Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Writers as Map Makers

Sharon Wildwind

When was the last time you drew a map?

Earlier this year I set out, with the help of Google Earth, to revisit all of the houses in which I’d lived. All but two were still standing. One had been renovated so much that it took me three Google “drives” down the street before I recognized it. The rest were in remarkably good shape, meaning that they were easy to spot and conformed almost perfectly to my memories.

I was especially interested in the neighborhood where I lived as a child. As I sketched the street using the image on my computer as a guide, I was surprised to discover that the street curved slightly, almost directly in front of my house.

Instinctively, I knew about the curve as a child because when we played softball in the front yard, the person playing outfielder stood in the neighbor’s yard across the street. His/her job was not only to catch fly balls, but to watch for cars and send up the cry of “Car” so that we stopped playing until it had passed. You couldn’t see both ends of the street from one place. You had to check one end of the street, and then move a couple of steps to the right to see the other end. I see now that was because the street curved.

I filled in the names of my playmates who lived on the street and discovered interesting relationships. All of the houses with children were grouped in the middle one-third of the street. There were long stretches on each end where only adults lived. Families with children were likely the second wave to move into that neighborhood. Why we new arrivals, those with school-aged children, grouped ourselves in the middle of the block remains a mystery.

I was reminded once again that I was the odd child out. There were far boys than girls, and all of the girls were either a few years older or a few years younger than I was, so I had no real peer group. This is probably why I grew up playing more boy games than girl games. The new insight I gained was how homogenous the names were: except for one slightly French name—Dorine (Her family, like mine, was part Cajun)—all of us had solid English names. There was, to my regret now as an adult, not much cultural diversity. Catholic or Protestant was as adventurous as we got.

In some reading I did recently, the author described writers as map makers. As writers we are often ahead of other people. We go exploring the intersections. Sometimes we fall off the edge of the world.

We look for connections and paths that other people might miss. We pay attention to where the known world ends and the world of our own creation begins. The better we get as writers, the better we can blur the map so that real life fades imperceptibly into fiction.

On Sunday, because I had several projects on the go at one time, I crossed from non-fiction into fiction and back again so often that, at one point I stared at what I’d written and had no idea if it was truth or fiction.

Here’s what I know about map-making that also applies to writing.

You must always know where North is or you can’t orient yourself properly in the story. North represents the true compass heading of what you’re trying to say. Without knowing where that is, the story gets itself turned around.

You need to keep a sense of scale and proportion. When I mapped out the distance from my street to my grammar school, I was astonished to discover that it was almost, for an adult, walking distance. To a six-year-old who took a city bus to get there, school seemed to be in a far distant land. Scale and proportion tell us how far we’re into the story, how fast our pace should be, and if we should quicken or slow that pace.

You must map the dangers along the way. The writer is the pathfinder. Others are coming after us and we must leave a clear trail for them to follow.

The most interesting stories are found just off the edge of the map, in the places marked “Here be Dragons.” There are times you have to discard the perfectly-drawn map and just take the next step. Often that is the most interesting step.
Quote for the week:
The artist is a cartographer; she maps the world. As artists, we explore the territory of the human heart, braving the dark woods to report to our human tribe that a trail can be found, and we will survive. For this reason, artists must have courage, even heroism, to state what they see and hear.
~ Julia Cameron, Walking in the World: The Practical Art of Creativity


Julia Buckley said...

What an interesting post, Sheila!

Sandra Parshall said...

This is why I feel so panicky and lost when I start working on a new book: I don't have a clear map of what lies ahead. I fill in the map gradually as I go. The unexpected turns keep it interesting, the sudden dead-ends make me panic all over again.

Anonymous said...

Well, maybe dead-ends are a place to rest and catch your breath. Maybe have a picnic lunch and enjoy the scenery.

JJM said...

That is a truly brilliant metaphor, maps and writing. Nicely done.