Mapping the Story

No matter how much we know about our story’s content when we begin a creative project (be it fiction or creative nonfiction), unknowns lurk around every corner and it’s best, I believe, to think of our material as an untamed wilderness.  If we assume we know this territory, we close ourselves off to the possibility of discovery.  The reader’s experience will be adventurous only if the writer has embarked on a true journey, fraught with risk and vulnerability and mystery.  And so we begin with some direction and the desire to address certain, known topics, all the while staying open to surprise.

Peter Turchi is interested in maps as a metaphor for story.  Just as a map is an encoded representation of a real landscape, the printed story is an encoded representation of the human experience.  Turchi writes, “If we attempt to map the world of a story before we explore it, we are likely either to (a) prematurely limit our exploration, so as to reduce the amount of material we need to consider, or (b) explore at length but, recognizing the impossibility of taking note of everything, and having no sound basis for choosing what to include, arbitrarily omit entire realms of information.  The opportunities are overwhelming.  (This explains why it can be so difficult for beginning writers to embrace thorough revision—which is to say, to fully embrace exploration.  The desire to cling to that first path through the wilderness is both a celebration of initial discovery and fear of the vast unknown.” (Maps of the Imagination)

So our initial drafting is a fearless exploration of our story’s wilderness, and subsequent revisions continue to venture out into unknown territory until we know the boundaries of our story’s landscape.  Over the course of revision, the writer transforms his or herself from an explorer into a guide.  We grow familiar with the contours and shadows and geology of our material and better adept at sharing it with others.  Only toward the end of a lengthy revision process, when we thoroughly know our story, ought we turn our attention completely to the needs of our readers.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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