Places you shouldn’t go


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Nick Flynn doesn’t wait for a revelation.

“For me, it’s just like, you do it,” he said. “You just sit, and there’s inspiration all around, and then you allow it to have a container for those moments.”

Though Flynn makes writing sound easy, some consider his topics to be just the opposite — his mother committed suicide when he was just 22, he has seen his ex-con father live homeless in the streets of Boston — and perhaps the hardest part yet, he’s shared all this struggle with the world.

Flynn will read from his most recent memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, in Van Allen Hall Lecture Room 1 at 7 p.m. today. Admission is free. The reading will be followed by a book-signing at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

His new work extends emotions first introduced in his 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, an honest account of watching his failed, alcoholic father being homeless. The second memoir weaves the writer’s personal and political lives, hinging on his parenting fears and on meetings with several Abu Ghraib detainees.

“It became this sort of meditation on the darker impulses I think are in all of us, and this tension came about from the decision to have a child in the midst of that,” he said.

The author said he considers himself a poet first.

“The things you can do in poetry are things that you have to know how to do if you want to write a play, or a novel, or nonfiction,” he said.

UI Nonfiction Writing Program graduate student Cheyenne Nimes said that when Flynn’s first poetry collection, Some Ether, released in 2000, the poetry stuck with her.

“His rare attention to language and genuine fearlessness were early models for when I started writing seriously,” she said.

One poem in the volume, “Bag of Mice,” tells a dream of his mother’s suicide: “I dreamt your suicide note / was scrawled in pencil on a brown paperbag / & in the bag were six baby mice.”

“If it feels like a place you don’t feel you should go, like it feels shameful or it feels painful or it feels just too difficult, I think that really is a subconscious cue saying that’s where you need to go,” he said.

Tonight’s reading will focus on a work of creative nonfiction, a genre that struggles to find its place in both the writer’s mind and on bookstore shelves.

John D’Agata, a UI associate professor of English and a fellow nonfiction writer, said he avoids using the term “creative nonfiction” when talking about it.

“The reality is, however, that everything in this genre has been fashioned out of each writer’s individual perception of the world,” he said. “All of it has been shaped; none of it is purely ‘factual.’ The imagination is as much a part of nonfiction as it is fiction and poetry.”

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and it has been translated into 13 languages. Flynn has received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, and written a play, Alice Invents a Little Game and Alice Always Wins in 2008. He is writing a third memoir based on a film he worked on called Darwin’s Nightmare, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best feature documentary in 2006.

Despite this list of accomplishments, he feels success is fleeting.

“I don’t think you should even think about success or failure,” he said. “Just show up every day. Success and failure are completely out of your hands.”

Now on a nationwide book tour, his achievements — however ephemeral they may feel — are undeniable. But like any author, Flynn went through a phase of feeling uneasy in this title.

“You have to call yourself the thing for years before you actually are the thing,” he said. “You have to go through a very uncomfortable period when you maybe haven’t actually published a book, or you haven’t found your writing voice, but you have to pretend to be the thing before you are the thing.”

However complicated his themes, Flynn said his craft’s purpose is simple.

“That’s our job as writers — to examine places that other people aren’t able to, places they haven’t been able to articulate,” he said. “So it just seems like it’s part of the job description. An electrician makes the lights go on, and the ship captain drives the boat, and it’s just what you do. It’s your job.”

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