On being lost

“Not all those who wander are lost.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course, given Tolkien’s framework, being lost isn’t necessarily bad. Here are my three favorite books on the topic of wandering:

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho [this was assigned reading in Novels and Tales during my sophomore year of college. In four years, it’s the only book I didn’t sell back.]

Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig 

Plus this wonderful passage from Elizabeth Gilbert, titled “Paint Your Bicycle,” in her book Big Magic:

“The Australian writer, poet, and critic Clive James has a perfect story about how once, during a particularly awful creative dry spell, he got tricked back to work.

After an enormous failure (a play that he wrote for the London stage, which not only bombed critically, but also ruined his family financially and cost him several dear friends), James fell into a dark morass of depression and shame. After the play closed, he did nothing but sit on the couch and stare at the wall, mortified and humiliated, while his wife somehow held the family together. He couldn’t imagine how he would get up the courage to write anything else ever again.

After a long spell of this funk, however, James’s young daughters finally interrupted his grieving process with a request for a mundane favor. They asked him if he would please do something to make their shabby old secondhand bicycles look a bit nicer. Dutifully (but not joyfully), James obeyed. He hauled himself up off the couch and took on the project.

First he carefully painted the girls’ bikes in vivid shades of red. Then he frosted the wheel spokes with silver and striped the seat posts to look like barbers’ poles. But he didn’t stop there. When the paint dried, he began to add hundreds of tiny silver and gold stars — a field of exquisitely detailed constellations — all over the bicycles. The girls grew impatient for him to finish, but James found that he simply could not stop painting stars (“four-pointed stars, six-pointed stars, and the very rare eight-pointed stars with peripheral dots”). It was incredibly satisfying work. When at last he was done, his daughters pedaled off on their magical new bikes, thrilled with the effect, while the great man sat there, wondering what on earth he was going to do with himself next.

The next day, his daughters brought home another little girl from the neighborhood, who asked if Mr. James might please paint stars on her bicycle, too. He did it. He trusted in the request. He followed the clue. When he was done, another child showed up, and another, and another. Soon there was a line of children, all waiting for their humble bicycles to be transformed into stellar objets d’art.

And so it came to pass that one of the most important writers of his generation spent several weeks sitting in his driveway, painting thousands and thousands of tiny stars on the bicycles of every child in the area. As he did so, he came to a slow discovery. He realized that “failure has a function. It asks you whether you really want to go on making things.” To his surprise, James realized that the answer was yes. He really did want to go on making things. For the moment, all he wanted to make were beautiful stars on children’s bicycles. But as he did so, something was healing within him. Something was coming back to life. Because when the last bike had been decorated, and every star in his personal cosmos had been diligently painted back into place, Clive James at last had this thought: I will write about this one day.

And in that moment, he was free.

The failure had departed; the creator had returned.

By doing something else — and by doing it with all his heart — he had tricked his way out of the hell of inertia and straight back into the Big Magic.”

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