Bernadette Mayer will give you ideas
On the late American poet’s irrepressible confident weirdness
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Bernadette Mayer (1945–2022)
Don’t you hate it when a writer describes something as “famous” and you’ve . . . never heard of the thing they’re talking about? This happens to me more often than I’d like to admit, most recently while reading a New Yorker piece on the American poet Bernadette Mayer, who died last November at age 77. The piece, by Daniel Wenger, mentions Mayer’s lectures at the Poetry Project at St. Marks Church, “in which she would combine Dadaism and Curious George and issue her famous writing prompts to students.”
Oops, never heard of ‘em. But I clicked the link and I can see why the prompts are famous: They’re fucking delightful!
There are two categories of prompts here: a list of about three dozen journal ideas, most of them very brief (e.g., “food”; “finances”; “elaborations on weather”; “mail”) and a much longer list—more than four single-spaced typed pages—of “Bernadette Mayer’s Writing Experiments,” which charmed me to no end. A few of my favorites:
Write what cannot be written; for example, compose an index.
Attempt writing in a state of mind that seems least congenial.
Find the poems you think are the worst poems ever written, either by your own self or other poets. Study them, then write a bad poem.
Choose a subject you would like to write “about.” Then attempt to write a piece that absolutely avoids any relationship to that subject. Get someone to grade you.
Set yourself the task of writing in a way you’ve never written before, no matter who you are.
Write a work that intersperses love with landlords.
I don’t normally find writing prompts terribly appealing, but these had a special quality for me. And it’s not so much the individual prompts as the generosity and capaciousness of the overall collection. For a long time, in my writing career, I thought that good ideas were this rare, precious commodity. More and more I think, no, that’s totally wrong—ideas are everywhere, and it’s not so much about finding a good idea for a new work as bringing the right attitude to that work.
Mayer had the right attitude. In a 2016 podcast episode, the writer Rachel Zucker said that, reading Mayer, she feels “emboldened by her irrepressibility, her confidence, her weirdness, her body-ness,” which pretty much nails it for me.
Not all of the prompts are as brief as the ones I quoted above. Here’s a longer one that I loved, and which I suspect could be adapted to any type of creative work:
Write the same poem over and over again, in different forms, until you are weary. Another experiment: Set yourself the task of writing for four hours at a time, perhaps once, twice or seven times a week. Don’t stop until hunger and/or fatigue take over. At the very least, always set aside a four-hour period once a month in which to write. This is always possible and will result in one book of poems or prose writing for each year. Then we begin to know something.
Four hours a month equals one book a year? For Mayer it did—this was a poet who once wrote an entire book of poetry in a single 24-hour period, about that 24-hour period. It’s called Midwinter Day and is considered one of her greatest works. (You can read an excerpt here.)
Reading about projects like Midwinter Day, I’ll admit, there’s a peevish little voice in my head that says, “Oh, yes, well, how nice to be the kind of writer whose books could be so tossed-off and improvisational.” But then another voice says: “Well, why not be that kind of writer?”
GIVE EVERYBODY EVERYTHING
I was reading about Mayer recently because I was trying to write something about her always precarious finances for my book draft (which I got feedback on last week, mostly positive—I’ll share more when I feel ready!). The New Yorker piece I mentioned above had some useful info, but what was really useful was a 2019 podcast episode from The Organist, “Give Everybody Everything: The Financial Life of Bernadette Mayer.” Holy smokes! A terrific listen—highly recommended. The host, Rachel James, asks a question that nagged at me throughout the research and writing of my book draft: “Does this work [i.e. making art] require not being beholden to money?” I think in a way it does—and in another way, um, who is not beholden to money??
THE ENTIRE POINT OF MY NEXT BOOK IN ONE IMAGE
By the brilliant Liana Finck, from her Instagram. She also writeshere on Substack.
CHATTING ABOUT BERNADETTE
There are a bunch of additional Bernadette Mayer quotes and ideas that I wanted to include in the above but didn’t manage to squeeze in. As an experiment, I’m going to try sharing a few of them using the new-ish Substack Chat feature, starting this morning around 7am Pacific / 10am Eastern time. If you want to join the chat, you’ll need to download the Substack app, now available for both iOS and Android. (And you might want to turn on push notifications, so you don’t miss the conversation as it happens.) Hope to see some of you there!
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This was delightful! I'm so inspired by Mayer's prompts. Also, why not be that kind of improvisational writer? Indeed! At the same time, I wonder if the kind of writing we do would work with that method. It's certainly worth a try!
I know Mayer's work through my friend, Bronwen Tate, who wrote a dissertation chapter on her--all about how temporal or spatial containers (like the 24 hr poem you mention) prompt creativity.