For your travels, I wish you well with the places you rent through Airbnb and such. Myself, I prefer hotels.

The way you leave your life behind, allowing others to cook and clean and point you in the right direction. Watching a TV that may take you to strange channels, especially overseas. Working out the labyrinthine layout of the place. Oh, yes, room service.

Most of all, hanging out among a collection of random strangers that could be anyone from an insurance salesperson to a serial killer, without you knowing which is which. Sometimes you chat with them, sometimes you just watch and wonder.

As the Gotham tagline says: Stories. Everywhere.

Three of my favorite hotels:

The Menger Hotel – San Antonio, Texas, next to the Alamo. (It’s in the pic.) You feel the complicated spirit of the Old West in these walls. Teddy Roosevelt recruited Rough Riders for the Spanish-American War here and they say his ghost still lingers at the bar.

Hotel Kempinski – Geneva, Switzerland, right on Lake Geneva in view of the Jet d’Eau. In the elevator, I was alone with a man unimaginably magnificent: a pilot for Egypt Air, tall and straight as an airplane with jet-black hair and mustache and the face of an eagle.

Kwa Maritane Bush Lodge – Pilanesberg Game Reserve, South Africa. They offer game drives at dawn and dusk where you see lions and impalas and the like. You can also follow an underground tunnel into a “hide” to glimpse the animals without them knowing you’re around.

My life isn’t so grand as these places would lead you to believe, though I have stayed at each. I’m also drawn to the humbler places, even a low-slung motel along a strip of highway.

Hotels light up my imagination. I’m not alone; many great tales take place in these habitats:

The Shining – Stephen King’s horror novel and itsoffshoots,set at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. REDRUM!

Schitt’s Creek – The TV series (created by Daniel and Eugene Levy) about a fallen-from-grace family forced to live in a run-down motel in rural Canada.

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles’s novel about a Russian aristocrat sentenced to spend his life in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, forbidden to ever set foot outside.

“Hotel California” – A song by The Eagles about a metaphoric hotel that’s seductive for a while; though you can check out, you can never leave.

What is it that excites your imagination, causing you to buzz with delight or intrigue or trepidation? There must be a handful of things that do the trick for you. Find those things and make them your muses.

Alex Steele

Gotham President

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

Lifelong Learning

I don’t think of Gotham Writers Workshop as an educational institution or even as a school, though we are obviously both, considering our chief activity is offering classes. I just prefer something that sounds more entertaining, perhaps a laboratory of storytelling.

That name conjures mad scientists and fizzy potions and has a bit of pizazz to it.

Whatever we call it, we do help people learn. We’ve been doing that a long time (over 30 years) and we plan to keep on doing it, well, forever.

While re-reading T.H. White’s glorious telling of the King Arthur tale, I was struck by this quote from Merlin the wizard:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you.”

In this version of the tale, Merlin lives backwards, growing younger every day, coming from a past/future where he has seen the ravages of the 20th century. Which gives him an interesting perspective on things. Having lived in the time of the atomic bomb is reason enough to convince King Arthur that might should not mean right.

And it strikes me that learning makes you both older and younger. Older because when you learn stuff your mind matures in a way. Younger because when you learn stuff you’re increasing the flexibility of your mind. It’s inspiring to watch a child learn something, like those first fumbling attempts at walking or reading, but it’s equally inspiring to watch someone who’s been around a while pick up new tricks, like writing a novel or baking a soufflé.

And that gets me thinking that learning is like a Möbius strip, one of those strips with a half twist that you can trace with your fingers for years and years and never reach the end or the beginning—the way learning makes you simultaneously older and younger. Which is kind of sensational, isn’t it?

What are you going to learn this week? Go on, be ambitious about it. If you fail, that’s fine. Even then, you learned something.

Alex Steele

Gotham President