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.