On Getting Lost

“How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”

I copied these words, from the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno, into an otherwise blank notebook about a year ago. The notebook had been blank for quite a while. It was a beautiful, perfect notebook – I had ordered it online after coveting one that a student was using – and I planned for it to be the notebook in which I would begin My Next Book. I didn’t yet know what My Next Book would be. I was on book tour for Still Writing, and traveling a great deal to speak to audiences of writers all over the country. I carried the notebook with me everywhere. The notebook went to Europe. It went to LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, D.C., and New York. I didn’t write a word in it, and I became more and more anxious. Panic began to weave a web around me that kept me isolated from my own internal life. I would get up and give keynotes that inspired writers to get to work – but I wasn’t working, because I didn’t know what I was doing, and if I didn’t know what I was doing, I couldn’t do it.

I had lost all sense of playfulness. Of messiness. Of curiosity. That feeling of discovery that happens when the writer follows the line of words – I had forgotten all about that. If I was going to deface the notebook, if I was going to begin, whatever I wrote – that first sentence – had to be perfect. It had to be a sentence to end all sentences. And so the notebook continued to be blank until a day came when finally, my own despair trumped my lunatic perfectionism.

I doodled a daisy. Literally, a daisy. Like the kind of doodles I used to make when I was six years old. And then I ripped that page out of the no-longer-pristine notebook. After which I wrote Meno’s words.

Getting lost is both the plight and the joy of the artist. David Salle once said in an interview: “I have to get lost so I can invent some way out.” And so I began to get lost. I spent much of the next year on a journey of missteps and wrong turns, all of which I had to make to get to that place of the real work beginning. I have to say, too, that this getting lost cannot be faked. We cannot pretend to be lost. We cannot be quasi-lost. In order to possibly find that way out – in order to discover that thing previously unknown to us – we walk through the pitch-black darkness. We feel our hands against cave walls. We slip and fall. We bruise ourselves, blind to our own path. And maybe we don’t find our way out. But maybe we do.

I’m just back home from two glorious weeks at Hedgebrook. If there’s a heaven for women writers, I imagine it looks exactly like this:

IMG_6624

Buoyed by the presence of six remarkable women, I awoke each morning, built a roaring fire in the wood stove, made a big pot of coffee, and got down to the work of feeling my way through the darkness. Alone my cottage, my next book began to reveal itself to me. It didn’t not ask of me that it be perfect. It did not ask of me that I understand it. It asked only that I attend to it. Slowly, softly, with fortitude. Get lost inside of me, it seemed to whisper. It is the only way.

  • How this post made me weep.”We feel our hands against cave walls.” Such magnificent words.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, lovely friend:)

  • Indeed, “getting lost” is a mental (and physical) place I’ve gone to many times.

    • Danishapiro

      RIght there with you.

  • Thank you for this beautiful post, Dani. The more I’ve lived, the more I’ve come to see just how true this is. It’s indeed the very things we fear, this “getting lost” of sorts, that most allows us to become found. But like everything else I’m learning, how could it be otherwise? You never cease to inspire me!

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Jane! And I’m so glad you’ve had the chance to experience that magical place for yourself:)

  • Vicki Mayk

    Thank you so much, Dani. For these words were exactly what I wanted to read today. What I NEEDED to read today. I am going to a writing residency for the first two weeks of July. I’ll carry this post with me.

    • Danishapiro

      Enjoy your residency! Each day I told myself: modest goals. It helped to take the pressure off.

  • Angie Stegall

    This makes me sigh with pleasure. It IS in the getting lost and flailing about where I find a way – a new way, hopefully. I’m discovering there’s magic in slowing down. In stopping. In honoring what happens in the silence. There’s no first word or sentence for me to write until I make space for the silence. Thank you, Dani, for this reminder.

    • Danishapiro

      I’m glad it resonated, Angie.

  • Yes, I love this. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, which includes the missteps and the way back. That retreat looks incredible!

    • Danishapiro

      You’re so welcome, Dana. And yes, Hedgebrook is magical.

  • Carole Eilenberg

    So it appears, the empty book you so coveted was waiting for you to fill up.

    • Danishapiro

      :))

  • Sheri

    I have read your books, Dani, and I love them. What you just wrote woke me up inside. I am not a writer. I am a fabric artist with a house full of fabric. I have not been able to create anything in a long while because I did not know what it was I was going to create, wanted to create, or how it would look when it was finished. Now I see that is my ego trying to be the artist, take control of the project, assume the role of director and master. No wonder I don’t sew. There is no room for the muse. I can’t even find the muse. Your story told me of a way of just picking up a piece of fabric, totally lost, and trying to find my way to a creation. Trusting, letting the piece reveal itself to me, not me imposing myself upon it. Listening to the unmanifested piece and attending to it. “Slowly, softly, with fortitude.” Thank you for this new way of looking at going about life and creation.

    • Danishapiro

      Oh, this is music to my ears, Sheri. I love when my words resonate with artists in other disciplines. Thanks.

  • Lauren Carter

    Thank you for this. What I find so interesting about getting lost, about following the line wherever it leads, is that if I let it, my instinct will guide me. Sometimes I don’t realize it at the time but out of that writing-trance of not knowing what will happen next emerges a deeper truth than I could ever have consciously “made up.” It’s magic – and therefore essential to deep creation.

    • Danishapiro

      Precisely. Thanks.

  • Looks like heaven to me! I love the idea about getting lost in order to get find your way out. Happy for you!

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Hallie:)

  • As I both anxiously and excitedly await the beginning of my Hedgebrook retreat in less than a week, your words calm me. Thank you!

    • Danishapiro

      I’ll be thinking of you in your cottage, tending to the wood burning stove, Elizabeth.

  • Patricia Dolan

    Heaven is reading Dani’s words this Thursday morning…..

    • Danishapiro

      :)))

  • This is so perfect, and a great comfort to remember, especially in the bruised and blind stage. Many thanks to you, dear Dani. (PS there appear to be typos in the last para “Alone (in) my cottage..” and “It didn’t not ask of me….”)

    • Danishapiro

      Oy, typos. Thanks for letting me know. I’m glad it resonated.

  • Jess Campbell

    “It asked only that I attend to it.” THIS is exactly what has been in my head for almost a year now. Thank you, Dani, for saying these words and allowing my thoughts to finally have shape and come out. 🙂 p.s. I’m applying to Hedgebrook for 2016 residency…

    • Danishapiro

      That’s great, Jess. Thanks!

  • Katrina Woznicki

    I appreciate the point that you can’t fake getting lost. So true.

    • Danishapiro

      There is a great essay about this idea by Julia Alvarez, as well — the idea that you can’t fake being in the underworld as a writer.

  • “I have to say, too, that this getting lost cannot be faked.”

    I stumbled through my own awkward journey over the last 15 months after
    “quitting my day job to write full time!” Long-story short, I’m starting
    a new day job on Monday. But not before I found my voice again, and a
    writing process that works for me. Although that cabin looks pretty
    sweet.

    Can’t wait to quit my day job again. For good this time. Thanks for the post, Dani!

    • Danishapiro

      So glad it resonated, Mike!

  • Pamela

    I’m having a lost season in my life right now and your beautiful words were such comfort. It’s ok – I also believe in the value of being lost – but I so appreciate the reminder to slap at the walls of the cave. “Get lost inside me” is also the call of a soulful life and I had forgotten that. Thank you.

  • Payton Mancuso

    Loving your blog! Please check out mine everyone- it would mean the world to me!
    http://www.paytonelisewriter.wordpress.com