The Art of Getting Lost

In late May, I co-led a hike and book discussion in the Mt. Hood wilderness for Signal Fire's Reading In Place series. 


During our forest excursion, we discussed The Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit--one of my all time favorite writers.

 In our contemporary scrum of ubiquitous cell phones and GPS, Solnit argues the merits of meandering in the wilderness, for venturing beyond the realm of the known:

Lost 1 bridge.jpg

(After some delicate test trials, we ignored the sign and proceeded.)

When it comes to our creative practices, Solnit claims, we need to make a daily crossing into the realm of the unknown.  Only then do we open ourselves to the unexpected and new. 

That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.
— Rebecca Solnit

Our daylong conversation got me to thinking about my own writing process. Taking the first tentative steps into a rough draft (especially a draft of a book-length work) is akin to intentionally losing one's way in the woods, sometimes for years at a time. Personally, I need to have a rough map of where I'm going. But if I chart things out too carefully, it inevitably shuts down the possibility for unexpected detours, mysterious encounters, spontaneity. 

So much of the writing process, then, is about learning to be comfortable with our disorientation. We have to allow ourselves to disappear into a work, and then slowly puzzle and map our way out.

Solnit quotes Daniel Boone (one of many Nineteenth-century Americans with a radically different cultural concept of wilderness and orientation), who said "I never was lost in the woods in my whole life, though I was once confused for three days."

In The Field Guide, Solnit also refers to the Wintu Indians of Northern California. Under certain conditions of mental stress or despair, members of the Wintu tribe would embark on a long period of "Wandering." The Wanderer shunned villages and society, choosing instead wild, lonely places in mountains and canyons. 

According to Wintu anthropologist Jaime de Angulo, "When you have become quite wild, then perhaps one of the wild things will come to take a look at you, and one of them may take a fancy to you, not because you are suffering and cold, but simply because he happens to like your looks. When this happens, the wandering is over, and the Indian becomes a Shaman."

Metaphors aside, no one wants much wants to get literally lost in the forest.  At the beginning of our hike we discussed what steps to take if you do find yourself disoriented.

The first step, of course, is to stay put.  Surrender to your lostness, and wait for help.

Next: keep yourself focused and occupied, signal for help, and build shelter. 

In terms of our creative practices, then: we keep the pen moving on the page, no matter what. Or we keep our fingers spidering across the keys, despite the panic and regardless of the outcome, in attempt to signal meaning to our readers. In this way, we slowly build ourselves a crooked shelter of words and sentences and stories.

It's in this very place--full of such howling uncertainty and primal darkness--that the discoveries happen, that the wild avails itself.

What the Film Adaptation of "WILD" Got Right

Last night we had the good fortune to catch the Portland premier of Wild (based on the bestselling memoir by Cheryl Strayed).

I have to admit that, as someone who has been pretty deeply disappointed by previous memoir-to-film adaptations, my expectations were moderate.  I kinda had my heart crushed when one of my favorite books of all times, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, was adapted into a mediocre-at-best feature, despite the involvement of some of the best writing and acting talent out there (Paul Dano? Check.  Robert Deniro? Check.)  It goes to show how easily these major projects can go awry.

What bothered me about the film version of Another Bullshit Night was its unwillingness to take many (any?) formal risks with structure or chronology.  The book version was written in poetic vignettes and fractured scenes, with a digressive, nonlinear style.  Flynn's multi-modal themes and narrative lines tend to resonate and accrue, like a well-crafted poetry collection (Flynn is first and foremost a poet).  In fact, Flynn acknowledges in the endnotes that he structured the book based on Moby-Dick--one of the most endlessly digressive, genre-defying, complexly-designed novels in the American canon. But the film version (titled Being Flynn) refuses to venture away from its safe, Hollywood-style linearity; the monolith of its singular narrative pillar unfortunately begins to buckle and sag under its top-heaviness.

It's interesting that Cheryl's book was written in a way that feels quite a bit more straightforward than Flynn's. After all, it's about a 1000-mile hike from Southern California to Oregon, point A to point B, with an inevitably linear arc.  But Strayed is often at her best in poignant flashbacks and memories, which are interspersed with the hiking narrative.

The Wild filmmakers took this flashback/hiking/flashback structure and actually amplified it--way, way past what might be expected--rather than saddling the narrative with a predictable Hollywood arc. 

This is absolutely a mainstream film, yet I found in it a definite experimental quality, especially in the way it allows the past to constantly spill and echo (sometimes literally) into the present.  In his review for the New Yorker, David Denby claims the film version of Wild lacks mystery or poetry.  (He also calls Cheryl Strayed "big-bodied,"--never have I so wanted to smack my hand around the back of a reviewer's wrinkled neck and tell him to mind his fucking manners). Denby's main complaint is with Witherspoon's voice-overs, which I agree can feel slightly heavy-handed at times.  This film would certainly have been more impressionistic had they left out the voiced-over journal entries and passages from the book; it also wouldn't have been as true to the written literary work.  And the film, in my opinion, absolutely does have mystery and poetry, especially in its willingness to play with a stream-of-consciousness visual style.  One repeating image captures Strayed riding across the Steel Street Bridge (?) with her ex-husband.  We receive the scene only in lightning-fast flashes; from the first glimpse we easily glean, almost subliminally, the scene's emotionally strained tone.  The first flashes are completely silent--it's all gesture, facial expression, body language, mood. Only after the third or fourth (or fifth?) flash does the director finally hit the play button on the scene, allowing a shattering argument between the divorced couple to proceed in this culmination of an appropriately shattered plot structure. 

Form mirrors content; mood mirrors form--shit gets seriously wild in the actors' hearts and the editor's room.    

Of course, this is to say nothing of Strayed's endless sincerity and authenticity as a writer--her willingness to risk sentimentality but never indulge in it. The filmmakers capture this quite well--it feels more like a tribute to a particular author (and her mother), than any other film in recent memory.   Strayed writes in a confessional tone (which has even been labled with its own authorial moniker: "Strayedian"), but she's equally skilled with T.S. Eliot's concept of the objective correlative, for instance when she allows an enormous backpack to signify her tremendous weight of grief (without belaboring the point on the page).  It's hard to think of a more emotional plot line, yet her character refuses a truly demonstrative expression of sorrow for nearly 1000 miles, until (spoiler alert) she encounters an angelic young boy, his grandmother, and their pack-llama.  It's a cinematic scene that could have easily lapsed into melodrama, but the film handles it with a light touch, and yes, even grace.  And Jesus, someone give that little kid a fun-meal-sized Oscar award--either that or a Texas-sized chamois to dry the tears of a hundred million movie goers.

There's every chance that I'm too close to the material to have much of an objective opinion here. Years ago, during graduate school, I read the very first kernels of Wild, published in an essay entitled "Heroin/e", in a fairly obscure literary journal.  I was thrilled to meet & work with Cheryl years later, and was present when she gave a powerful reading from unedited sections of Wild during a reading for Certificate Program students at the Independent Publishing Resource Center here in Portland.

Curiously, after Cheryl's reading, I heard one of our students (who was highly uncharacteristic of our students in general), make a snotty remark to the effect of, who really wants to hear about some writer's divorce?

Who, indeed?

As the film continues to open in wide-release in theaters across the country and the world, it'll be interesting to find out.

Report from the Depths

Just back from The Normal School Magazine's 7th anniversary celebration, where Matthew Gavin Frank (author of the wondrous new book Preparing the Ghost) and I both took part in a "Monsters from the Deep" reading.  Thanks to major promo work by nonfiction maestro & Normal School editor Steve Church, we had a fantastic turnout and a seriously lively event.  Steve also commissioned these amazing letterpress broadside prints to commemorate the celebration:

A million thanks to all the Fresno State students and faculty who turned out.  A billion thanks to Steve & Andrea Mele for the huge hospitality, and to Matthew Gavin Frank, who made the trip all the way from Michigan. 

A special shout to Dr. John Hales, a fellow Moby-Dick fanatic, who assigned The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld to students in all three of his graduate and undergraduate creative writing classes this fall. 

The day before the event, Steve and Andria took me on a tour of the legendary Forestiere Gardens of Fresno.  Reminiscent of large-scale public folk art like the Watts Towers, the  Gardens were built by ingenious Italian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere, who carved out a byzantine system of catacombs over the course of forty years, using nothing but a pick axe and shovel.  He also found that citrus trees grew better in the softer soil of his catacombs.  This place was fantastic, and just one of several reasons I want to make more visits to California's Central Valley and the Cascades.


Did I mention that The Normal School is my favorite literary magazine on the planet?  It's the straight-up truth: they publish some of the best & boldest creative nonfiction out there, and they have a damn good time while they're at it.  The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld owes pretty much everything to Steve Church and The Normal School--the project first got noticed by a literary agent after an excerpt called "All I Need Is This Thermos" appeared in a 2011 issue.

Steve is also one of my favorite writers on the planet.  He was like an amiable older brother during grad school. He kept me in line, introduced me to all the cool stuff--in this case, pretty much the entire genre of creative nonfiction. He inspired the hell out of me with his relentless work ethic, fierce intelligence, and ridiculous sense of humor (in a literary manifesto he drafted for our writing group, The Minions, he called for writers to use words like "pants" or "gravy" more often.)

I'm currently reading Steve's fantastic new essay collection, Ultrasonic, which is due out in December 2014:

In my blurb for the book, I wrote, "Ultrasonic is a tale told by a literary mastermind, full of sound and fury, signifying everything."

Seriously, this book is going to rock your world. 

I have the good fortune to interview Steve for the Tin House blog; look for it in mid December.

Thanks again, Mr. Church, and to all the good people of Fresno.

Over and out,


New Acquisition to the Melville Museum

This lovely and somewhat rare edition of Moby-Dick was published by Garden City Press in 1937. The cover features a gold foil-embossed whale tail; a golden harpoon coiled in rope graces the spine. The interior is copiously illustrated by the inimitable Rockwell Kent. We were fortunate to salvage this edition from Powell's Book on Burnside for only $35; it would likely fetch closer to $37.50 at auction. To peruse the online Melville Museum, follow us on Instagram or Facebook, or sign up for our bi-monthly newsletter at the bottom of this page.

The Wild Conceits that Sway Us

Fifteen years ago, I first dove into the immense, dark waters of Melville's masterpiece.

I was surprised how Moby-Dick kept me turning the pages, especially in the beginning. It has all the trappings of a classic adventure story: rollicking action, foreshadowing, bawdy humor. Despite all the darkness, the plot centers around one of the most deep and abiding friendships in literary history (Ishmael & Queequeg). And the language is often brilliant, pulse-quickening, Shakespearean—the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw.

Though I personally loved the digressions and long-winded tangents about the minutiae of whaling, I could understand why many readers give up less than halfway through.

Not one to give up easily, though, I made it through Moby-Dick

I became obsessed with a book about obsession.

More so when I discovered some critical work that compared Moby-Dick's narrative trajectory with Carl Jung's concept of the night sea journeythe dark passages that we all embark on, where we find ourselves floating and directionless, frightened and alone.

At age thirty, I relocated to New York City. With no job prospects, it was both the boldest and the most senseless move of my life. During my three years in the city, I failed to achieve most of my literary ambitions, but I did learn to surf (was there ever a worse way to get ahead in New York?). And, through my new ocean-obsession, I made some of the closest friendships of my life.  

But in the wake of of a painful break-up and a traumatic robbery, I soon found myself on my own night sea journey. 


It was a time during which, to paraphrase Joan Didion, I lost my own life's narrative. 

Without my own script, I clung to Moby-Dick as a kind of postmodern survival guide.  

According to Jungian analyst Edward Edinger, "Moby-Dick speaks so deeply to us today because this state of alienated meaninglessness is so prevalent . . .  In Ishmael's voyage we recognize dimly the state of our own souls."  

The night sea voyage, though always dark, is also transformative, especially in a creative sense.  As the edges of the world slowly came back into focus, a book began to emerge out of the experience.

Writing The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld helped be break through some major creative blocks. I'd tried and failed to write a novel while in New York, but I finally found my voice in creative nonfiction.

I also began connecting with an amazing crew of fellow Melville fanatics—people from all over the country and the world. Back in 2011, some of us organized a 24-hour Moby-Dick marathon reading at Powell's City of Books, here in Portland. As David Dowling writes in his book Chasing the White Whale, "If we are up to the challenge of endurance that the novel poses, especially as it is read in the marathon format, great rewards not only of survival but also of exultation are in order." Over a hundred readers brought the novel breathing to life; there was a palpable sense of communion and connection, like we were all shipmates, pulling oar together through the night.

It was one of the most profound experiences of my life, and it's with that same spirit of communion and connection that I wish to send The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld out into the hands of readersinto your hands.

I hope you'll join me on this journey.

To stay in touch, please sign up for my newsletter on the webform below, or follow me on instagram at melvillemuseum. You can also join my Facebook author page, and contribute your own Melville-related images and writing on the Melville Museum's Facebook page

All best wishes,

Justin Hocking

PS: One of the most gratifying things about about having written Wonderworld is that it seems to inspire people to revisit Moby-Dick. Whether you're taking the voyage for the first or the fifteenth time, I highly recommend you seek out the Modern Library Classics version, featuring copious illustrations by Rockwell Kent (including the images in this post).  It's available at many bookstores and online, usually for $13.00 or less.