In “They’ll Try Again Tomorrow” (Issue 5), Brad Aaron Modlin makes use of surrealist elements and compact, poetic language to voice a collective outcry for escape. In his interview, Modlin discusses his workplace(s), creative blocks, and his greatest extravagance.
Brad Aaron Modlin’s nonfiction, fiction, and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in River Teeth, Denver Quarterly, StoryQuarterly, Indiana Review, Superstition Review, Florida Review, and others. He is a PhD candidate at Ohio University in Athens, where he edits Quarter After Eight. While he has never built a house on the ocean floor, he looks forward to swimming in saltwater every winter, where all you have to do is keep your nose up and float.
How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece? (ex: fast and furious, slow brew, fits and starts). After the first few drafts, I set this piece down for years. When I returned to it, I carried a different sense of irony about the scenario. This unlocked the essay for me, and the subsequent drafts came quickly.
Where do you create? Tell us about your workspace. This essay happened in two different places: 1.) My old closed-off kitchen so small you couldn’t open the door without hitting the card table I ate (and wrote) on. It was the one room that had a heater. 2.) The art gallery where I currently work. Aside from video art, it’s mostly quiet; I like to think other folks’ creativity can rub off on me there.
Who has been influential in your writing/creative work? Why? Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” is an insistent challenge. I write it where I can see it, tape it above my writing desk, and share it with students as a parting gift each semester. It both comforts and shoves me.
One of the best aspects of writing is the fine people it introduces you to. During my MFA, Larissa Szporluk stunned us with her ability to look inside a piece of writing to find what is wants. I still bring Szporluk’s questions to the revision desk now. Conversations with Eric LeMay are always filled with big ideas that stick in my head a long time. My friends Joseph Celizic and Angela S. Gentry-Purdy make me want to write. For years, I’ve admired their work and appreciated how they read mine with both scrutiny and open minds.
What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? I write also fiction and poetry, so if I get stuck on an essay, I jump genres. If I jump fast enough, I land before the cranky editor voice catches up with me. Also, I remind myself that I started writing because I liked it, so I do something playful. My teacher Dinty W. Moore said we should approach first drafts like kids playing with toys on the floor, so I ask myself, “Am I thinking of this as a chore or as fun?”
What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? What titles in particular? Why? Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities is a beautiful book-length lyric essay in reverse chronological order. It and Steve Fellner’s All Screwed Up show how segmentation can energize a memoir. I just loaned All Screwed Up to a nonfiction student, and she in turn loaned it to two friends—each of whom laughed so much she finished it in a day or two. In A Shimmer of Something, Brian Doyle proves that catalysts-for-writing bump into us all the time—a lucky thing for nonfictioneers. I will keep rereading Jenny Boully’s work for a long time. All prose writers can learn from the economy of Amy Hempel’s fiction. And poet J. Allyn Rosser never wastes time on words that don’t carry twice their body weight.
You say that when you have a creative block, you like to do something playful to remind you that you got into writing because you liked it. Can you elaborate more on what kind of “playful” things you do in these times of writers block? When in those creative blocks, I write something that makes me laugh, even if I’m the only one who would find it funny–even if I’m laughing aloud in a quiet coffee shop. Maybe I’ll draft something silly about a refrigerator taking art classes. I won’t deny taking the occasional 80s music dance break, either.
Can you explain why you set this piece down for a few years and what made you want to come back to it? I set the piece down because, though I wasn’t quite happy with it, I thought it had run its course. Returning to it later, I realized–Oh, of course!–it was about more than I had originally thought. And it started crackling again.
We asked Brad to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer. This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? A hammock.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? segue, juxtapose, Well…, additionally, in addition to, nervous, How about you?, hungry, way too expensive, want, Can I borrow a pen?, bread, I don’t know.
What is your greatest extravagance? I go gluttonous over inexpensive, tasty food. Chinese Buffets. Bags of a half dozen day-old donuts from the local shop. When the grocery story gives out free samples, I sneak by the platter three times.
Who is your hero of fiction? Nine-year-old Oskar Schell of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. His creativity, levity, vulnerability, and courage—I want to know him. Or be him. Last summer, I reread The Old Man and the Sea, and I empathized with the character much more than I did in younger days. By the time I am old and dreaming of lions, he also will probably be my hero.
What is your current state of mind? Busy but cheerful in a simple, contented way. Lately and luckily, I’ve been noticing little things to be thankful for—the view of mountains from an airplane; a kind of orange I’ve never tried (cara cara); a coincidence; or a fun album to keep me upbeat while I’m packing boxes.
This interview was curated by Erika Williams, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a creative writing student at Ohio University.