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Paula Puryear Martin Headshot

The Virtues of Getting Lost

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Life is change. If we're adventurous, we meet the changes that alter and sometimes upend our lives with a mixture of courage and curiosity: courage because sometimes, the experiences life throws our way are formidable; curiosity because when change sweeps through our lives, it serves us well to take a minute, at least, to not know what to do. I call this period of not knowing "getting lost." It's the moment before we marshal our resources, the moment before the answers come.

I've never been comfortable getting lost, any more than I've been comfortable failing, yet both failure and getting lost have their indispensable place. The writer Samuel Beckett urged us, "fail, fail again, fail better," and in so doing, just about wrote the whole book on failure, suggesting that failure is a necessary ingredient of success. Malcolm Gladwell echoes the sentiment in his bestselling Outliers, with his 10,000 hours to mastery rule (during which 10,000 hours, you are bound to fail). The virtue of failure, then, is that it perfects us, but what of failure's sibling "getting lost?" What benefits does it confer? Consider Christopher Columbus, who set sail for India and, getting lost, found North America instead -- which only goes to show you, sometimes you have to get lost to find your way.

In the Grail Legend, the hero Perceval gets lost in the dark forest, and there he finds the Holy Grail. Like Perceval, we must risk getting lost, an idea I wrote about in the first editor's letter for my blog, not knowing at the time that I was entering a dark forest of my own. I'd walked away from my old screenwriting career and hadn't looked back, but after five months blogging, characters started whispering in my ear again, and stories I'd abandoned clamored to be told. This meant nothing in particular. I loved film, with a ferocity I hadn't felt in years, but didn't see myself climbing back into a life I'd been happier without. Still, I couldn't escape the notion that a Third Act awaited me, connected -- perhaps by tiny gossamer strings -- to my old life in film.

There were two stories in particular demanding my attention: a period drama (a hard sell in Hollywood in even the most adventurous of times, which these decidedly are not), and a modern-day romance-action-thriller about love, home and geopolitics, with enough action to fuel a franchise. The period drama was clearly a novel -- a medium I'd lacked the courage to write in -- and when I read the screenplay pages I'd written for the romance-action-thriller, I realized it was too. In novel form it would be intimate and complex in ways the film version never could be, and as I started to write, I knew it was both an arriving and a launching point for new destinations I'd started to glimpse.

A few weeks earlier, I'd read an article about the novelist Taiye Selasi, who's debut novel, Ghana Must Go, is fast turning her into an international superstar. I'd learned that we have mutual friends, which is how, on the evening I discovered the novels I had to write, I found myself at a table at an L.A. restaurant with Selasi and a gaggle of friends.

Selasi, and another writer at the table that night, writes screenplays and novels, but it's her novel that's made her a star -- a novel that came to her more or less fully formed, "all the characters..., their stories, the three-part structure," while she was in the shower at a yoga retreat in Sweden, taking a pause from her work on a different novel. Ghana Must Go rushed into that void and she followed where it led. That willingness to follow -- to let go what we think it is we know -- will take us places our myopic striving after money and power cannot: to our true and singular lives. Nowhere is this more evident than in the life of Al Gore, who entered a wilderness of his own, facial hair and all, after accepting defeat in the 2000 Presidential election -- and emerged as his truest, deepest, most exalted self. Al Gore the environmental leader is more luminous, I'd argue, than Al Gore the President ever could've been, not because he wasn't up to the task, but because being President wasn't the purpose and meaning of his life.

Sometimes, we don't know where we're going when we set out -- even though we have a map, even though we've set our course. I set out to be a lawyer (I have an Ivy League law degree and an undergraduate degree in public policy) ,but became -- am still becoming -- something else. Law and public policy weren't my destiny. They were stepping stones on my road to somewhere else.

Learning to live inside the lives we've been handed, however much they differ from the lives we think we want, isn't easy. It grows easier, though, when we recognize that our lives are always preparing us for the role that we might play. All we must do, as a novelist friend told me, is "remove yourself, for the work comes through you, to and for the world, and is not you nor yours." That, in the end, is how a life is made.

In the final analysis, what money, power and fame are for if we happen to have them, and what the quieter gifts of talent and personality are for, indeed what all our life experiences are for, is for equipping us, for the lives for which we were born.

Columbus, Selasi and Gore understood this, whether by temperament or experience, that we do not author our lives. Rather, we are protagonists who, like the hero in any great movie, wage battle with what comes -- the direction the winds blow, the story that comes unbidden, the particular way we are called to lead -- that we might achieve the destiny encoded in the DNA of our lives.