The book is called The Reenactments—on one level it is about my experience of a seven-year run which ended with being on the set while another book I wrote (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City) was made into a film (Being Flynn). In some ways The Reenactments—a book about making a film about a book—wrote itself. I say this because making a film is a process which involves a lot of dead time—lights must be moved, cameras set up, lunch—and in this dead time I filled seven notebooks. The seven-year run leading up to this was the time it took for the cameras to start rolling, which is understandable, perhaps, for the book is about homelessness and alcoholism and suicide, but it is also about a father and a son trying to come to terms with the death of a mother. The film reenacts these moments, these events (hence the title), yet it became, in the writing of the book, a meditation on what it means to reenact anything. Or perhaps it questions why anyone would want to, or whether we do anything but reenact every moment of our lives, continually, through this thing called “memory.”
As we were filming, in my downtime, I was reading these books on neuroscience—Damasio, Ramachadran, Eagleman—and what they were saying seemed to line up with what I was experiencing. The neuroscientists refer to consciousness as “the movie in the brain,” that our experience of memory is like “watching a film.” They have located a point in the brain—the amygdala—that records traumatic “flashbulb” memories in a way that is unique to that type of memory. I read how Ramachadran created an experiment to treat sufferers of “phantom limb syndrome,” where he placed the subject into a specially constructed mirrored box, which would reflect his bodies back to him, restored. Where the limb was gone, the intact limb would take its place—this is what the mind would see, the mind that had never been able to comprehend that the arm was gone.
I began to see the film we were making as my own mirrored box, where my mother would be returned to me, if briefly—for some years I’d been lost in a sea of incomprehensibility over her suicide. Once these two panels—the making of the film, the neuroscientists and their talk of memory—emerged, I had a sense of the structure of the whole. I felt it needed to be a triptych, and I knew that the third panel would be something I’d been working on for years—a meditation on an exhibit known as “The Glass Flowers”. Briefly, for those of you who have yet to stand before them, “The Glass Flowers” are a collection at Harvard of just that—a Borgesian dream of every flower in the world, gathered, and then remade, out of glass. I had spent many hours there, in that strange and dusty museum, both as a child and then later—each of these flowers are another type of reenactment.
I don’t know if I am answering the question by telling you all this, the question of why I wrote the book—I’m simply telling you how it came to exist. I don’t think I can say why, beyond the fact that it’s simply what I do at this point—I write. And a big part of that, for me, is being attuned to what is being offered, as I am finding my way through a project. I thought I was reading Ramachadran simply because my wife was reading it and said it was good, and so I was surprised when it seemed to speak directly to my project. The same with “The Glass Flowers,” which I’d been wrestling with for years, trying to make sense of them, of why they are so eerie. Many people asked, while the film was being shot, and now, after, what it was like, to see De Niro as my father. It must have been strange, they say, or it must have been thrilling, or it must have been a trip, or it must have been wild. I have no simple answer to that question, I never did, and so I wrote a book.
Nick Flynn is also the author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and The Ticking Is the Bomb, among other titles. He divides his time between Houston and Brooklyn.
Photo of Julianne Moore from the set of Being Flynn courtesy of the author.