I Am in Love with Nick Flynn

Shanhu Lee

I am in love with Nick Flynn. Let me be clear. I have never been in a relationship with Nick Flynn. I have never met him. Nick Flynn doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know my existence on this planet. So naturally, Nick Flynn cannot possibly be in love with me. But I am in love with Nick Flynn. My love for Nick Flynn is not romantic, although it can be romantic in some sense because I am very attracted to him physically too. But more precisely, I am in love with Nick Flynn, literarily and poetically. I do not expect anything from Nick Flynn. I do not have a desire to meet with him in person. I want nothing from him. My love for Nick Flynn is unconditional.

My love story with Nick Flynn started in the summer of 2004 when I was vacationing by myself in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. This was one of the most turbulent years in my entire life,[1] and I needed to go away into nature.[2] I went on this big camping trip, with a yellow tent, a blue sleeping bag, and a pair of brand new hiking shoes, all from North Face. I had done lots of hiking on high mountains in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, and some ice climbing. But always within a group. This was the first time I was doing three weeks of long camping trip all by myself alone.

For the trip, I brought several books and some latest issues of The New Yorker magazine with me. I arrived in Yellowstone and set up my tent and sat down on my new camping chair. I grabbed the latest issue of The New Yorker, and there was a long essay, “Button Man” by Nick Flynn.[3] I did not know who Nick Flynn was. But it immediately caught my attention with this bizarre title. I was so absorbed that I read the entire article in one sitting. After reading, I became restless during the entire vacation.

It was an article about Nick Flynn’s father who was a con-business-man, who considered himself as The Next Greatest American Poet (even though he never wrote a single coherent piece), who was jailed, intoxicated, evicted, and became homeless on the street of Boston. His father was absent from Nick Flynn’s life, since his father had left his mother when she was pregnant with him. While working in a homeless shelter, he unexpectedly reunited with his father when he appeared there as a “guest” one day. Nick Flynn’s mother killed herself after reading young Nick’s notebook where he had written about his mother.

The article was a long excerpt from his forthcoming new memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.[4] This used many different forms, such as poetry, prose, and play, but it read mostly like a poem. I had not read anything like this in such a hybrid form. The writing was beautiful and brutally honest, and it resonated with me instantly. The ever unsettling landscape of New England, which I was familiar with. Endless heartbreaking stories and his painful struggles to survive. Hearing his vulnerable voice at that specific moment of my life, I felt as if I was walking out from long hours of hot Finnish sauna and straight jumping into a dark cold lake. I read “Button Man”, over and over. And I did not see the serene lakes surrounded by pristine forests, the spectacular water falls, and the breathtaking geysers erupting from the mysteriously green basin. I only thought of Nick Flynn.[5]

As soon I got back to Boulder, the first thing I did was google-searched Nick Flynn. I found he was teaching at The University of Houston, and split his time between Houston and Brooklyn. Impulsively, I drafted an email to him:

“Dear Nick,

I just finished reading your new article in The New Yorker, ‘The Button Man’. The article is very beautiful and powerful. I cannot imagine, after going through all of this, you still write. And write well. I am looking forward to reading your memoir.

Best wishes,

Anna”

I wrote this within one breath and sent promptly. Then I realized that I had never sent a fan letter to any author. I did not know what to expect.

Immediately, I drove to Barnes & Noble and asked when the bookstore will acquire Nick Flynn’s memoir. They said it would arrive in six weeks. I counted every day, and on the exact release date, I went back to the bookstore. I asked the help-desk guy in an extremely small voice, “I would like to know if Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City arrived today.

The guy looked at me and said loudly, “Can you speak a little bit louder?”

I said with my normal voice, “Do you have Nick Flynn’s new book, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City? It is released today.” I felt all eyes around me were staring at my face, as if I was some kind of a strange hazardous species.

As soon as I bought one copy, I drove straight back home and finished reading on the same day.

During the following days and months, I learned from the internet that Nick was in a relationship with an actress named Lili Taylor. She looked lovely. The Wikipedia said she grew up in a normal and happy and warm family. Very different from Nick’s own experiences. Of course.[6] There were some photos of them together, and they looked very much in love. This did not surprise me and did not upset me.[7]

Several months later, one day when I was in my office, I saw an email from Nick Flynn. It did not immediately occur to me it was the real Nick Flynn. That Nick Flynn. My Nick Flynn. Then slowly, I realized that it was indeed Nick Flynn, but at the same time, I could not believe it was really Nick Flynn. I had not expected his reply. I did not know authors reply to emails sent by their readers. His email was brief:

“hi anna,

thank you for you note. i rarely venture into my Houston email, so i read this now. i really appreciate your kind words… 

-n”

There was no email signature. But I instantly knew it was Nick Flynn because he wrote every word in lower case as he did in his memoir and his poems. I read the email again and again. I did not know what to do with the email. There wasn’t the slightest trace of hint that he was interested in any further correspondence with me.[8] I was relieved this email conversation was over. I did not want to say anything more to Nick Flynn. All I wanted to say, I could say, was said in my earlier email.

Everything was predictable. His memoir became a best seller, and he and Lili Taylor had a baby girl together, and they eventually married happily. He published new poems in The New Yorker and published more books. And in 2012, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City was made into a movie with the new title, Being Flynn.[9] The movie was well-made, but it was more plot-oriented and failed to capture those delicate emotions and lyrical tones one can only feel from reading a poem. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the movie tremendously.

This spring I went to live reading on Zoom, where Nick Flynn read some passages from his memoir and several poems from his other collections. He looked exactly like I had imagined. Handsome, reserved, a little bit rustic, blue-collared look. But he sounded very different from what I had assumed. The way he spoke was less masculine, even with his coarse voice. He spoke almost like reciting a poem. I wrote on the comment line, “I am thrilled to be here, listening to your reading. In 2004, I read ‘The Button Man’ and I fell in love with your writing.” Again, this was the first time that I commented on anything during a live reading. Nick Flynn did not reply to me. During the Q&A session, I sent out one question, uninteresting and uninspiring, “In your memoir, you have used several different forms, and I wonder how you decide the forms?” After the moderator read out my question along with my name, Nick Flynn answered, “I hoped readers read my memoir as a poem. Before the memoir, I published two books of poetry.” That was all.[10] The zoom ended as scheduled.

I feel Nick Flynn has become one of my old “lovers”. But unlike other lovers who have disappeared from my life forever, one way or another, Nick Flynn seems to stay with me all the time. From time to time, I imagine myself and Nick Flynn. Maybe, one day Nick Flynn would know me and want to talk to me. Maybe, one day.


[1] This was the year I was engaged to my psycho-boyfriend, we planned a wedding together, and eventually, he disappeared two days before the wedding, evaporated from my life. It all happened in the same year, right before my thirty-seventh birthday. Six years later, I heard from his wife that they were never divorced.

[2] Actually, I didn’t just disappear into nature, I disappeared completely from Boulder and got a new job and moved a thousand miles away and restarted everything.

[3] “Button Man” written Nick Flynn, Published in The New Yorker, June 12, 2004

[4] Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Nick Flynn, W. W. Norton, 2004

[5] I did not cry anymore for my psycho boyfriend, and I even almost forgot about him. At some point, I felt my humiliation, sorrow, and regrets seemed insignificant and even trivial, compared to what Nick Flynn had gone through.

[6] In his memoir, Nick Flynn’s father explains about his two marriages: “I was thinking of the children we would have together—it was important what their background was, that they came from culture.”

[7] Actually, I was happy for Nick Flynn. This was really true. As I said before, I was not expecting anything from Nick.

[8] Nick Flynn did not say anything like “let’s keep in touch” or “what is your profession?” or “please feel free to contact me when you are in NYC.”

[9] Paul Dano played Nick Flynn, Robert De Niro his father, and Julianne Moore his mother. Very interestingly, I found that Lili Taylor had a small role in the homeless shelter, which was probably created for her, as the memoir did not have her “character” explicitly.

[10] Nick Flynn did not say, “it is really good to finally meet with you, Anna. I wondered about you since I read your email in December 2004. Are you writing something? Perhaps, we should chat after the zoom.”

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