Posted by: oneyearbook | April 9, 2009

Uncharted territory

Maps and Legends

Maps and Legends

Today I sat down with Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, a collection of essays about writing and the relationship between ‘genre’ writing and ‘literary writing.’ In the eponymous essay, he talks about the beginning of a lifelong fascination with maps that began when his family moved to the newly-created town of Columbia, Maryland, and he was given a map showing what the community would eventually look like, down to the planned-for street names and neighbourhood groupings.

“The power of maps to fire the imagination is well known … there is no map so seductive as the one marked … by doubts and conjectures, by the romantic blank of unexplored territory,” he writes.

I’ve always loved maps, too: maps in books (my father, for a long time, could only be convinced to read a novel by the announcement that there was a map in the front, and sometimes I feel he must be right); maps of the world; antique maps; maps of the vacation property my parents announced we were going to when I was eight. In my imagination I played long days in the territory on that map, among those trees and rolling hills, among the carefully contoured edges of the pond. It was wonderful when we got there; but perhaps, just perhaps, not quite as wonderful as the world conjured up by the map.

Chabon describes creating a map of his own imaginary world, Davoria; I made continent after continent with worse names than that, exotic tongue-twisters, and peopled them with ‘ruins’ and ‘ancient temples’ and ‘great wastes.’

I no longer have much call to draw maps, or, beyond city or park navigation, reading them. But, just as I used to enjoy drawing maps, I now quite enjoy creating outlines, sometimes for work that I won’t ever get around to really writing. I like to see what my imaginary creations look like, at least in overview; the details can be filled in later, or, if it turns out I’ve made a mistake (that bay should, in fact, be an inland lake, say), there’s always a quick eraser, sweep the scraps off the paper and into the bin, and a sketch of the new world.

The outlines don’t have to be superbly detailed; some of them are like being in a darkened oil bin, and tossing a few pebbles off into the distance to see if they hit metal or not. The only information that’s really necessary is a vague sense of the edges; the rest is all exploration at the time. Some of them, though, are like the rope that leads scuba-divers into caves; if you cave-dive without a line, it only takes a moment, a blink, to lose all sense of direction, to lose track of the exit, to forget which way is up, and which way down.

This novel is somewhere inbetween those two. I think I’ve mentioned before that I do, in fact, have an overall outline for the book, but it’s quite vague in places, especially for the section that I’m working on right now; the last few scenes that I’ve done have felt a little like go-nowhere filler so I think before I go spelunking tomorrow I’ll have to sit down, weave a rope, tie it on, and cautiously feel my way towards the watery depths.

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