At the writing program I just chaperoned for, one of the getting-to-know-you exercises we used on our first night involved asking each other questions that we had written on slips of paper. One of the questions that really got people thinking was one I’m proud to say I wrote: “When was the last time you were completely lost?” You could interpret “lost” to be whatever you wanted, whether spiritually, geographically or mentally, and some of the answers were very interesting. It made me convinced that everyone, but especially writers, need a time of feeling lost every now and then. Here are a few reasons why you should get lost, how it will help your writing, and how to do it yourself.
Challenge Your World.
Winston Churchill said, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.” That’s a very true sentiment about the way we perceive the world and how much we try to preserve our view of it. To entertain challenging thoughts about religion or politics or other big ideas is frightening, because we might become completely lost in the thicket of confliction notions. If you’ve always believed in a God, for example, you might feel lost if you start wondering whether there really is one. But this kind of wondering is good for you. Your story will not be compelling if it is a smug little lecture on how things are. Readers want the questioning and wondering agony that getting lost entails.
How to get lost in this way: read the religious text of a religion that is foreign to you. Ask yourself why so many people believe in it.
After the jump: two other ways to get lost.
Discover Different Settings.
We spend most of our time in the parts of our neighborhood that are familiar. It might be the one side of your college campus, the one area of your town, or the select few stores we like to visit. It’s rare that we step outside our comfort zone geographically, but it’s crucial to look at a new place with new eyes if we are to describe settings well in our fiction. That can entail getting utterly and completely lost in a different part of town. Absorb what is different and what is the same. Listen to the sounds and note down the sights with keen attention. And experience what it feels like to be unsure of yourself, a fish out of water, lost. If you’re writing about an immigrant, for example, experiencing what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land is essential.
How to get lost in this way:If you always go to the European painting section of your local museum, go to ancient South American art. Go to a new neighborhood, eat a restaurant with unfamiliar cuisine, or take an exit on the highway you’ve never taken before. Don’t be afraid. With cell phones and GPS these days, you’ll always be able to find your way back — you just have to be willing to let yourself go.
The other way we can become lost is in our own heads, in the dark wells of our emotion. We all have a potential for sadness lurking under the skin, but many of us refuse to entertain it, denying that possibility within ourselves. Most of the time that’s a good thing, but if you want to write about sadness, you need to open yourself to the experience. Don’t banish uncheerful thoughts: try paying attention to them, and noting down what they feel like. Don’t let yourself drown in the dark pools, but try taking a quick dip in them.
How to get lost in this way: Meditate on a sad event in your past that you never allowed yourself to grieve about. Let yourself mourn. Pay attention to your own feelings and how they change the way you see the world.
Getting lost isn’t always a bad thing; in fact, as these examples show, it can be an important process for an artist. Don’t always follow the straight and narrow path; allow yourself to stray, wander, wonder, and be open to the possibilities that rush in.