What I Learned at AWP: I am Not the Star of Anyone’s Life but my Own

March 5, 2014 § 6 Comments

AWP 2014 011

Suzanne Roberts and Richard Blanco

Those who read Suzanne Roberts’ hilarious account of mistaking the poet Richard Blanco for writer Nick Flynn will surely enjoy this follow-up to Suzanne’s embarrassing encounter:

Last year at the Boston AWP, I mistook one writer for another. And since I outed myself on Brevity’s blog, I have learned that this happens at AWP with even more frequency than the name drop. I also learned that if you happen to mistake two writers of the same race, people will call you a racist on Facebook. Lucky for me, I mistook Richard Blanco for Nick Flynn—a Latino for a white guy.

Like we all do, I fretted for a year over my foolish behavior because I didn’t just mistake one poet for another, it was that I wouldn’t let it go, even when the facts before me continued to contradict my error. I was sure that Richard Blanco thought I was a psycho with Turrets who blurted out “Suck City” every chance she got. Maybe he would prepare for this year’s AWP by filing a restraining order against me with President Obama himself?

I was more than a little scared to run into Richard Blanco and even Nick Flynn, who I had never actually met, though for a good 30 minutes, I believed that I had.

I saw Nick Flynn first, and he was with the woman who I had told Richard Blanco was our mutual friend. I felt a weird sort of vindication—See, I thought, Nick Flynn really does know her! We really do have a friend in common, but then I had to remind myself that Richard Blanco was not Nick Flynn.

“I read your story,” the real Nick Flynn said after I introduced myself. “Very inventive.”

“Thanks. But what do you mean by inventive?”

“You must have made that up,” he said. “Didn’t you?”

I shook my head and said, “I’m afraid not.”

The real Nick Flynn laughed and said, “I’m certainly flattered. Richard Blanco is a good-looking guy.”

“So are you,” I said. Our mutual friend, who already knew the story had been true, looked more than a little worried that I might say something else crazy, as I’ve been known to do. So I left it at that and didn’t say a single thing about how I loved City of a Hundred Fires.

The next night, friends of mine offered me an invitation to the VIP party, but it seemed too easy to have an actual invitation, sort of like cheating; plus I don’t feel like much of a VIP, unless of course, VIP stands for Very Inebriated Poets, which at AWP, it does.

So I snuck in. But I had a plan: if I got caught, I would tell the guards I was the poet Camille Dungy, who I happened to know had a bona fide invitation and was on “the list.” If you know Camille, then you already know how very much alike we look. Sort of like Nick Flynn and Richard Blanco.

But faking my identity was unnecessary: I walked past the guards like I owned the place.

And I was in. I could devour as many broccoli florets as I wanted, and at AWP, you never know where your next vegetable is coming from. Most attendees survive on book fair chocolate kisses and off-site party free beer.

I wasn’t even through with my first glass of chardonnay before I spotted him. Would he see me, and alert the guards, maybe have them report me to Obama, thus landing me back on the no-fly list?

I finished my glass of wine and took my chances.

“Aren’t you Nick Flynn?” I asked, trying to be clever. I knew Richard had read my essay because he liked it on Facebook. And I hoped that it had offered some explanation for my otherwise irrational behavior. And didn’t liking it mean he was no longer afraid of me? I couldn’t be sure, but I had to find out.

Richard laughed and gave me a hug. “That was a good one,” he said. I felt a surge of relief at his generosity—I wasn’t going to be manhandled by the guards, at least not this time, which is a very unpleasant experience: one, as you might imagine, I am familiar with.

At that point, Alison Granucci, who represents both Richard and Nick at Blue Flower Arts, introduced herself and said, “Maybe we can have them read together at the next AWP?”

“And I’ll introduce them,” I said. “But I won’t say who’s who. We’ll make people guess.”

“But they never will,” she said. “Because they look so much alike!” She was being ironic here, though I still think there’s a certain two-or-more drinks, too-vain-to-wear-your-glasses, dark bar resemblance between the two.

“You know,” I said to Richard, “I saw Nick Flynn, and he thought I made the whole story up.”

This is where Richard looked at me blankly and said, “Didn’t you?”


“Make it up?” Richard asked.

“Make up what?”

“The story. It didn’t really happen,” Richard said and when I just stared at him, he added, “Did it?”

“You don’t remember?”

Richard shook his head. “I thought you made it up.”

“I’ve been worried for a year about what a fool I made of myself, and you don’t even remember?”

“You said Nick didn’t remember either,” Richard tried.

“But Nick wasn’t there.” I started to think that maybe there was a third writer that I was not yet aware of, one that I mistook first for Nick Flynn and then Richard Blanco. But then Richard rubbed his forehead, as if trying to coax a genie out of his mind and said, “It’s starting to come back. At the last AWP, I was in post-inauguration PTSD. Everything from that time is a total blur.”

“I was beginning to think I had really mistook Elizabeth Alexander for Nick Flynn,” I said. We laughed and parted.

I have always been one of those people who calls or texts everyone the next day after a party, apologizing for something offensive I might have said or done. Just in case. But now I realized how unimportant my foibles are to other people.

My sister recently played an extra in the movie Blue Jasmine. My mother looked for her when she saw the film, but says she never saw her. My other sister says she caught a tiny glimpse of her. Because I’m boycotting Woody Allen, I have not seen the film. But it has gotten me thinking that life is like that—we are all just extras in other people’s lives. Sometimes we flash by; other times, we’re not remembered nor even seen. We fret about the foolish things we have said and done, yet we are the stars only of our very own drama.

Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (Winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four collections of poetry. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. More information can be found on her website: www.suzanneroberts.net

R.I.P., Jonathan Robinson Flynn

November 7, 2013 § 8 Comments

Every once in a while an obituary is itself an intriguing and engaging essay, as shown here, posted to Facebook today by Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.  Notice the voice, the intimate detail, the surprise, the attitude.  Presumably Nick wrote this, though it was not attributed:


JONATHAN ROBINSON FLYNN, the self-proclaimed “greatest writer America has yet produced,” died on a Sunday morning at the end of October in Boston. At the time of his death he was living at Roscommon, the nursing home where he’d spent his last five years of his life.

He was the subject of his son Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which chronicled his father’s life as an absent father, a bank robber, and as a federal prisoner, as well as the five years he lived as what we now call “the working poor,” sleeping in shelters and on the streets of Boston, working day labor. He made it off the streets with the help of several social workers and organizations, including Eileen O’Brien of Elders Living at Home, Jim O’Connell of Health Care for the Homeless, The Pine Street Inn, and many others. His success in getting of the streets is a model for the current Housing First movement, which has the potential to end homelessness in America.

Jonathan Robinson Flynn was born in 1929 in Scituate, Massachusetts, and always had a complicated and contentious relationship with his own father, Edmund Flynn, although Jonathan was proud that his father had, in response to the sinking of the Titanic, invented the life raft—the Titanic only had life-boats.

A ghostly, inscrutable, charming, frustrating, narcissistic, alcoholic, damaged, and damaging presence, Nick Flynn tried to understand his father in nearly all of his writing, especially in the subsequent memoirs, The Ticking is the Bomb and The Reenactments. Jonathan spent most of his life on the East Coast, between New Hampshire and Florida, often working on docks or on fishing boats in order to support his writing and his drinking. While serving time in federal prison it is likely he was subjected to CIA-funded torture experiments, which likely contributed to his later paranoia. After prison, he remained in Boston for the last 25 years of his life.

Being Flynn, the feature film based on Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, starring Robert De Niro as Jonathan Flynn, was released in 2012. Jonathan was impressed with De Niro’s performance, and enjoyed imitating De Niro (“You are me, I made you”) as he taunted Paul Dano, his on-screen son.
At the time of his death Jonathan Flynn remained convinced he would win the Nobel Prize for “both storytelling and poetry.” His one completed novel, The Button Man, remains unpublished. Along with his son Nick, he is survived by another son, Thaddeus, as well as a daughter, Anastacia.

For no good reason he outlived both of his ex-wives.

AWP 2011 / To Tell You the Truth: Strategies in New Nonfiction

February 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

Another report from guest blogger Margaret Kimball, reporting on the panel To Tell You the Truth: Strategies in New Nonfiction at the most recent AWP Conference:

I just left a panel featuring the writers Stephen Elliott, Nick Flynn and Ander Monson, introduced by Graywolf editor, Jeffrey Shotts. Eula Biss, notably the only woman scheduled to speak at the panel, was snowed in in Chicago, alas. Here are my notes, by author.

Introduction (Jeffrey Shotts)
Nonfiction moves beyond reportage into the territory of tangents, dead-ends, errancy and wonder. Just because an essay is pursuing something, doesn’t mean what it’s arrived at is what it’s gained; the form is an alternative to judgment. A question we need to ask ourselves is: do we read nonfiction to experience art or to learn information? An essay, an illustration, a design is fixed in time and space and artifact; the essay is thinking, frozen. A virtual space the viewer/reader can inhabit for a while.

Stephen Elliott
Strategy, part of the title of the panel, implies we as creatives know where we’re going; but strategy only enters the process after the thing is written or made. A filter is a critical utility in order to determine feedback that is helpful from that which isn’t. This relates to aesthetic vision; without a personal vision, you cannot write, cannot make. There are three reasons a person will read a memoir:

  1. Perfect/beautiful/really nice sentences.
  2. Tension.
    This is built while maintaining story and character and narrative. Themes that digress from the narrative can only emerge if enough tension is built. The self is the thing around which the tension and everything else exists.
  3. Honesty.
    This is not about not lying. Lying requires intent but honesty is bordered by self-knowledge…in order to write honestly, you have to evaluate yourself intensely, honestly.

The reader is the most important person, needs to be the first concern of the author. By making characters singular (e.g. only good or only bad), you’re hiding something from the reader. By worrying about someone’s feelings, you’re putting something ahead of the reader. This cannot happen.

Stephen ended gloriously, “I don’t know. I just came up with this.”

Nick Flynn
People hear what they want to hear. They project their needs and desires and lives onto your work. So one of our functions is to create a screen that others can project onto in order to make meaning from their experiences. We are not writing from the soul; instead, we need to uncover our deeper purpose. Why do we cling to the stories we’ve told ourselves? What is behind them? What do the stories hide? The stories are important only as a threshold to cross. Here is the formula (to which he then said, a la Van Wilder, “Write this down.”:

  1. Hear the stories you tell yourself about yourself. The stories you always tell.
  2. Start with a random image and discover its meaning.
  3. Ask yourself what you think you know and how long you’ve known it.
  4. Let the story lose its thread and push further into the unknown.
  5. The point where language breaks down is a useful edge, revealing to us the space between the familiar and the unknown.

The story (the essay, the book) is not about what happens to us but how we perceive what happens to us. The process of writing is more about what we don’t know, is more about discovering the hidden pattern beneath the world. Something happened; some things actually do happen. We need to come up against the reality of the world and perceive them.

Ander Monson
Essays are technologies are designed to handle infinity; they expand and allow us to expand into them, outward from them. They chip away at the stability of the self. What is interesting is the limitless; what is interesting are the limits. The interiors of our brains are the most readily available infinities. Look at Billy Idol’s album, Cyberpunk, album cover which came with a floppy disc and instructions to use with a color Macintosh. 1993.

This is a document of what we thought at one point the future might have been. In other words, this is a document of the way Idol’s brain worked at one point in time; it’s a mind we can enter into. The essay-the text, the form and the white space-are places to study, to imagine, to illuminate the dark spaces of our minds. Through essays we illuminate the world around us, editing it down so facts and ideas get their own tiny spotlights.

From the Q & A
What are other ways to think about tension?

  • Tension can be generated by: waiting for something to happen; between two people in a room (keep them in the room together as long as possible); syntax/diction; the tension between the unknown and the known and how it gets discovered; tension emerging from subject-switching and disconnection.

Any new mediums you’re using?

  • The website for Vanishing Point is used to interact with the text, to undercut what’s happening in the book. There’s a critical element of play important [to the process of discovery]. The web pages constantly erode/modify/self-edit the original; in this way, the web is a performance. (Monson)
  • The written word can be as fluid as the stuff on the web. It can contain a kind of archive of information uncontainable in the book . (Flynn)
  • The Rumpus is a space in which creative energy is spent in writing emails. We pass along information (about the self, about the world) this way. As writers, we have a smaller audience but create deeper connections with them. That’s what this is about. (Elliott)

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