Sometimes You Have to Get Lost to Find What You Really Need to Write
Hal Niedzviecki on the Very Modern Problem of Always Knowing Where You Are
About ten years ago I was walking in my downtown neighborhood when I came to a sudden halt. The Portuguese bakery was displaying a glowing challah next to a pile of perfect poppy-seed bagels. With a second look, I saw that there was Hebrew writing on the window. Overnight, the shop had gone from churning out the soft fluffy buns and hard cornbread loaves familiar to the primary population of the area—first- and second-generation immigrants from the Azores—to displaying the baked goods of my people. How was this possible?
As I glanced haplessly around for an explanation, I saw that the exact same thing had happened across the street. The long-standing Vietnamese Pho restaurant had now become a Jewish deli, complete with neon Hebrew in the window.
Frozen on the sidewalk, I vividly remember feeling lost. Physically lost. As if this wasn’t the same street corner, the same intersection, I’d crossed thousands of times—walking the kids to school, heading to the park, heading, in fact, for a bowl of slurpy rice noodles at the Pho restaurant or to pick up a padash bun and a fried codfish patty at the bakery. I had been transported somewhere else. I no longer knew where I was. I was lost.
But the feeling of lost quickly gave way to a sudden sense of loss. I’d grown up mainly in the suburbs of Washington, DC before moving to downtown Toronto. I’d never lived in, or even near, a primarily Jewish neighborhood. And yet both my parents and grandparents grew up speaking Yiddish, a mishmash language once spoken by the Jews hunkered down in a hostile Poland they determinedly made into the largest Jewish community of that time. I was a single generation away from that all-encompassing Jewish world.
But it was lost to me. I would never know it, nor would I ever know the many relatives and their potential offspring I might have grown up with, whose lives and possible lives were extinguished in the blink of an eye. Was this, now, my chance at experiencing this lost world? Were the Jews staging some sort of improbable takeover of Ossington?
A sudden darkness, then white light. A truck had driven past. It was a film production truck, a familiar sight in downtown Toronto, which is often used as a cheaper stand-in for New York, Boston, or Chicago. The truck pulled up to the curb ten feet away from me and my sense of loss crested. I felt like I was going to cry. It was just a movie set. It was all fake. Embarrassed, I stumbled on.
Over the next months, a haunted feeling followed me like a stretched-out shadow. I dreamt of hiding in nearby Trinity-Bellwoods Park, terrified of the film crews and their trailers, catering trucks, humming generators, orange pylons zealously guarded by the glorified mall cops to the stars.
I asked my mother questions about long lost relatives and growing up in Stalinist Russia. I thumbed absently through books about filmmaking, eventually developing an obsession with the weirder early days of Hollywood and its many bizarre figures.
Nothing pulled me from my fugue, so finally I broke down and started to write. Out of me hurtled two characters, like the two feelings I felt that day. They would, years later, form the centre of a novel titled The Lost Expert.
There was Chris, a feckless college drop out who works as a breakfast shift waiter and feels more and more estranged from his family, girlfriend, and peers with every passing day. Then there was a second figure who I always planned to name but somehow never did.
He started out as an abstraction, and though he ended up with a pretty involved life and backstory, I never wanted to totally give up on him as more of an idea than a character. So he remains just The Lost Expert, a character with the sort-of superhero power to find lost people, his story unspooling slowly throughout the novel by way of jarring interruptions of pidgin film script.
The first thing I did was have Chris, walking in Trinity-Bellwoods Park, be suddenly mistaken for the international action star who had been cast as the actual Lost Expert. I began juxtaposing his journey to the center of stardom with the Lost Expert’s emergent realization of his “super power.” But the more I chased loss and lost, the more I struggled to figure out what was supposed to be connecting these characters together.
Chris plays The Lost Expert in the movie The Lost Expert. But that was only a surface connection. Oh and also they’re both lost. And trying to be found. Obviously. Or so I thought.
I pushed on, the page count mounting as I tried to escape the complicated maze I’d made for myself. Time went by, crazy things happened in my life that mirrored even crazier things happening in the world. I tried and failed to find the way into an ever-expanding text. Lost and loss. Lost in my own losses.
Being lost, getting lost, is a foundational narrative—an ur-text for almost every imaginable culture and time. The indigenous Caddo people of the Piney Woods area of the Southern US tell of “Lost Elves,” little people who haunt the murky sloughs and Oklahoma pine savannas. Those who got lost in the woods were in danger of being bewitched by these creatures, possibly even turned into them.
The Caddo know about loss—their origin story has the tribe emerging from an underground cave called Chahkanina, translated as “place of crying.” Told not to look back, they do anyway, and the cave entrance is sealed forever.My plunge into the literature of lost hadn’t clarified much. If my characters weren’t going to have Adventure, why even bother getting them lost?
The story—of emerging into loss right from the get-go and dreading being lost ever since—is a familiar one. Thousands of years later, the rebellious, disbelieving Israelites—having long since been kicked out of Eden—are sentenced by God to wander the desert for forty years.
The desert. Moses, Miriam, Joshua, and the rest of the Jews. The promised land. Triumphantly released, but left to wander in relentless, disappointing purgatory. Did they argue about which way to go? Did every path shimmer promisingly in a horizon lit by the hot pulse of the sun?
It was the Greeks who invented the lost-on-an-adventure narrative as we know it. Epic poems by Virgil and Homer depict the heroic attempts of Aeneas and Ulysses to find their way home only to be thwarted, like the Israelites, by a capricious God (or gods, or demigods, or monstrous creatures created by the gods).
To read Homer is to wander, lost, through no less than 24 chapters of labyrinthic challenges. (“Cease this sad tale, for it breaks my sorrowful heart, and reminds me of my lost husband whom I mourn ever without ceasing,” keens Penelope, wife of Ulysses, way back in book one).
Fast forward past the fall of Athens and the long gloom of the Dark Ages and we arrive, finally, at literature as we understand it now. In the Western canon, lost is where it all begins. Children cannot reach adulthood until they get lost—in Grimms’ fairy tales, in upside-down lands like Wonderland, Narnia, Oz—lands stumbled into as accidentally-on-purpose as an anonymous wall leading to track nine and three-quarters…
Or is it that we’re all children waiting to get lost, to be defined by singular adventure? One of the earliest known texts resembling “the novel” is Daniel Defoe’s iconic shipwreck story Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe is the prototypical white savior, a pull-your-boots-up type who brings Christian values and British order to a savage land and the savage Friday. It would go on to spawn a legion of imitators still popular with audiences today, from Swiss Family Robinson to the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson to an innumerable number of barely varying plotlines in film, tv and writing.
Then the parodies, the homages, the reconsiderations—Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In 1986, South African writer JM Coetzee brought forth Foe, a postmodern retake on Robinson Crusoe that gave us the character of Susan Barton who, searching for her missing (lost) daughter, ends up marooned on an island with an adventurer and his tongueless companion. After making it back home, she tries to write her story but struggles. She engages the writer Foe to assist her. Ignoring her wishes, he contrives to peddle a conventional adventure sure to go over well with the beguiled masses.
Ah adventure. Is that what being lost is? Adventure means experiencing dramatic uncertainty, something that requires you to marshal your resources and make it out alive with a story to tell. But here’s the thing about adventure—it’s a childish concept invented by literature. (Literature itself may also be a childish conceit, a capital “A” Adventure for we sedentary peoples with more years and hours on our hands and big brains than we know what to do with.)
My plunge into the literature of lost hadn’t clarified much. If my characters weren’t going to have Adventure, why even bother getting them lost?
Frustrated, I started a whole new book, a middle grade novel for my kids. In it, two girls get lost in the woods. Summer came and I took time off. The actual daughters and I went canoeing. It turned out I brought only part of a map. We were put into the water nowhere near where I thought we were. Whoops.
There were strong winds, rain, some tears, a six-hour paddle with the sun going down, our arms aching, our palms blistering, emergency dispensation of rations (chocolate for them, the occasional fortifying sip from the flask for me). We still talk about it. We had the best time.
Back at my desk, at last with some clarity: what drew these characters together wasn’t that they were both lost (physically and emotionally). It was that they both, at least at first, wanted to be lost, to get lost. I wasn’t writing a book about how people get lost (and maybe even found). I wasn’t writing about heroes and adventurers and some mythical Hollywood. I was writing about something else altogether—everyday loss, how ubiquitous it is, why it is. The way we get lost to outrun our losses.
Today, GPS and cell phones follow us everywhere. If we want to get lost, we have to consciously allow it. Why would we? And yet, even as we resist and fear getting lost, we spool it out constantly in our heads, a ubiquitous narrative formed of cultural prerequisites. What will we do, how will we act, who will play us in the movie?
Like our growing fears of an outdoors we no longer really know, lost in the woods (or sea, or in a blizzard), is now a kind of boogie man—an existential dread of something we are as likely to experience as getting hit by lightning or encountering a serial killer.
Our minds are stuck in the literature of the ancients, perpetually dreading being lost and not found. We are terrified of being set upon by the gods and whirled into an unexpected adventure that we could never measure up to.
We don’t think about how it might actually do us good to get lost. We never think about how getting lost—even just a little bit—might be something someone does on purpose. The greater tragedy that my characters, the prosaic Chris and the metaphysical Lost Expert, must confront: they try and try and try, but they can’t get lost. Now now. Not anymore.
The more we avoid it—loss and lostness—the less we are able to grapple with it. In the 21st century we need to get lost much more than we need to read yet another novel about two sisters lost in a buggy forest bog…
“The wood,” writes Angela Carter in her erotic retelling of fairy-tale The Bloody Chamber, “swallows you up.” And, “the trees stir with a noise like taffeta skirts of women who have lost themselves in the woods and hunt round hopelessly for the way out.”
But in story after story, Carter depicts the girl-women of the fairy-tale world as creatures with not just agency, but deep yearning for more than mere agency. He “will do you grievous harm” one of her narrators notes to herself. After all, “he came alive from the desire of the woods.” In Carter’s stories, it is certain death to court that beautiful beast, to let yourself get lost then abruptly found (taken). But it’s worse—a slower death—not to.
The Lost Expert by Hal Niedzviecki is available now from Cormorant Books.