Mapping Landmarks

Last week Gothamist managed to get hold of a hand-drawn map of the interior of Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall, created by the student protesters who were occupying it.

It marked off an area for smoking, and its legend noted where you could find a ladder, water fountains or “tons of books.”

Of course it immediately became a Rorschach test for how people feel about the campus protests dominating the news of late—how someone interprets the symbols and legends likely reveals more about them than about the map or mapmakers themselves.

Which is what delights me about this map, and all maps really. They’re never, ever solely about geography.

“The power of maps to fire imagination is well known,” novelist Michael Chabon wrote in his essay collection Maps and Legends. “And there is no map so seductive as the one marked…by the romantic blank of unexplored territory.”  

And is there a more fertile or fascinating unexplored territory than a writer’s subconscious? I doubt it.

Coincidentally, this spring, I’ve been asking my Gotham students to do some mapmaking of their own—with thrilling, surprising results. I think that’s because sketching a map taps three big wells:

  • Drawing something, anything, coaxes thoughts and ideas to burble up from your mind’s depths into your imagination, and to emerge on paper, where they can make themselves useful.
  • Sketching out a place in your story —an imaginary country, a ghost town, your childhood bedroom — helps you find the borders of the place, and also, your story. You’ll identify, too, the borders of those “romantic blanks of unexplored territory” you may not yet know exist. Of course, once you know where a border lies, you can cross it, and explore.
  • Maps require symbols and legends, designating landmarks, locations of high value. Desert maps take pains to mark the points where a traveler would find water; ghost tour maps mark the sites places where apparitions have visited, as well as cemeteries and burial grounds. Locating and naming landmarks forces writers to identify what’s valuable in a story; choosing the symbols and creating the legend to explain them encourages you to explore why those places deserve to be landmarks, and what they mean.

Once you’ve mapped a place, you cannot help but start to think about the people who’ve moved through it — the locals, the visitors, the settlers, the plunderers, the commuters, the lost. The characters of your story, in other words. They come to you.

Try it yourself: Sketch out a map of a place in your current WIP. See what borders you add, which ones mark the undiscovered lands. Then, add symbols for only the landmarks that are meaningful to the protagonist. Write a scene at one of those landmarks.

See what adventures await you.

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty

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