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

Finding the Story

Lisa Cron, author of a craft book I recommend a lot called Story Genius, has often said that the biggest mistake she saw writers make when she was a literary agent is that they write pages, not stories.

“They have a great idea, their prose is gorgeous, and there’s a lot of action, [but] there’s no real story, and so no driving sense of urgency,” she writes.  “Story is about an internal struggle, not an external one.”

There are so many ways to fall into this–digressions, elaborate descriptions, or following a character around for 30 pages, just to see what they do. Research is my weakness. I’ll interrupt a scene five times to tell you about the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

And it’s not wrong to write those things and follow those thoughts in our early drafts. Early drafts are for discovery, in my opinion, and if you want to write a page of description to discover one great line or write about the Galveston Hurricane to keep one juicy factoid, well, Ok then.

For author Harrison Scott Key, his traps are humor (no surprise there, he’s a winner of the Thurber Prize for Humor), and backstory. In a recent visit to my class, he said that in the first draft of his most recent book How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told, he dedicated many entire chapters to backstory.

“There were a bunch that were so fun, and, I don’t know, maybe Dostoevsky or Tolstoy would have left them all in,” he said. “But I took them out because, while they fit within the structure of it, I’m not Tolstoy and I need to keep things moving.”

He started thinking about how his book would answer the question, “What is going to get people, when they finish a chapter, to turn the page?”

The book’s inciting incident is the moment that his wife of 20 years tells him she’s in love with another man. High drama, right? But… where’s the story?

Harrison started trying to figure that out with spreadsheets, which, for a while, helped him get perspective. Until they didn’t.

“Every story is really 2 stories. The first half is the thing [the protagonist] sets out to do. And then the second half is whatever actually happens,” Harrison said. “If our job is to win the football game, you’re going to win that football game by the middle or you’re going to lose it by the middle. And then the last half the book is going to be about what was really going on with you when you were trying to win that football game.”

Harrison took the moments that felt special beyond their inherent drama, wrote them on post-it notes, and tacked just those moments to a bulletin board.

“It’s a good practice to ask, what’s got to be in there?” Harrison said. ”Put a pin in those big moments, and you can build your bridge on all that.”

And how were the post-it-worthy high-octane moments different from the rest?

“Change,” he said.

Once they were up there, Harrison could see an infrastructure. And once you have that, you have a story.

Your turn, writers. Take whatever you’re working on right now, and look for your high-octane moments, then find the ones where something big changes, and give those turning points their own space.

What story are they telling?

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty