Getting lost is scary. As toddlers, my sister and I got separated from our parents in a giant store. I can still feel the verge-of-tears panic, the tightening of the throat. What if Mom and Dad abandoned us? What if strangers kidnapped us? That’s what’s frightening about getting lost, isn’t it? To be torn from the people we love. To get hurt or die. That universal fear with its high stakes makes for great personal narrative—not because of getting lost’s physical drama but because its corollary psychological story can illustrate growth, transformation, and self-realization. The literary roots of lost and found narratives reach at least as far back as the French poetic form, the Chanson d’Aventure, when medieval poets “lost” themselves in the countryside until they encountered or “found” something inspiring and transformative.

The ways of getting lost are no doubt infinite, but here are three, with prompts, that provide ample exploration in personal narrative:

Lost in a New Place

In her essay, “Typical First Year Professor” from Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014), Roxane Gay writes about moving to a small midwestern city to take her first full-time teaching job. She gets lost in her new building and must adapt and redefine herself in a setting very different from what she left behind:

I have an office I don’t have to share with two or four people. My name is on the engraved panel just outside my door. My name is spelled correctly. I have my own printer. The luxury of this cannot be overstated. I randomly print out a document; I sigh happily as the printer spits it out, warm. I have a phone with an extension, and when people call the number, they are often looking for me. There are a lot of shelves, but I like my books at home. In every movie I’ve ever seen about professors, there are books. I quickly unpack three boxes, detritus I accumulated in graduate school—sad drawer trash, books I’ll rarely open again—but I’m a professor now. I must have books on display in my office. It is an unspoken rule.

Gay’s arrival changes the landscape for her students, too. “Students don’t know what to make of me. I wear jeans and Converse. I have tattoos up and down my arms. I’m tall. I am not petite. I am the child of immigrants. Many of my students have never had a black teacher before. I can’t help them with that.” She clarifies that what’s unfamiliar to her students is not new to her. “I’m the only black professor in my department.” Although this aspect of her landscape is unchanged and unlikely to change, Gay acclimates to her new world and “finds” a transformed self in this new environment.


Think of a time when you started a new job or moved to a new place. List physical aspects of the setting that differed from where you’d been before. How did those differences represent who you were expected to be in the new place?

Bonus Prompt:

What physical traits such as attire, gender, body shape, mannerisms, skin color, ornamentation, did others see as unfamiliar? How did those differences affect your sense of belonging? What, if anything, helped you and others appreciate those differences?

Lost on the Way to a New Place

Sometimes we get lost travelling to a new place. In her essay, “Dear Mother,” from Dear Memory: Essays on Writing, Silence, and Grief (Milkweed Editions, 2021), Victoria Chang contemplates her mother’s loss of homeland when, as a child, she relocated with her family from China to Taiwan. In epistle form, the narrator writes, “I would like to know if you took a train. If you walked. If you had pockets in your dress. If you wore pants. If your hand was in a fist, if you held a small stone.” Through Chang’s questions, we see the family’s exodus as disorienting, possibly frightening for a child, and how she might have carried something to remind her of home. “I would like to know if you thought the trees were black or green at night, if it was cold enough to see your breath, to sting your fingers. I would like to know who you spoke to along the way. If you had some preserved salty plums, which we both love, in your pocket.” The questions connect Chang with her mother but also reveal how the mother’s later move to the United States resulted in Chang’s lost connection with her extended family:

I would like to know where you got your food for the trip. Why I never knew your mother, father, or your siblings. I would like to have known your father. I would like to know what his voice sounded like. If it was brittle or pale. If it was blue or red. I would like to know the sound he made when he swallowed food. I would like to know if your mother was afraid.


Draft a letter to someone from your past whose journey entailed loss. This could be to a loved one who journeyed from life to death, or a relative sentenced to prison, or a friend who left home. Ask about what they saw, heard, smelled, ate, or carried.

Bonus Prompt:

In your letter, list the things you would like to know. Begin with physical details about the journey while allowing room for what you may have lost as a result of their departure.

Lost in a Familiar yet Changed Place

Sometimes we don’t go anywhere at all, but major life events make familiar places feel utterly foreign. In her essay, Still Life (Brevity, Issue 62), Joanne Nelson writes of the last time she visited her brother Dale at his cabin:

A still life: barefoot, shirt but no pants, beer bottles and cigarettes and ashtray within reach. Even the smells suspended, unwashed, motionless. Piled mail. The place hazy with cigarette smoke.

Though the narrator cleans and cooks for her sick brother, no attempts to return the cabin to its previous state will return her brother to his previous state. She becomes “lost” in a space altered by illness, but the psychological act of getting lost occurs when the narrator becomes immersed in grief. Five years after his death, when a server calls out “Dale” in a diner, Nelson lists what’s missing, what she misses, what she’s lost:

I’d like to see him cross the foyer of rustling people-filled benches though, have him share in this Sunday morning buzzing energy. Hear him complain about the wait, feel his pockets for smokes, say “don’t give me that look” before stepping outside.


Write about a familiar place that felt altered after a major life event. Note the physical details—what’s new, missing, or altered—that demonstrate how the place, and therefore your life, has changed.

Bonus Prompt:

List odd, quirky, or everyday things you’d never have guessed you’d miss—things you might never see again but are, in their own way, happy reminders of what was special about that time. Alternatively, list things you’ll never miss. For example, stale hamburger buns, cracked lunch trays, and sitting alone in your high school cafeteria.


Jill McCabe Johnson is the author of the poetry collections Revolutions We’d Hoped We’d Outgrown, shortlisted for Jane’s Stories Press Foundation’s Clara Johnson Award in Women’s Literature, and Diary of the One Swelling Sea, winner of a Nautilus Silver Award in Poetry, plus the chapbooks Pendulum and Borderlines. Jill is the founder of Wandering Aengus Press and teaches Creative Writing for Skagit Valley College. Recent works can be found in SlateFourth GenreWaxwingThe Brooklyn ReviewGulf StreamDiode, and You can read more at