Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer


In Maps of the Imagination, Peter Turchi posits the idea that maps help people understand where they are in the world in the same way that literature, whether realistic or experimental, attempts to explain human realities. The author explores how writers and cartographers use many of the same devices for plotting and executing their work, making crucial decisions about what to include and what to leave out, in order to get from here to there, without excess baggage or a confusing surplus of information. Turchi ...
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Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer

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In Maps of the Imagination, Peter Turchi posits the idea that maps help people understand where they are in the world in the same way that literature, whether realistic or experimental, attempts to explain human realities. The author explores how writers and cartographers use many of the same devices for plotting and executing their work, making crucial decisions about what to include and what to leave out, in order to get from here to there, without excess baggage or a confusing surplus of information. Turchi traces the history of maps, from their initial decorative and religious purposes to their later instructional applications. He describes how maps rely on projections in order to portray a three-dimensional world on the two-dimensional flat surface of paper, which he then relates to what writers do in projecting a literary work from the imagination onto the page.
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Editorial Reviews

Illustrations of all imaginable types of maps, plus entertaining epigraphs to each section, add to the collage of texturesin this extensive (yet, considering its cntents, surprisingly compact) volume. My favorite set of epigraphs, by the way, Saul Bellow’s ‘perhaps, being lost, one should get loster,’ follwoed by Dean Young’s ‘perhaps, being lost, one should get lobster.
October 2004
Charlotte Observer
With a knowing and often witty voice, Turchi, who directs the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College near Asheville, has brought together wide-ranging sources to create an inspiring book of writing instruction. Avoiding the pedantic prescription of many writing how-to's, he shows through analogy and example.
Sept. 24, 2004
Brilliant and pleasurable, Turchi's musing on our innate need to know where we are, where we might go, and why alters our perceptions of not only maps and fiction but also the nature of the mind's terra incognita. (starred review )
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781595340412
  • Publisher: Trinity University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2007
  • Pages: 246
  • Sales rank: 348,596
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.38 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Turchi is the Director of the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He is the author of the novel The Girls Next Door and the story collection Magician, and the coeditor, with Andrea Barrett, of The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work and, with Charles Baxter, of Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Metaphor : or, the map 11
Ch. 2 A wide landscape of snows 27
Ch. 3 Projections and conventions 73
Ch. 4 Imaginary scrolls 99
Ch. 5 Theater of the world 129
Ch. 6 A rigorous geometry 159
Ch. 7 Plus ultra 215
Points of reference 237
Legend 241
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First Chapter




Copyright © 2004 Peter Turchi
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59534-005-X

Chapter One


The writer is an explorer. Every step is an advance into new land. RALPH WALDO EMERSON

The earliest extant alphabetic texts, the earliest extant geographical maps, and the earliest extant map of the human brain date back to the same general period: around 3,000 B.C. While no one can say for certain when the first writing and mapping occurred, the reasons for recording who we are, where we are, what is, and what might be haven't changed much over time. The earliest maps are thought to have been created to help people find their way and to reduce their fear of the unknown. We want to know the location of what we deem life-sustaining (hunting grounds and sources of fresh water, then; now, utility lines and grocery stores) and life-threatening (another people's lands; the toxic runoff from a landfill). Now as then, we record great conflicts and meaningful discoveries. We organize information on maps in order to see our knowledge in a new way. As a result, maps suggest explanations; and while explanations reassure us, they also inspire us to ask more questions, consider other possibilities.

To ask for a map is to say, "Tell me a story."

* * *

Writing is often discussed as two separate acts-though in practice they overlap, intermingle, and impersonate each other. They differ in emphasis, but are by no means merely sequential. If we do them well, both result in discovery. One is the act of exploration: some combination of premeditated searching and undisciplined, perhaps only partly conscious rambling. This includes scribbling notes, considering potential scenes, lines, or images, inventing characters, even writing drafts. History tells us that exploration is assertive action in the face of uncertain assumptions, often involving false starts, missteps, and surprises -all familiar parts of the writer's work. If we persist, we discover our story (or poem, or novel) within the world of that story. The other act of writing we might call presentation. Applying knowledge, skill, and talent, we create a document meant to communicate with, and have an effect on, others. The purpose of a story or poem, unlike that of a diary, is not to record our experience but to create a context for, and to lead the reader on, a journey.

That is to say, at some point we turn from the role of Explorer to take on that of Guide.

* * *

If this book of mine fails to take a straight course, it is because I am lost in a strange region; I have no map. -GRAHAM GREENE. THE END OF THE AFFAIR

Artistic creation is a voyage into the unknown. In our own eyes, we are off the map. The excitement of potential discovery is accompanied by anxiety, despair, caution, perhaps, perhaps boldness, and, always, the risk of failure. Failure can take the form of our becoming hopelessly lost, or pointlessly lost, or not finding what we came for (though that last is sometimes happily accompanied by the discovery of something we didn't anticipate, couldn't even imagine before we found it). We strike out for what we believe to be uncharted waters, only to find ourselves sailing in someone else's bathtub. Those are the days it seems there is nothing new to discover but the limitations of our own experience and understanding.

Some of the oldest stories we know, including creation myths, were attempts to make sense of the world. Those early storytellers invented answers to the mysteries all around them. Why does the rain come? Why does it stop? If a child is created by two adults, from where did the first two adults originate? What is the earth like beyond what we have seen, and beyond what the people we know have seen? What lies beyond the stars?

The stories and poems we write today rarely take on the task of explaining natural elements or the failure of crops; for those answers, we turn to science or some other form of belief. Nevertheless, in every piece we write, we contemplate a world; and as that world would not otherwise exist, we create it even as we discover it. Some imagined places are as exotic as the deserted island of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Thomas More's Utopia, Jonathan Swift's Lilliput, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, and Jorge Luis Borges's Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius. Some writers use settings more familiar but make those places unmistakably their own: Jane Austen's England, Nathaniel Hawthorne's New England, Charles Dickens's London, Flannery O'Connor's Georgia, Richard Russo's Maine. There is no mistaking E.B. White's New York for John Cheever's, or Joseph Heller's for Ralph Ellison's, or E. L. Doctorow's for Amiri Baraka's.

We might set out intending simply to describe what we see-to open the curtains beyond our desk and report on the landscape outside our window-but even then we describe what we see, the way we see it. We know the names of the trees and birds and grasses, or we don't. We're aware of the different types and formations of clouds, or we aren't. Even if we could know it all, at any given moment we would have to choose the evocative description or the scientific fact. No matter how hard we work to be "objective" or "faithful," we create. That isn't to say we get things wrong, but that, from the first word we write-even by choosing the language in which we will write, and by choosing to write rather than to paint or sing-we are defining, delineating, the world that is coming into being.

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.

We face the same challenge with each new story, novel, poem, play, screenplay, or essay: given subject X, or premise Y, or image Z, there are an infinite number of directions in which the work could go. There is no reason to think one direction is inherently better, more artistically valid, than all the others. Yet we must choose-for each individual piece-just one. "The writer," says Stephen Dobyns, "must discover his or her intention, must discover the meaning of the work. Only after that discovery can the work be properly structured, can the selection and organization of the significant moments of time take place. The writer must know what piece of information to put first and why, what to put second and why, so that the whole work is governed by intention." This is a logical and persuasive argument. We cannot create a structure without understanding its purpose, any more than we would pick up a hammer to make some undetermined building out of nails and wood. But to equate "intention" or "purpose" with meaning is to assume that a poem or story is, ultimately, a rational creation; anyone who has been transported by reading knows, however, that enchantment and beauty transcend the rational.

"Intention" is a useful term when more broadly defined. Intention might be meaning, but for another writer, or another poem or story, the intention might be to depict a particular emotional state, or to explore an ethical dilemma in its complexity, or to understand how a particular character could commit a particular act- or, for that matter, to test the limits of associative movement, or collage structure. Certainly we have some intention(s) for each piece, or we wouldn't be writing. (What explorer in our history books set sail with, as Chuck Berry would say, no particular place to go? An explorer means to explore something, something as specific as the Northwest Passage, or the kingdom of Prester John, or as general as the uncharted waters beyond the Azores.) The plan that guides our exploration may or may not be the structure-defining intention of the map, the document that leads the reader; experience reminds us that there is often a world of difference between what we hope to find, or think we might find, and what we discover. Goals of our exploration, then, include refining our intention and determining the best way to present it.

Further complicating matters is the fact that our vehicle for discovery is the work we're trying to create. While some writers are able to conduct the exploration of a new world entirely in their minds (Katherine Anne Porter is reputed to have composed and revised entire stories in her head, so that she had to type only the final version), and others might work by jotting down individual lines, sketching scenes, and collecting details in notebooks, so that writing a novel is largely a matter of compiling its parts (as it was for Angels Wilson), most of us write a draft, a draft that at some point takes what we feel to be a wrong turn or leads to a dead end. We begin again, only to find we've made a tight circle-our expedition hasn't left sight of camp. Another time, we realize we're starting from the wrong place: we can't get there-where we think we want to go-from here. (We may find a story, or poem, in that very first draft, but we want the story that offers us, and our readers, deeper rewards.) Eventually, we find the story not despite failed efforts to find the story but through those efforts. Without our false starts, we would have gotten nowhere at all. "Writing delivers us into discoveries of what, till we had formed some way to articulate it in language, had remained unformed, had been unknown to us," Reginald Gibbons says. "The articulation becomes the knowing; the knowing comes out of the process, and it refuels a further effort at articulation. A sense of ecstatic fruitfulness, of rich discoveries, of voyaging, comes to us in the exhilarating moments of being-in-our-work-in-progress."

* * *

In the early 1960s, James Lord agreed to pose for Alberto Giacometti for one afternoon, for a sketch. The sketch became a painting, and the session went on for eighteen days. Lord kept a record of Giacometti's process, which was cyclical. Giacometti would stall, sometimes for hours, before beginning to work (some days he had to be coaxed out of a café or kept from destroying earlier drawings in his studio); when he finally sat at the canvas, he would either despair over his inability to do work of any merit or make optimistic noises; before long his tune would shift from optimism to despair, or from despair to talk of suicide. Every day, he would erase, or paint over, the previous day's work. Typically, he would continue until the studio was almost completely dark; typically, at the end of the day he would deem the work a failure.

Lord's slim book A Giacometti Portrait makes for perversely heartening reading. The artist tells his subject from the start that "it's impossible ever really to finish anything." By that time in his career, Giacometti had developed a notion of "finished" that assured no work could meet that standard. The reason became clear when, at the end of one day, Lord and the artist had the following conversation:

I said, "It's difficult for me to imagine how things must appear to you."

"That's exactly what I'm trying to do," he said, "to show how things appear to me."

"But what," I asked, "is the relation between your vision, the way things appear to you, and the technique that you nave at your disposal to translate that vision into something which is visible to others?

"That's the whole drama." he said. "I don't have such a technique."

Having "the technique"-the means, or ability, to get from here to there-is always, and has always been, the issue. The need to find methods of expression led to speech, to drawing, to )naps ("Here's how you get there"), and to writing. The artist is always developing and refining the techniques he uses to convey his vision, his discoveries. This ongoing development often involves the guide himself being guided; and so we have a long tradition of artists referring to divine intervention, the muses, great artists of the past, and teachers. Odysseus's long journey home, assisted by trustworthy characters, bedeviled by others, mirrors a writer's frustration and exhilaration. Every artist is in conversation with his or her own practice, peers, and predecessors. Dante the Pilgrim is led in the Earthly Paradise by Virgil:

O light and honor of the other poets, may my long years of study, and that deep love that made me search your verses, help me now! You are my teacher, the first of all my authors, and you alone the one from whom I took the noble style that was to bring me honor.

Of course, mere imitation, mere following, won't do:

"... you must journey down another road," he answered, when he saw me lost in tears, "if ever you hope to leave this wilderness."

"You must" is the guide's imperative. Some advice comes in the form of stern instruction: This is how you do it. Nevertheless, the impulse to make and offer rules is often a generous one. Trailblazers across land are concerned less with personal glory - they are, typically, anonymous - than with the safe and efficient travel of others. We appreciate not having to stumble through vast forests or search for passage across every river; but the blazed trail quickly becomes a well-worn path, one from which most of the sights have already been seen. The writer as explorer naturally wants to see what's over the next rise, what happens to the creek when it goes under that shelf of rock. We want to be guided, but only when we want to be guided.

Even more than other writers themselves, their work is our guide; seen that way, the books on our shelves are volumes of an enormous atlas. Particular landscapes and routes through them are illustrated in exacting detail. Countless poems, stories, and novels have been based on or influenced by Homer's Odyssey, including works by writers who, like Dante, never had the opportunity to read it. That epic poem has been an extraordinarily useful guide. Yet in the Odyssey, our hero often receives partial assistance: Get back on your boat, steer over there, but beware that singing; come ashore, you're welcome here, but hands off the cattle, or else. This is the sort of guidance we can expect from other writers and their work. Precisely what to make of it, and how to make the best of it, is left to us.


Excerpted from MAPS OF THE IMAGINATION by PETER TURCHI Copyright © 2004 by Peter Turchi. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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