When we remember, when we search those images of the past stored in our minds, we many times are not just reminiscing but trying to find some meaning in our reflections. But are we discovering meaning or inventing it?
Do we create meaning from our memories or do we find meaning that was always waiting for us somewhere in the mind’s pictures of our past?
This is the question award-winning poet, memoirist, and University of Houston creative writing professor Nick Flynn wrestles with in his new book The Reenactments, the behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film Being Flynn starring Robert De Niro, Julianne Moore, Paul Dano, and Flynn’s wife Lili Taylor.
On Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Flynn will discuss his book with an expert on the brain and a fellow Houston writer, the neuroscientist, best-selling author and director of Baylor College of Medicine’s Laboratory for Perception and Action, David Eagleman.
Recently, I had a chance to ask Flynn if remembering the past is an act of discovering or inventing and if the question is easier to answer if it’s Robert De Niro playing your father.
The Story Behind the Memoir Behind the Movie
When Flynn was in his twenties, working in a homeless shelter, and still trying to avoid dealing with his mother’s recent suicide, Jonathan Flynn, his con man/estranged father walked in one night looking for a place to sleep.
Years later, sifting through memory, Flynn turned this story into his first memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which was later adapted into Being Flynn.
At the same time, Flynn was taking his own notes about life on a set that was recreating some of the worst times in his life.
Nick Flynn became a consultant and executive producer on the film and again had to sift through memories — but this time because Julianne Moore, playing his mother, had to know what color she should dye her hair, Paul Dano, playing the twenty-something version of himself, was asking if he should wear an earring, and Robert De Niro, playing his father, wanted to meet his real father.
At the same time, Flynn was taking his own notes about life on a set that was recreating some of the worst times in his life. I asked Flynn if it was difficult to both remember and chronicle the past while recording his present life advising on a movie about his past.
“Another Bullshit Night, that was chronicling, going back 10 years, to piece something together that was getting to be a distance memory; whereas, this one [The Reenactments] was immediate, what’s happening at this moment. They’re just both different strategies that are necessary. I don’t think one is better than the other. I think it’s good to have perspective on things. It’s also good to have immediacy,” he explained.
The Brain, Memory, and Glass Flowers
While the memoir gives a fascinating look into the world of a movie set, these scenes of life behind the scenes comprise only a third of the book. Woven into the narrative about the making of Being Flynn are reference to philosophical and scientific theories on the relationship between the brain, the mind, and memory.
The third strand of the book is a description and history of the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s Glass Flower exhibit created by Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolph.
The book is dense with its hefty and diverse subject matters, yet it is not a heavy book to read with many paragraphs framed by half a page of white space.
Early in the writing process, Flynn saw the book, “As this triptych, three panels that would change back and forth: being on the set of the movie, memory and brain science stuff, what it is to be a conscious being, and these glass flowers at Harvard.”
The book is dense with its hefty and diverse subject matters, yet it is not a heavy book to read with many paragraphs framed by half a page of white space. I asked Flynn if his experience as a poet helps to make a relatively easy read out of a book that places neuroscience alongside, glass-making history, and quantum physics discussions, all separated only by half pages of blank paper.
“I think the white spaces are very important. The space in between each section is very important to me for a place for the reader to bring their own interpretation into it, to make their own connection,” he said.
Discovery or Invention?
Which brought us once again to that fundamental question of the book, do we create meaning from our memories or do we find meaning that was always waiting for us somewhere in the mind’s pictures of our past?
“That’s one of the questions of the book: is the world invented or discovered?,” Flynn said.
“That’s one of the questions of the book: is the world invented or discovered?,” Flynn said. “I think I answer that at the end of the book. I say I don’t now. I think it’s somewhere between the two. I agree with mathematician Mario Livio. He says it’s both. You’re discovering the thing that’s out there, but you’re also inventing it by your perception of it.”
Recently at a Reenactments/Being Flynn event in Boston, Flynn and the film’s director Paul Weitz were asked if this memoir about the filming of his memoir could also be made into a movie. “I proposed it to Paul right there in front of everybody,” Flynn recounted. “He didn’t bite though. But why not? If it had the same exact people doing it that would be kind of good. We’d have to have everyone exactly the same to do it though.”
Because really, who else but De Niro could play De Niro playing Jonathan Flynn?