In advance of my family’s summer travel I am reading travel books. Today I’m reviewing The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost, by Rachel Friedman.
Rachel is a Good Girl. She took all the “right” steps to move seamlessly from hardworking teen to college grad. Now that she’s facing the next life transition, she’s not quite so sure of her footing. Without a clear map showing her how to get from College Grad to Productive Adult, Rachel is lost.
And being lost is bad. Right?
Not necessarily. The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost, over the course of a narrative that spans approximately three years, gives several reasons why getting lost can be a very good thing indeed.
Getting Lost Allows Breathing Room
The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Rachel tells how she went to Ireland for a summer during college to re-think her original plan of being a professional viola player. Viola just isn’t working out. But she doesn’t know what else to do. She needs some breathing room—a place where she can put the plan on hold for a while and look back at it from across the pond.
Rachel falls into a rut, working two jobs and drinking every night. Eventually she finds a house share with some fun friends and enjoys many evenings cooking (and drinking, but at least with good company). She meets another restless spirit named Carly. The two make plans to meet up again in Carly’s homeland, Australia.
Getting Lost Allows You to See “Home” a Different Way
Still delaying her so-called real life, Rachel goes to Australia after finishing her undergraduate degree. She lives with Carly’s family as her home base for Down Under adventure. And she continues to noodle over the what-to-do-with-myself question. Again she gets a job, but this time she’s a little more proactive about suiting her wage-earning activities to her travel goals.
In the second part of the book we see Rachel intentionally expanding her worldview. The process isn’t always pretty. When she looks back at her home and her maybe-plan (graduate school?), she notices some unsightly smudges, imperceptible until now.
For example: why do so many Americans go tens of thousands of dollars into debt for their university education, only to begin work immediately after graduation so they can pay off the debt? Doesn’t this system, Rachel wonders, actually undermine an important goal of post-secondary education, namely, to experience a broader world?
In the Australia portion of the book Rachel’s gears start turning in earnest. Travel can be more than a way to hit the pause button on real life for a while. Travel is, in fact, an essential part of living a good life.
Getting Lost Means You Have to Focus on the Here and Now
Well, you can probably predict what happens in the third part of the book. Rachel gets the travel bug big time. She’s still anxious about what will happen or should happen when she eventually returns to the good ol’ U S of A, but she decides to manage that anxiety by focusing on closer-up, day-to-day challenges.
In Columbia, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina, Rachel rides buses and sleeps in hostels. With and sometimes without Carly, Rachel learns a whole new rhythm of living. Instead of What about my future? she starts thinking more in terms of Do I have enough money for wine tonight? And what’s more, she learns to actually be comfortable with a certain state of not-knowing.
Simply put, The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost allows us a peek into a kind of growth spurt most Americans either don’t make time for, or don’t have access to. The one where we veer off the carefully ordered path and take some risks. Where we learn to enjoy the things that are right in front of us. Sure, having a grand plan is important, but what if even your widest-angle view is missing some critical elements you didn’t know ought to be there?
Have you ever been lost, in the sense of not having a plan? What did you do about it?
Cranky Editor Time
If you wanted to learn what The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost is about and whether I liked it (yes), you’re done! Bye! Leave me a link to your blog in the comments and I’ll come a-reading!
If you’d like a few insights and tips about writing creative nonfiction, I’ll share a few things that Rachel Friedman’s book drove home for me.
First, a fun little editorial Easter egg (which may or may not appear in your copy; I forgot to note which printing I got before returning the book to the library). At one point certain characters are referred to by different names. Possibly these are their real first names, not the fake ones Rachel invented for the book. Oops!
So, wait—if you’re writing nonfiction shouldn’t everyone be portrayed exactly as they really are, real names and all? Short answer: no. You can use real names if you ask permission, but often times memoir writers pick fake names for other reasons besides protecting privacy.
As a memoir reader, I feel I’ve been done a favor when the author has creatively over-emphasized and under-emphasized certain characteristics of the people in the story. I assume a certain level of crafting has taken place (of personalities and dialogue, for example).
It isn’t dishonest; rather, it allows people to become characters that readers relate to. Real people with all their quirks take a lot of backstory to explain. And no one’s got time for that!
Second thing, and this is getting very cranky. In the Table of Contents to Good Girl’s Guide, each chapter listing has a description that goes something like, “In which our heroine and her trusty guide overindulge in drink, and…” These cutesy little epigraphs are repeated on the first page of every chapter.
I found this device to be thoroughly meh. Cheesy. It doesn’t match the overall style of the writing. Rachel doesn’t refer to herself as an “intrepid traveler” or “heroine” and, though she relies on Carly’s it’s-ok-to-be-lost sensibility quite a bit in the book, she never calls Carly her “trusty guide.”
But I get it. It takes a lot of whittling to make several messy, confusing episodes into a story that others can follow. Adding structural elements such as parts, chapters, and epigraphs can help lend a book-y shape to your work. After all, your readers are about to dive into an experience that may be unlike any they’ve ever had before! At least give them the expected elements of what they know as a “book” to hold onto.
Last thing. Notice how the subtitle of Rachel’s book is A Memoir Of…? I like this editorial choice for memoir, calling it a “memoir of” something. This shows that the author has been thoughtful about which slice of their life is most shareable, most interesting/instructive to others. That slice could be a few continuous years, or it could encompass a lot of years with one main theme.
If you need some good models of “just a slice,” I can personally recommend several more memoirs: Comfort Me With Apples by Ruth Reichl; Dangerous When Wet by Jamie Brickhouse, and Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith. Or, yes, The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Friedman.