The Writer as Cartographer
by Peter Turchi
If I had to boil down the idea of this book to fit in a tweet, it would go something like this: Map makers = “world describers” just like writers.
But the fun isn’t in condensing the idea to its smallest coherent piece, but in wandering around and exploring all the places that idea might take you.
Turchi is a good wanderer (and wonderer), taking readers from Chuck Jones’s constraints for the roadrunner cartoon to Saul Steinberg‘s “A View of the World from 9th Avenue” and many other places in between, before and after.
There’s the framework for thinking about mapping:
We stare at our own backyards, hack trails through the rainforest, paddle through overgrown rivers, wade into swamps even as something pulls thickly at our boots. When we reach what feels like a destination, we turn and map the way for others. But will we show them the trail, or force them to negotiate a muddy slope? Will we label the poison ivy, indicate where the river is shallow enough to cross? Or will we add serpents dangling from the trees? We cannot be trusted. We tell our readers, Trust me.
At our best, we don’t make road maps so much as chart the territory, creating the stories of Frolicking Green Water Dragons and lost cities, finding order in the very stars — the uncountable but finite bodies that glimmer above us, always in view, always out of reach. In A Mapmaker’s Dream, Fra Mauro decides the search for the ultimate map ends with the individual. “Wise men contemplate the world, ” he thinks, “knowing full well that they are contemplating themselves.” It maybe folly to image anything more universal, more objective, more true. Each of us stands at one unique spot in the universe, at one moment in the expanse of time, holding a blank sheet of paper.
This is where we begin.
And how it works not just in visual depictions, but in stories:
As writers, we refuse simply to share and thereby reinforce the collective perception; we want to get at something else, something that hasn’t been perceived or hasn’t been presented the way we see it. By asserting our vision, we strive not to impose our view on others, as an act of aggression, but to share it, as an act of generosity. Eudora Welty said that her goal in writing fiction was “not to point the finger in judgement, but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s human plight.” Our interest in maps of places we’ve never been, and may never go, is evidence of our curiosity not only about where others live but about how they live, and how we would live if we were among them. We can never move entirely beyond the limits of our physical confines, or even beyond our perceptions and understanding; but fiction and poetry, in expanding the world of our imagination beyond the world of our experience, allow us a more intimate — and so more thorough, and perhaps more compassionate — imaginative knowledge of our fellow beings than we are likely even to have in the course of our daily lives.
I wasn’t familiar with Welty’s not pointing a finger but parting a curtain, and I love that idea. I think there’s something to “how we would live if we were among them” that spurs emotional investment in the stories we read. Turchi — telling us a story about traveling to Morocco to buy a fez and (and then not buying the fez) — reminds us that, “As travelers through fiction and poetry, we need to distrust the urge to scoop up theme and meaning, as if the things we can neatly pack are necessarily the things we came for.”
I enjoyed reading this book, and recommend it if you have a strong interest in storytelling, or in maps. If you liked Katharine Harmon’sYou Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, you would probably also like this book.