I’d often imagined that my first in-person meeting with Nick Flynn would be brief: the two of us moving slowly beneath heavy and gray San Francisco skies. I expected it might feel like walking through his books—intense, weighted with life’s toughest, most unanswerable questions. His first memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, draws us into a world of homelessness, suicide, addiction, and imperfect reconciliation. His second, The Ticking Is the Bomb, asks how to accept love, raise children, and heal our pasts in a post–9/11 and –Abu Ghraib world. And finally, The Reenactments, his third memoir, chronicles his experience on the set of a movie about his life as Robert De Niro, Julianne Moore, and Paul Dano act out passages from Suck City in the film, Being Flynn. His books of poetry—Some Ether, Blind Huber, The Captain Asks For a Show of Hands—all ask difficult questions and leave us with a beautiful acceptance that there is often no answer at all, that our memories arrange things in ways that may or may not offer closure. There is something about his work that allows us to exhale, to sit in our own messes and be okay.
Nick’s memoirs and books of poetry first came to me at a time when I was left torn apart, hazy, and sick, gutted by a loved one’s suicide and a physical and mental breakdown that lost me a cherished job working with homeless veterans. As I drew parallels between his experiences and mine, his words gave structure and meaning to the emotion that I struggled so desperately to make sense of. They made their way into the parts of me that were the most empty and eventually absorbed into my body like sutures. His contemplation of loss, his searches for (and rejections of) love, his anger toward the world, and the baring of human imperfections and mistakes have all become so personal to me that when I peer back over my own life timeline, I visualize specific passages of his there, cut out and pasted with book covers alongside my most challenging milestones. This is how I remember things. This is how his writing has helped me find sense and to be at peace with the absence of it.
But Nick Flynn—the person, the human that happens to be a brilliant writer, father, husband, friend— does not necessarily walk through the world with a cloak of darkness and pain around him. Full of youthful energy, hilarious anecdotes, refreshingly honest insights about life and how the fuck we are supposed to move through it all, he’s got this presence that could convince anyone that our experiences do not, in fact, have the power to break us. I have so many questions for him. I want the secret to how he’s remained intact. I want to know about his meditation practice, his favorite music. I basically want him to write a personalized guidebook to life, just for me. On this uncharacteristically bright and warm San Francisco afternoon, we spend six hours hopping around the city, discussing memories, meaning, and music.
“For the movie, I had picked so many songs in my head over and over again,” Flynn tells me. “I sent Paul [Weitz, director of Being Flynn] a list of songs. I’d make CDs of them and give them to Paul and the other producers, and it’s funny: I look at them now and they were kind of wrong on a lot of levels. They were more like what Wes Anderson would do with taking songs rather than making a whole score. There is this song by ELO that I love called ‘Telephone Lines.'”
I cut him off. “What? I love ELO,” I say, kind of falling in love with him on the spot. “And ‘Sweet Talking Woman’ is one of my favorite songs ever!”
“I know! It’s so corny but they’re so good,” he says, laughing. “With ‘Telephone Line,’ I just thought about showing these homeless guys’ faces in an opening scene with Dano coming on, with the faces flashing and the song playing. I also really liked songs from the ’80s—songs from the ’80s that I would’ve been listening to. The Minutemen weren’t a Boston band, but that sort of stuff—Galaxie 500, The Liars. It was a great era for music in Boston. We’d always work until about eleven and then go out and drink and listen to music. I went to clubs like every night. It was crazy. I have no idea how I did it, but it was still the best thing to do.”
Now in his early fifties, Nick isn’t staying out late at Boston clubs. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, actress Lili Taylor, and their five-year old daughter, Maeve. With a weekly airplane commute to Texas, where he teaches one semester a year in the creative-writing program at the University of Houston, Flynn is busy parenting, writing, and working on artistic collaborations with filmmakers and visual artists. And though his list of songs didn’t make it into Being Flynn (he lists bands like Spiritualized, Radiohead, and D. Boon of the Minutemen with acknowledgments in The Reenactments) he says Weitz ensured that the film had the perfect score.
“It was totally Paul,” he says. “He worked with Damon Gough on About A Boy, and he went back to [him]. I listened to Badly Drawn Boy’s last album and there were a couple of songs that were really kind of perfect. Damon wrote a few songs, and they put it to orchestration so the whole thing is contained—the whole thing is connected. It’s not a series of songs, but it’s the score through the whole movie that gets repeated through various ways.”
As we sit on an outdoor bench at a Mission District juice bar, an SUV narrowly misses a collision with a bicyclist. Two twentysomething hipsters who seem high giggle near us with their veggie juice blends, and a homeless man stops to ask for change, telling us how he eats up to eight habanero peppers a day to stay healthy. We offer him change as delivery trucks and hybrid vehicles rattle and zoom past us and cross Valencia Street. I’m curious about what Nick listens to now, as his life appears so domestic and calm from the outside. But as a parent, I also want to know how he, as a writer, is raising his daughter with what he’s emotionally inherited from his own parents. When will he show her his books? When will he share his past with her?
“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s up to her to come to it when she’s ready to. One thing is, she’s my daughter. This stuff is already inside of her. She already knows all of this stuff. The book won’t give her any answers, but maybe the situations will hopefully give her some clarity about where she’s from—when she’s ready for it. When I was a kid in second grade, the teacher asked us to bring in our favorite record album and I brought in The Beatles’ Yesterday and Today, and this one kid brought in Hendrix. And even in second grade I thought, That’s a bad idea…we’re too young to listen to Hendrix. I thought, That music’s not for us—manic depression and stuff—this isn’t for us to listen to. And sure enough, bad things happened to him. Too much, too soon. I just trust that she’ll know when she’s ready to read something. I trust her—she’s smart. She’s intuitive and resourceful, and it’s there if she wants to read it or not. I’m certainly not going to read it to her before she goes to bed, you know?”
Only half-joking, I suggest he write a series of parenting or children’s books next.
“Who knows what will come up in the next book? You write what you have to write about. But I don’t think I’ll be writing about suicide and homelessness necessarily. It’s not like I’ve chosen to do that, but I felt like it wasn’t resolved in me or something—it felt like it kept popping up. I don’t think it is ever resolved. I don’t think this trilogy has done that. I’m not sure, but this next book will probably be about something else. There will always be those ghosts hovering around, because they’re in the world. Not just in my world, but all over.”
So much of life seems to be finding a balance between creative expression and life’s complexities: setting boundaries, healing from wounds, paying the bills, falling in love. Most of the balance seems to be learned through trial and error, through making mistakes and reaching back into our memory banks to recall why we shouldn’t repeat those same detrimental habits. To me, Nick seems to have found that balance.
He laughs at this. “I haven’t figured anything out! I think that like anything, it becomes one of your daily practices. You figure out what the things are you struggle with and you develop a daily practice that addresses that. It’s always going to pop up. If you go away from your daily practice for a few weeks, then suddenly you might find yourself in the same kind of situation. You gently turn your life toward something that will help you address this stuff. That’s what therapists are for. They sort of steer you. It’s always surprising.”
Nick’s friend Tom meets us at the juice bar, and the three of us head around the corner to Aquarius Records so Nick can pick out some life-balancing, daily-practice-setting, writing-friendly music for me. Aquarius Records is the oldest indie music store in San Francisco and specializes in all sorts of music, from doom metal to experimental electronica to field recordings to just about everything else you’ll never find in the music sections at big-box stores. I’m eager to take Nick’s suggestions, to see what albums he gets excited about.
The first to catch his eye? Thai Elephant Orchestra, a collection of songs performed by real, live elephants. We both laugh for a minute, but I remain intrigued. “I don’t think we’re cool enough for this store,” jokes Nick as he scours the small store’s music collection, seeking Spiritualized albums to add to my music library.
With no Spiritualized to be found at Aquarius, our attention returns to the elephants.
“I’m going with my gut on this one, you guys,” I say. “Something tells me I need to buy this. It’s some sort of sign.” I buy the recording and promise to send it to Nick after loading it onto my computer.
We leave Aquarius and swing by Nick’s hotel to grab somethings before dinner and a reading. Nick’s hotel key is held by a card with elephants.
“Ah, another sign!” he says with a laugh. “What does it all mean?”
The next week, my email is full of Spiritualized MP3s from Nick. An hour later, my phone beeps through with a text message from him: Are you Spiritualized yet?
Later that day, the third in a trilogy of elephants arrives when I idly follow a Facebook link, a pop-up window, or some other seemingly inconsequential path through the internet:
In Buddhism the elephant is a symbol of mental strength. At the beginning of one’s practice the uncontrolled mind is symbolised by a gray elephant who can run wild any moment and destroy everything on his way. After practising dharma and taming one’s mind, the mind which is now brought under control as symbolised by a white elephant, strong and powerful, who can be directed wherever one wishes and destroy all the obstacles on his way.
I print it out and send it to Nick along with the elephant recording and begin the work of clearing my mind, establishing a daily practice, and placing the image of an elephant in my life’s timeline—several years beyond the Suck City cover. I notice there’s not a gray cloud in sight.