Here’s a secret: Everyone, if they live long enough, will lose their way at some point. You will lose your way, you will wake up one morning and find yourself lost. This is a hard, simple truth. If it hasn’t happened to you yet consider yourself lucky. When it does, when one day you look around and nothing is recognizable, when you find yourself alone in a dark wood having lost the way, you may find it easier to blame someone else—an errant lover, a missing father, a bad childhood. Or it may be easier to blame the map you were given—folded too many times, out of date, tiny print. You can shake your fist at the sky, call it fate, karma, bad luck, and sometimes it is. But, for the most part, if you are honest, you will only be able to blame yourself. Life can, of course, blindside you, yet often as not we choose to be blind—agency, some call it. If you’re lucky you’ll remember a story you heard as a child, the trick of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, the idea being that after whatever it is that is going to happen in those woods has happened, you can then retrace your steps, find your way back out. But no one said you wouldn’t be changed, by the hours, the years, spent wandering those woods.


(2005) A year after the Abu Ghraib photographs appear I wake up in Texas one morning, in love with two women, honest with neither. I am finishing up my second semester of teaching poetry at the University of Houston, getting ready to fly back to New York, where both these women are waiting for me, or so I imagine. I’d been “dating” for a few years, since the breakup of a long-term relationship, and more than once it had been made abundantly clear that I was not very good at it. For me, “dating” often felt like reading Tolstoy—exhilarating, but a struggle, at times, to keep the characters straight. The fact that the chaos had been distilled down to two women—one I’ll call Anna, the other was Inez—felt, to me, like progress. For months I’d been speaking to one or the other on my cellphone. Her name (or hers) came up on the tiny screen, and each time my heart leapt. It was the end of April. I’d come to the conclusion (delusion?) that if I could just get us all in the same room we could figure out a way it could work out. Another part of me, though, would have been perfectly happy to let it all keep playing out in the shadows.

The book A Field Guide to Getting Lost came out around this time—it is, in part, a meditation on the importance, for any creative act, to allow the mind and body to wander. The title jumped out at me—maybe I could use it as sort of an antimap. Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing…. Another book that came out around this time was Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, but I didn’t pick that one up—perhaps I wasn’t ready not to be lost. Lost, at that moment in my life, manifest itself as feeling bewildered, confused, bereft—it’s not that I didn’t know where I was, I just didn’t know what I was doing there. On a deeper level, I knew that my bereftitude was only partly due to my self-inflicted disasters of love. Beneath that surface tension was the inescapable fact that I’d just crossed the threshold of being the same age my parents had been when they’d imploded, each in his or her own way. My mother had killed herself when she was forty-two, shot herself in the heart. When my father was forty-five, he fell—drunk—from a ladder while painting a house, an accident which may or may not have left him with a permanent head injury. A year later he’d enter a bank and pass his first forged check, the start of a small-time run that would eventually lead him into federal prison. After doing his time, after being released, he’d drift even deeper into this life of wandering, until he ended up living on the streets for a few years, which is where I got to know him.

And now, here I am, waking up in Texas, just past the age my mother never made it beyond, the same age my father was when he went off the rails. The dream I’m having is already dissolving, and I’m left, once again, with my unquiet mind, which for some months now has been straddling these two beautiful women. It has nothing to do with fate, karma, or bad luck.

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NICK FLYNN's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (Norton, 2004), won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir, and has been translated into ten languages. He is also the author of two books of poetry, Some Ether (Graywolf, 2000), which won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, and Blind Huber (Graywolf, 2002). He has been awarded fellowships from The Guggenheim Foundation, The Library of Congress, The Amy Lowell Trust, and The Fine Arts Work Center. Some of the venues his poems, essays and non-fiction have appeared in include The New Yorker, the Paris Review, National Public Radio’s This American Life, and The New York Times Book Review. He worked as a “field poet” and as an artistic collaborator on the documentary film Darwin’s Nightmare, which won an Academy Award for best feature documentary in 2006. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

His new memoir is called The Ticking is the Bomb.

9 responses to “A Field Guide to Getting Lost: An Excerpt from The Ticking is the Bomb

  1. Zara Potts says:

    I’m intrigued to know what happens with the two women….You have whetted my appetite and now I’ll need to go place an order on Amazon.
    Nice to have you on TNB, Nick. Welcome.

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    Welcome aboard, Nick!

    I agree with Zara – I’m fascinated myself, now. Jesus. What a tease!

  3. Greg says:

    Killer excerpt. My wife and I are going to fight over who gets to read this book first.

  4. Welcome Nick. Every time I see a work of yours advertised, I find myself interested. Here’s to success with The Ticking is the Bomb. Enjoyed the excerpt. And the parallel to dating and Tolstoy. Indeed. War and Peace. War and Peace.

  5. Erika Rae says:

    I’m looking forward to reading this book, Nick. How well I relate with the different meanings of “lost”. And now…I want to find out what happened with these two women!

  6. Lorna says:

    Everyone seems to be hanging on cliff with regard to the two women….. But not me, I am more intrigued by how you came to know your Father. Although, I would admit I’m curious about the women too. Now, where is my “Books To Read” list?

  7. Tom Hansen says:

    I was one of the 7 (?) people who saw you read from “Another BS Night…” in Seattle at Elliott Bay Books. Musta been ’05? Anyways…the ‘waking up and finding yourself lost’ thing is part of the human experience, no? For most people luckily it doesn’t last very long. They find the strength in themselves or create the illusion of certainty and they pull out of it. My memoir ‘American Junkie’ is about being ‘lost’ and not being able to find your way out. I should thank you while I’m here. I read ‘Another BS Night…” around the time I was starting my memoir and it was somewhat of a guide for me. That opening chapter is one of the best pieces of nonfiction I’ve ever read.

    I find it very interesting that you are doing another memoir. I had imagined that your next would be a novel. If you drop back in on the blog maybe you can tell us why.

    • nick flynn says:

      hi all, thanks for the comments.

      tom: I’ve never written a novel, and don’t know if I will–I’m fascinated by this non-fiction form right now, the tension inherent in it. good luck with yr book.

  8. Carl D'Agostino says:

    I’m 60. Your brought to mind the Beatles lyrics: “Once there was a way to get back home again…..” That’s because we thought LSD had put us in a different dimension, for better or worse. Unfortunately some are still there. But all that has evaporated for me and I’m not lost. I’m here. I navigate in the now in anticipation of the promise of tomorrow with a map upon which I decreasingly depend as the days evolve flowing on Sidhartha’s river.

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