Finding Your Way (When You’re Lost)

“Every man has to learn the points of a compass again as often as he awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

– Henry David Thoreau

Writing is a wilderness.

Sure, you can master structure, your form, and you can understand the basic elements of what makes a “marketable” story. Sure, you can have mentors, and teachers, and books guiding you along the way.

But still, writing is a wilderness.

And you will get lost. And you do get lost.

True: the lessons you have been taught can serve as essential “sign posts” or “road signs” to guide you along the way. After a long period of being lost in the process, you might come upon one of these helpful “sign posts,” given to you by a teacher, and you might just rest there–feeling relieved that you were on the right track all along.

But you know that, inevitably, you’ll be leaving the safety of that road marker. You know that, inevitably, you’ll have to risk becoming lost–and never being found–again.

Writing is a wilderness.

When I get lost, I try not to panic. Panicking makes it worse. I also try not to scheme. Scheming also makes it worse. (One does not master the wilderness, the wilderness masters you.) You can plan your way back to safety, or some recognizable place, but your efforts will be futile. Because when you’re lost, you’re lost.

When you’re lost there’s no compass, no signposts, nothing. The sun might even be trading places with the moon in the sky, confusing you even more. When you’re lost there are no stars, no wind, no rivers, no animal marks you can track. When you’re lost, you’re lost.

When I’m lost, I try not to panic. It makes it worst. I try not to scheme. Scheming makes it worse, too. Because, like I said, the wilderness masters you–you don’t master it.

Uncharted territory is the scariest kind of territory to cross, and writers chart uncharted territory everyday, in every way. We make our home There. There, in the easy-to-get-lost places, the places most sane people wouldn’t dare travel to.

There, we’ll go backpacking through exotic landscapes. There, we’ll encounter the most primitive of territories. There, there are no hostels to stay at. There, there are no natives to encounter either. There, there is only the local plant and animal life–and not one of them is friendly.

You’ve been asked to charter this new, vast wilderness, and map it out for the rest of us. But no one There knows your language. And you have no translator with you. You are not a archeologist or a professional researcher. You are not anyone “special,” as a matter of fact. You are just the one who was crazy enough to map out an adventure that no one else has ever mapped before.

Writing is a wilderness.

And you will get lost. And you do get lost.

When lost, throw out all your plans, throw out all your schemes. And whatever you do: don’t panic. The wilderness smells fear… and it’s coming after you. (Right now.)

Because you don’t master the wilderness–the wilderness kills you before you have a chance to blink.

Because here, in the wilderness, it’s not about wit–it’s all about instinct. About impulse, and taking up those nanoseconds of inspired rhythm, before they’re off, and out of your reach.

Why you turned left, instead of right, just now, you don’t know–you just do it because there’s something about the rhythm in it. There’s something about the rhythm of that left turn that moved you to take it. Something about your heartbeat that knows the timing of the wilderness.

Your heart, you’re surprised to find, can keep time with the wilderness. There’s a tempo–a beat–that your heart can read. You can hear the rhythm now because you’ve let your heart listen. You can hear the rhythm now because you know an escape from this wilderness does not lie in the planning. You can hear the rhythm now because you’ve stopped panicking.

Now, you follow the rhythm into that left turn until it curves into a right, a sharp left, another left, another left, and straight on to that mysterious hanging branch ahead.

How To Find Your Way Out (When You’re Lost)

When you’re lost, nothing known can get you found. Nothing seen can get you to the other side. Nothing concrete will bring you home again. Nothing outside can show you the way. (Besides, that’s how you got lost in the first place, wasn’t it? The outside world began to fail to show you the way out of this wilderness.)

So (finding the outside world unhelpful) you turn inside. You look, and listen, within. Because somewhere, in you, the wilderness sleeps. The wilderness that is around you, you see, is a part of you, and you are a part of it.

No, there’s no time to think about whether that makes sense or not. Instead, (quickly now) follow the drum beat of your heart–it says to JUMP! NOW! You just missed a venomous snake. Good job. RUN NOW! You just evaded a tiger. Good job. CLIMB THAT TREE! NOW! Phew! You barely missed a stampeding herd of elephants.

Now, quiet now. Be still. Shhhh… peak over that branch. See that stream of sunlight as it strikes a bird nest sprawled over the nearby branches. In that bird nest, an egg is hatching. A newborn is coming alive in the jungle. Just in time.

But somehow, you’re not surprised. You knew it was going to happen because you followed the rhythm of the wilderness. You let the rhythm of the wilderness take you from being lost, to being found again.

You listened to the drumbeat of you heart, which, when you listened closely, matched the drumbeat of the wilderness perfectly.

When You’re Lost, Follow The Rhythm of Life, Until You’re Found Again

When life finds you lost, don’t panic.

Stop your planning. Then, simply ride the rhythm.

It’s the easiest thing really, because the rhythm doesn’t require you to master it–it only requires you to listen to it, trust it, and follow its lead. The rhythm will be like a gentle hand that reaches out, pulls you through the jungle, keeps you safe from all harm, until you make it safely out.

Life is a wilderness.

And you will get lost, and you do get lost.

When you do get lost–don’t panic. Throw out all your plans. Be quiet. Listen. And then follow the rhythm of your heartbeat as it guides you through, and out, of the jungle.

much love,


When you get lost, how do you find your way out? Please share your wisdom with us in the comments below!

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28 comments on “Finding Your Way (When You’re Lost)

  1. Great post Ollin about a very universal topic- facing all the obstacles in the writing “wilderness.” Stop, listen and “follow the rhythm of your heartbeat.” Beautiful!

  2. Christina says:

    I LOVE Thoreau!

    And, of course, your metaphor-posts:)) So beautiful! Thanks Ollin!

  3. Dane Zeller says:

    Very engaging post. I was thinking of my own solutions as I read along.

    I think more concretely. I think in terms of first draft when I don’t want anything slowing me down, getting in my way, stopping my effort, or even distracting me from writing as well as I can. Sometimes I get lost on the way to the word processor, and never even get started.

    My solution (and, I think it follows with yours): Just write. An elephant coming down the path to step on your lousy grammar, misspelled words, vague references? Just write on. Take the wrong road in the woods? Just write (follow it). Find you’re not on any road? Just write until you find one. I think this is the rhythm you mentioned.

    In fact, it’s a beat we should always be following.

    Thanks for provoking my imagination!

  4. Purvi says:

    I wait wait wait for each of your post coz They are always an energiser, they almost give me a clue to my direction that I am seeking. thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  5. Selena says:

    What a timely post! Awesome…and thank you so much. You have put into words so succinctly that frame of mind that I’ve been in lately!

  6. ceciliag says:

    This was a joy to read and a wonderful comforting series of thoughts. In fact it makes me feel like it would be OK if I did get lost now and then. Lovely page, Ollin. Now where was I? c

  7. Kari Scare says:

    When I get lost, I find my way out by going back to the basics and simplifying. I cut out all the extras and just focus on the minimum that I need to do. Most of the time when I am lost, it’s because I am overwhelmed. That’s why a refocus on the basics and on the simplest almost always gets me through.

  8. Wow! I love this. Writing is definitely a wilderness. And I’ve been guilty of trying to control it when I get lost. Thanks for the reminder to just follow the rhythm.

  9. Kris says:

    This resonates with me. I’m on my way out of the wilderness right now, and I had to remember why I was writing in the first place to see that path.

    But I had to laugh at “the wilderness masters you,” because my partner is a professional wildness skills instructor. Around here, that kind of talk would land me with a second survival pack. 🙂

  10. Sometimes getting lost in the writing wilderness can be exciting and energizing. And more often….not so much. I find that going back to my best practices of morning pages and meditation are what usually lead me out of the wilderness. And then its exciting in a different way! Oh, and also patience is often required.

  11. I like this. A lot. Particularly, “Because somewhere, in you, the wilderness sleeps. The wilderness that is around you, you see, is a part of you, and you are a part of it.”

    I don’t have any real advice of my own; I’m one of those people who prefers to stay lost, given the choice. I did enjoy reading your take on it all, though.

  12. Wow this post totally inspired me to move on despite heavy school responsabilities. Trying my best not to panic 🙂

  13. catalex says:

    Dear Ollin,

    Wow, what awesome and refreshing perspective you’ve shared here with this creative imagery!

    It’s my first time here visiting you – I believe I connected to you by way of Samantha Bangayan’s CommentLuv on her blog. Gotta love that cool lil plugin, I use it religiously!

    I especially resonate with the part where you said to be still and quiet as you listen to follow the rhythm that drives you where you really need to be. This is a level of intuition we may only find within if we care to listen for it – I think it’s a marvelous and astute point.

    I think you rocked this one and am happy to have had an opportunity to connect with you on it!

    Hopefully we can become better acquainted! I’m really enjoying your blog!

    Best regards,
    Cat Alexandra – Internet Marketing Success Mentor Extraordinaire 😉

  14. RD Meyer says:

    I really enjoyed this post and found it to be spot on. Staring at an untamed story can be daunting, but without leaping straight in, you’ll never know what muight be inside. And getting through the undergrowth is usually the most exciting part.

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