Set Yourself Up to Stumble & Other Writing Tips | Omega

Learn more about memoirist and poet Nick Flynn's writing process, why he's not afraid of terrible writing, and how self-care and mindfulness are built into his writing workshops.

Omega: You start your award-winning book of poems, Some Ether, with this quote from D. W. Winnicott, “It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found.” What does this quote mean to you as a writer?

Flynn: I’d probably ask what it means to you, out of all the things in the book, how you picked it out. A book is only alive by someone reading it, right? So, whatever I get out of it is almost less significant than what you get out of it.

Omega: I think it could sum up the writer’s life, because it is a joy to be in our heads and in our world, and also potentially tragic if no one is reading our thoughts.

Flynn: I'm really fascinated that you translate it into the writer’s mind. It’s really interesting to me. If I gave my view of it, it would seem like that’s the dominant view, and that’s the final word on it—and there is no final word on it. It should remain open as long as possible.

Students often ask me, “What does this line of the poem mean?” And I'll always do what I just did to you. And it’s just because I really think it’s more important.

Omega: In a world where many people on social media are oversharing details of their personal life, where does the art of confessional writing stand?

Flynn: We're probably more in a post-confessional mode, which means it’s still confessional. There’s the New York school and then—what do they call the next New York school? The second generation or the second wave?

I think many of the earlier confessional poets didn't take very good care of themselves. They confessed and painted themselves into a corner, as if their poetry led them into a maze that they couldn’t get out of. I think of Berryman, Sexton, or Plath. I think there are definitely risks to this kind of writing, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Part of the reason I like to teach at Omega is that it’s a place about self-care. It’s a place about how to activate other parts of yourself—not just the trauma that you're going to write into, but also how to build a world around you that actually supports and nourishes you.

You can elevate it not as a means to an end, literally, but as sort of an opening into something larger. I say that as an answer to the question about social media, because I just don’t know if social media deals with all that stuff, really.

Omega: You’ve tackled many personal and challenging topics in your own writing, including a difficult childhood, your mother’s suicide, and your father’s homelessness. What was your process for writing about such trying times and how did you decipher what to keep and what to toss?

Flynn: I was just talking to another friend today who is struggling. He’s a beginning writer and struggling with what he’s writing. He kept saying that everything he writes is terrible. I was saying, “Well, then, it sounds like you're in the right place.”

Ninety percent of everything that I write is terrible. But the whole trick is not to look at the 90 percent; just look at the 10 percent that’s really good.

And then take that 10 percent and try to nurture it and try to expand it, try to find the energy and how you can sort of increase that energy until it has some light to it. The other stuff is still important in that it got you to that 10 percent, in some way.

I can articulate the process a little better now, but I sort of had to find my way to it. In teaching, I get to bring what I've figured out from doing this for a while and say, here’s a quicker way. One of those things is: just don’t worry about the bad stuff. Don’t spend your time trying to make the bad stuff better. Find the good stuff and make that bigger.

Omega: When it comes to writing memoir, what’s the best place for the story to begin?

Flynn: It depends on what you're writing about. Each story has its own needs and will tell you. If you can sit in the presence of it long enough, it will reveal itself.

There’s no one way that any book has to start, and if you think there is one, it’s probably wrong.

My workshop is called “Memoir As Bewilderment,” and it really is not about what you're thinking, or your conscious striving after making the thing. The conscious striving might include a conscious striving after fame or after money or after just getting the truth. Any of those things, are impediments to the writing. I think they are side tracks to it.

Omega: Where do you draw inspiration when you stumble or you feel stuck in your writing?

Flynn: I try to set myself up to stumble. I try to do a purposeful disruption of what I think it’s supposed to be. I try to have some sort of slippage or instability that comes from a grounded place. You sort of ground yourself and then you try to get to the edge of something, and you start to teeter a little bit.

I don’t want to fall, unless that’s what’s required. The point is not to fall into the abyss, but it’s to get to the edge and get as close as you can. It’s risky.

And as far as writer’s block, in my life and in my workshop, we meditate for a little while and write for a little while. It's helps let go of the attachment to what you're creating. It’s just a daily practice.

Writer’s block seems to suggest that you think there’s something that’s supposed to be there. But there’s really nothing that’s supposed to be there, right? And then after a bit, you surprise yourself and think, “Oh, wow—where did this come from?”

Omega: Do you prefer silence when you write or background noise or music?

Flynn: It depends on the stage of writing. In the first moments of generative writing, usually silence is good. But at some point, music slowly starts to drift in, especially some very ambient type of music.

I have bought more than one CD from the Omega book shop, such as Krishna Das or something similar. It can be helpful at very low volumes at the beginning, too. And then slowly, by the end, it’s just full on thrash metal. [Laughter]

Omega: When teaching and working with other people, is there any sort of process or practice that you teach?

Flynn: Omega was where I began introducing meditation into my writing workshop, which is something I do now in every workshop. I teach at the University of Houston and I have my Ph.D. students meditate before they write in the workshop. We meditate for seven minutes and we write for seven minutes, and then we talk about it. In the course of a day, I’ll lead several of these moments and that’s how we build the work.  

Omega: Did you have a teacher that inspired you to start meditating?

Flynn: That’s a trick question! I did so much work at Omega 30 years ago with poet Carolyn Forché, who was one of my first teachers. And shortly after that, I spent a week with Thich Nhat Hanh, the first time he came to America at Omega. I'm very grateful to Omega for that, which is why I come back and teach.

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