered the mask!

      Pay no mind to the woman behind the curtain!

      I’m glad other people are finding it fun. I think it’s fun, too.

    • Gloria says:

      Becky’s eyes remind me a bit of the way David Letterman once described looking into Andy Kaufman’s eyes: You look at his eyes and you can tell that someone else is clearly driving the bus.


      • Becky says:

        Is it troubling that this characterization is flattering to me? I mean, even with the Kaufman reference aside?

  11. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    One of my qualifying exams in grad school was “Writers on Writing,” and I thought I’d covered *everything* … but I still didn’t know about this list. Yep, I got a degree in the teaching of this stuff (now ask me if I teach this stuff). Very cool material! And I could use a kick in the pants like your experiment, too. In fiction writing, anyway, I think I’ve come full circle — meaning I’m all the way back to not knowing what the hell I’m doing.

    • Becky says:

      It’s sort of a nice place, I’m finding. Less pressure. I’m happy to take on crazy-face Mayer and say, “show me what you’ve got,” rather than just go, “LangPo is dumb. I don’t believe in that stuff. I haz a manifesto.”


      I have no manifesto. I have a need to write. I’ll take my grist where I can get it.

  12. dwoz says:

    Bernadette looks a little wild in the pic because she’s got a slight case of amblyopia. That upsets the symmetry too.

    Becky, I love your snark and disdain for the ‘companion.’ Bang, spot on. Your image of having to have mom wipe your musclebound ass is exact.

    • Becky says:

      You could just say she has a lazy eye. No need to spend 10 bucks where 2 will do.

      I’m glad you like my snark. I tried really hard for a long time to do writing in a by-the-book (literally and figuratively) way, and found it joy-sucking.

      I’m done with that shit.

      • dwoz says:

        I was told by someone that when I write “…as if you’re too full of yourself and going in for the kill, it approaches readable, and when you TRY to write it’s like watching potatoes boil.”

        that’s a real quote. from this guy, it was a real compliment. Your strength is in being you. And it’s workin’. For me, anyway.

        I just wish “amblyopia” had three more syllables. Sometimes there’s no justice.

        I really like your notion that a bit of writing ABOUT writing has to have some meta-cred. It has to “eat it’s own dog food.” as we say in my business…a bit that talks about performing some credible and engaging writing had damn well better BE credible and engaging!

        That’s a GREAT point.

        • Becky says:

          Man, if being me is a weakness, I’m fucked, right?

          I mean, we all are.

          *pause, think*

          That would be original sin. Or at least one way of thinking about it.

        • dwoz says:

          My understanding of original sin is that its a failure in a test of faith. Putting the self above faith. So yes, merely constructing the sentence that describes personal weakness is prima facie a failing of faith, because it blasphemes the infallibility of faith.

          Mind boggling, how many have died because of that, isn’t it?

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        “No need to spend 10 bucks where 2 will do.”

        That a poet talking? And an Eliot fan? Tsk Tsk.

        Poets are, and should be, the spendthrifts of language.

        Or I guess “polyphiloprogenitive” could have been “fuck-happy”. He’s good enough to mend the scansion.

        Yeah, I suppose you’ll say dwoz was not writing a poem…

        But for me “amblyopia” is more natural than “lazy eye.” Just as “conjunctivitis” has always been more natural than “pink eye.” I guess school age in Nigeria got me more used to actually using medical terms for medical conditions.

        • Becky says:

          I’m not sure what you mean. Wasn’t I advising economy? That’s what I meant to do.

          Of course it’s “where 2 will do.” The easiest way out of this one is just to say that “fuck-happy” would not have done.

          In this case, amblyopia was just obfuscation. And annoying because I had to go look it up.

          “Lazy eye” and “Pink eye” aren’t taught in schools here, either. They’re folk/common names. I learned them at home, as did, I assume, dwoz. There’s no reason why you should have ever learned them in Nigeria. I assume there are different common names for maladies there.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          No, Becky. Everyone says “conjunctivitis” and everyone says “amblyopia”. Sometimes you hear “Apollo” for “conjunctivitis” (folk etymology is that there was quite an outbreak around the time of the Apollo 11 landing), but it’s certainly no more common.

          And sounds like dwoz did you a favor by making you look up a word.

          Finally, who puts prices on words, anyway? I know Fowler, Quiller-Couch, White and co. like to think they do, but I think they’re just wannabe word pimps. All fur, no hoes.

        • Becky says:

          Who cares? I don’t. Dwoz is a grown man. He can defend himself if he sees fit.

          Not going to fight with you Uche. I told you that.

          So. How’s your morning going? Beautiful day here. I’m going out on the boat in a couple of hours. Looking forward to cheap beer, sunshine, good company.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Just turned on Argentina vs Germany. I’ll have folks over later for Paraguay vs Spain. Beautiful day here in Boulder, though it was a crazy night last night as the town seems to have been thoroughly invaded by hordes of revelers. All peaceful as far as I could tell, though.

        • Becky says:

          Just the beginning of a protracted Independence Day celebration?

          The Onion had a brilliant headline yesterday. Something like, “Outbreak of Boring Soccer Game Spoils Gripping Vuvuzela Concert.”

          I’m not a soccer hater, really, but that paper cracks me up.

        • dwoz says:

          My weakness is in being me, but your strength is in being you. I’m a bit like you in some ways, I think…I bristle at “recipe” treatments to things. I hate having people tell me HOW to do something. i.e. “give me a task, clue me in on some pitfalls and caveats you’ve dealt with in the past, but please stay up in the problem space. I’ll wrestle with the solution space, thanks.”

          Somehow, some way, I’m going to manage to convince you that I do not want the five minutes of my life back that I spent reading you…that it was time well spent, that I reaped dividends, and consider myself to be on the better end of that bargain.

          My use of the medical term is indeed driven by personal experience…when my daughter was being treated for that problem (successfully) a couple years ago, the term “lazy eye” had a tone or connotation of “personal shortcoming” that made her upset, so we naturally got used to using the very much more neutral and less judgmental medical term. There’s no use arguing with a young child about semantic loading, after all; once she’d gotten it into her head that “her eye was behaving badly,” it was a losing proposition.

          I also want to say, that while I enjoy tremendously being on the other side of a debate with you, I feel uncomfortable going there when discussing YOUR PIECE. I want you to know that I liked it and I give it heartfelt praise, but I don’t feel good about crossing swords here. This is the spot were smile and just enjoy the fact that we get to do this, together.

        • Becky says:

          Very gentlemanly of you, dwoz. I’d never ask you not to argue with me in my own piece or expect it.

          (At best, I’d just refuse, per current evidence.)

          But I’ve got no problem just deciding to get along, either. I can go either way, most of the time. Unless I’m talking to Richard. In which case, it’s straight for the jugular. Every time. I’ll get him one day, that Richard.

          *shake fist*

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Oh fucking hell. I’d forgotten that this one ended in an outbreak of peace. That explains me wondering for the past couple of minutes “no way I let her actually get away with that, did I?”

          Have another peaceful Sunday…

        • Becky says:

          I never said “Americans only say pink eye.”


          You totally made that shit up.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          You didn’t say literally that “Americans only say pink eye” just as I didn’t say literally in my piece that aesthetics and utility are mutually exclusive, but you think it’s well enough for you to extrapolate from my words, but you don’t think it’s well for me to do the same for you.

          If you were not implying as much then you had no cause to jump on dwoz for using a perfectly fine term, just because you had to look it up. But that is your wont. You like to jump on people at random, but you’re not fond of turnabout.

          You are not the arbiter of pretentious language. You should speak as you choose to speak, and stow your ready judgments of others. And if someone makes you look up a word, I think gratitude is in order.

        • Becky says:

          I didn’t imply it, either. I said Americans learn “pink eye” as a common name. That’s what you’ve got me on. Nothing more. You can admit it or keep up this ridiculous face-saving endeavor, but anyone who reads this thread will see as plainly as you know that I neither said nor implied that “Americans only say pink eye.”

          And I most certainly didn’t go around reporting to other people in unrelated threads that you had said anything you hadn’t.

          Give it up.

          As far as who you think people should thank and for what, you can save that lecture for you children.

          It was a hyperbolic expression of laziness to complain about having to look it up. A sardonic joke. It is literally unbelievable that you care this much about it.

        • Becky says:

          AND, for that matter, it was YOU who went so far as to say (my emphasis), “everybody says conjunctivitis and amblyopia,” which is certainly not true because I don’t say “amblyopia” and neither does anyone I know (save dwoz and, apparently, you), hence my inability to recognize the word.

          Sounds like this is a projection. Your tendency to make impossible generalizations projected onto me.

          And as far as you bizarrely rushing to a grown man’s defense when he sees no reason or need to defend himself, I can only assume that you took something in what I said to him personally. Do you feel like sharing?

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          If you think carefully about it, you might understand that my fundamental point was never to defend dwoz.

        • dwoz says:

          absolutely true.

          He was perfectly ok with my being tossed under the bus. What he really didn’t like was the whole syllable-ninja thing.

          Or should I say, syllable-spartan.

          I am with him on this.

          Castrated words are eunuchs, sterile and impotent. It’s a mutilation.

        • Becky says:

          Hmmm. And all I discover, the more carefully I think about it, is that I care less and less. But it begs the question. Does that make Uche the arbiter of pretentious language arbitration? Policeman of diction police? Give me abreak.

  13. THANK YOU. So pleased to read this.

    • Becky says:


      I live but to please.

      But why are you so pleased?

      • Oh, well, feeling a little, uhm, flat lately (I mean about my writing). That’s the best way to describe it. I’m usually craving time and time and more time to write with so much inside that I want to write. But lately: FLAT. So just reading your post–printing out Bernadette’s list, and staring at that funky photo–all of it got a little spark going. I don’t want to jinx or say I’m all set up now or something. But I SPARKED–I felt it. I’m still writing almost every day. I’m taking the list with me next time–see what happens. I want to get back to just that lost feeling (in a good way lost) where the hours pass and I can’t wait to start again the next day.

        • Becky says:

          Good! I mean, not good that you’re feeling flat, of course, but good that you sparked. Bernadette has some kind of magical power, I’m telling you.

  14. Judy Prince says:

    Thanks for this, Becky. Your explanation itself was freeing, making me feel, as you, that it’s a joyful incitement well worth getting out of bed for. I’m eager to read Bernadette’s list.

    I so connected to your loathing of most lists, and this passage of yours that especially characterised the contrast you feel between others’ lists and Mayer’s list: ” . . . 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.”

    • Becky says:

      That really is its greatest strength. It is, itself, the sort of thing most writers who are blocked or bored wish they could make, in a way. An elaborate show of ideas and creativity. It leads by example, I guess, rather than instruction. It’s a tough thing to explain, but people seem to get what I mean, so I can’t be too crazy, right?

      • Judy Prince says:

        Yes, Becky, I think it leads by example. As you’ve noted, Mayer’s suggestions are out-of-the-box thinking and the free-up that kind of response.

        I’ve gotten as far as the bottom of the first page of her “Experiments”, and she just pops stuff into my brain, letting it hang out. It feels like “Yeah, this is meant for *me*, now, to do.”

        The experiments that popped out just now were:

        “Pick a word or phrase at random, let mind play freely around it until a few ideas have come up, then seize on one and begin to write. Try this with a non-connotative word, like ‘so’ etc.”

        “Using phrases relating to one subject or idea, write about another, pushing metaphor and simile
        as far as you can. For example, use science terms to write about childhood, or philosophic language to describe a shirt.”

        Wow, Dude! Gotta begin!

        • Becky says:

          Cool, right? Magic. We should write her and thank her.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Good idea, Becky. I love getting to know poets. Rodent and I have visited many of them we’ve come to know online, both in the UK and the USA. What fun to be in on their creatings and workings-through of them!

          BTW, yest’day I did manage to rewrite 3 poems to my satisfaction (it took all day), and the freeing impetus began, as it nearly always does, while reading marvelous poems in a friend’s new poetry pamphlet. She had me hopping with her open, live, fresh, wise, brilliant, surprising figures and constructs. She popped me out of my box.

          Getting stuck in a box is pretty common (with me, anyway), because, superstitiously, I suppose, I think that a certain style or syntax or way to create figures or start or end a poem (for me) is *the* way to do it. The box isn’t really thought out or conscious, but it sits like a little hand-slapping editor, shutting off options, killing ideas, preventing movement.

          Maybe having read many of Bernadette’s experiments, I was ready to dump my fussy editor, and just needing to read the work of someone who had done it so beautifully herself as my jumpstart. The poet’s Jane McKie, of KnuckerPress in Scotland, and her new pamphlet’s appropriately called “Jumping Off Points”. Her press always produces fine work in excellent professional form, each a unique “look”, and each one marrying the work of an illustrator with a poet.

  15. Me and writing prompts do not get along, generally, but I’m so blisteringly devoid of ideas lately, I am going to attempt some part of this list.


  16. Gloria says:

    That is an absolutely outstanding list of journal ideas.

    My favorite:

    * Write once a day in minute detail about one thing

    I might do this. If just once. Perhaps today.

    I am truly inspired by this list.

    Everyday machinery: Here’s something most people who don’t have eight year olds may not know – newer microwaves are built with an alarm that will go off when metal is placed inside. You may not believe how useful this can be.

  17. New Orleans Lady says:

    Becky, thanks for posting this list. I’ve seen a few similar but you’re right, this one is far superior. I wish I would have had it sooner. I’m looking forward to playing with some of her ideas so I can get my juices flowing while in a neutral state. I’m an emotional writer, usually, but I’m thinking about expanding my horizons. We’ll see.

    Thanks again! Great post.

    • Becky says:

      Consider it a road trip.

      If you try it and don’t like it, you don’t have to relocate. Can’t hurt anything, right?

  18. New Orleans Lady says:

    PS- everyone is right. You do look like her.

  19. Richard Cox says:

    You said “punditry.” And for that I salute you. I also salute those who are about to rock.

    The first thing I saw when I looked at that picture was you. I see other people thought the same.

    P.S. My jugular is encased in granite.

    • Becky says:

      So there is widespread consensus that I look like a woman I myself declared crazy-looking.

      No way out of that one.

  20. Joe Daly says:

    Becky, this is pure gold. Thanks a million for sharing this list, and for your comments on it.

    I’ve had the same experience with books about writing that you’ve referenced. Lots of talk about discipline, lots of dry observations on the elements of character, plot, etc. Then there are the ones that point towards the business end of writing- agents, the submission process, publication, etc. All of which are valuable, but none of which seem to provide truly practical guidance for writing.

    I wonder if there’s an unspoken understanding that you never tell anyone what to write, because writing should be a deeply personal exercise. Other than in an academic setting, of course, Anyway, I’ve bookmarked the list and will begin to enjoy some of these exercises this weekend.

    Thanks again.

    • Becky says:

      It strikes me that it’s definitely a faux-pas…so many of those books will carry on about great length about how it’s about creating something unique to you, the prompts will just serve as a showcase for your own voice, the point is not to tell you HOW or WHAT to write, etc.

      Theoretically, that’s what such a book, if it were worthwhile, would do, but most fail despite their best (or at least expressed) intentions. That has been my experience.

  21. I’ve never read a writer’s companion book. Well, not properly. I think I once flicked through a best selling one and then put it promptly down. I may be totally wrong, but I think you can learn everything you need to know about writing from simply reading the work of others. It’s certainly the more interesting option.

    Which leads me to wonder why there are so many “How to Write Awesome Novels” books out there… Pretty soon the only books we’ll be publishing are those telling people how to write.

    • Becky says:


      I laugh, but really, that’s increasingly a concern.

      Sort of like how huge portions of the writing world have been consumed by writing about the death of publishing, about the death of hardcover/copy, how to navigate the digital revolution as a writer, etc.

      I wonder what the endgame is on all of that. I don’t expect that fiction/poetry will vanish or anything, just that I wonder if we should expect really bad fiction/poetry from people who have been reading/writing about publishing and the business end of things way more than they’ve been reading/writing fiction and poetry.

      • Yeah, the majority of self-published books are about how to self-publish… Is that really sustainable?

        Actually, I’m not sure if that’s true. I think I read it somewhere, but I might have made it up. Sounds believable, at least.

        And yes, writing about writing seems to be popular these days. I wonder if that’s always been the case… Or if we’re just getting a little more preoccupied with it. I guess one way to stop the death of the written word is just to keep writing about why it is/isn’t happening…

        • Becky says:


          Of course that, then, limits one’s audience to those who care whether it is/isn’t happening, which isn’t a huge demographic anyway–and one that’s shrinking (I think?) to boot.

  22. Zara Potts says:

    I hate prompts. I hate being told what to do. I think I have a problem with authority. I might go and write about it now.
    Sorry I’m so late to the party! And have I said how great it is that you are back here? xx

    • Becky says:

      I have a major problem with authority.

      Which is why I thought it was important to share this list; it’s the only one I’ve found that I don’t get MAD at.

      Fashionably late, Z. You were busy doing cool-person stuff. Totally acceptable. And thanks!

  23. JM Blaine says:

    A former CIA
    psychometrist taught
    me how to diagnose
    mental illness
    via the eyes.
    Bernadette’s pupils
    are a little
    skelter helter

    You made you picture bigger.
    Now I can see
    your sneer.

  24. Simon Smithson says:

    “Rewrite someone else’s writing. Experiment with theft and plagiarism.”


    Dig it.

    Like Greg, I had never heard of her either, and so I’m glad to know her.

    Like Greg, I figured that photo was of you, too. And I’ve met you, so my opinion counts double!

  25. I do bore easily, too Becky. Too easily. Although I’m not sure it pushes me too lethargy. More like anger. I tried to comment on your piece twice now, but that picture freaked me out. Way too intense. Like the girl that clocked me in head with her Hong Kong Phooey lunchbox in third grade.

    Get. The. Fuck. Up.


    • Becky says:

      Oh yeah. The anger is there too. And frustration.

      I wonder if there’s a “Five Stages of Creative Flaccidity.”

      Did you see the pic of her as an old lady? The link I posted for Simon above? From the looks of things, she would STILL happily clock you–or anyone–with a lunchbox.

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