Rae Bryant, author of the short story collection Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals offers advice for aspiring authors.
Q: What is your method for overcoming writer’s block?
A: I’m a visual person. My undergraduate degree is in Humanities—literature, philosophy, art, music, etc. The visual is a large part of my undergraduate study. Now, if I’m feeling stuck, I rattle my brain a bit with a photograph or painting. Francis Bacon always gets me going. His paintings are a surreal study in the visceral. Sometimes, though, I need the music as well as visual, and so I’ll scroll through favorite artworks while blasting my head with something smooth like classical or something hard like Alice in Chains. I like Hole for this reason, too, as much of my work is what some might call a postfeminist exploration, and I just like the “middle finger” anger in Courtney Love’s voice. It’s saucy and generally makes me excise the angst before writing or play off the angst while writing. Sometimes it’s John Cage or Velvet Underground. “Venus in Furs” sparked an entire short story once. The Ramones, The Cure. Devo’s “Whip It Good” recently added some much needed humor to my sensibility when writing a very dark scene. I try to reach for artwork and music that pushes for another tone than where I’m currently at. Usually, the contrast sparks something of a dark humor and texture, and I like that.
On really difficult days, I’ll visit my favorite museums. I have one for each major city I frequent: NY, the MoMA; DC, the Hirshhorn; Baltimore, the BMA. I will put on my headphones and walk through, only pausing at what strikes me. It is a perfect way for me to unwind myself from whatever tie is stifling me. No matter the collections or exhibitions on display, I can generally fall into something and find a relationship between the art and whatever creative phase I’m in at the time. I guess that’s why I prefer abstract and expressionist art. It leaves room for my interpretation. I have to give the art stories, make it mean something personal. Then I’ll go to the café or diner’s room and eat a lovely meal and drink a glass of wine. All by myself. With someone else doesn’t work. I’ll sometimes write a few words in my journal or read Denis Johnson or Mary Gaitskill. Sometimes, I’ll simply sit and enjoy my wine and think. A museum, on my own, is a perfect creative day, and the quickest way to right my head. But I don’t wait to be stuck, usually. I try to make it routine. Maybe that’s why I’m rarely stuck.
Q: What are your favorite or most helpful writing prompts?
A: Please see answer to question #1. I will say, for me, the more expressionist the artwork, the better it is for prompting me. I often find expressionists use familiar lines and forms in ways that require my recognition but then morph these familiarities into new perspectives. I like this stylization. Fully abstract works can do this, too, but I’ll sometimes engage better with expressionist. Fully abstract is so wide open. It too easily becomes a study in line and form rather than subject/character. As a writer, I like the subject/character rendering and subsequent recognition in expressionist work. Again, Bacon is probably my perfect expressionist. Dark, sexy, mean, vulnerable. His works offend my little girl sensibilities. Beats them right out of me, leaves me in odd and edgy spaces. These are the spaces I like to be in as a viewer, reader, and writer because they are the spaces we can’t discuss in “polite company.” I don’t view, read, or write to be polite. People generally spend too much time being polite or worrying how to be polite, myself included. Polite bores me, artistically.
There are beautiful and revered realist works. I appreciate realist works, but they don’t require my engagement in order to make them complete. They are complete by themselves or mostly complete. I guess an argument could be made that stories can be formed from any visual, but an abstract or expressionist artwork makes me engage on a different level in order to complete the experience. It lets me take whatever turn I want or need to take at the time. And I could very well see the same artwork in a new way only minutes later. This is what excites me and gets me going.
Q: What is the most valuable advice you received as a young writer?
A: "Don’t wait to write your best. Write your best on the first page and better will come next." Or something close to that. The source: Alice McDermott.
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