Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Map-Making as a Metaphor for Writing

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro 

November 2014

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“Writing is an act of exploration—searching, premeditated or unconscious, disciplined or off-the-top-of-your-head.”

Maps (these days GPS’s) help people figure out where they are and where they are going. When you look at a map, your real question is, “Where am I going?” Or, if we think like writers, “What is the story?”

Writing is an act of exploration—searching, premeditated or unconscious, disciplined or off-the-top-of-your-head. You might scribble things down, invent scenes, dialogue, images, and characters. You might even write a first draft. There’s often false starts, mistakes, and stepping into unintended places. This happens with any kind of writing—a short story, a novel, memoir, poem. But if you keep going, you will discover the story, the world in which it lives. The other part of writing, the left-brained part, is actually presenting that story, using your talent, what you’ve learned about writing from books and teachers to have an effect on others. Unlike a diary, a serious (even comic) piece of writing doesn’t just record what happened to you, but takes your reader on a journey. The writer goes from being an explorer to being a guide.

“Warning: because we’re in the unknown, we are anxious, sometimes despairing.”

Graham Greene wrote, “If this book of mine fails to take a straight course, it’s because I am lost in a strange region; I have no map.” Graham Greene, The End of an Affair

Creative writing is a trip into the unknown. Warning: because we’re in the unknown, we are anxious, sometimes despairing. We can feel lost and scared we’ll never find what we came for. Or we can come upon a fertile valley, one we never anticipated. Sometimes we feel as if there is nothing new to be found, that all has been said already, but better than we can. And then we remember that all writers have been there before. That Jane Smiley traveled the familiar path of King Lear and ended up with her award-winning A Thousand Acres, a book truly her own. West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet. Feel free to follow a worn path, but make it fresh with your own characters, settings, and themes. Mere imitation won’t do. Virgil, the poet, whom Dante looked to as an honored teacher, “You must journey down another road if you hope to leave this wilderness.”

“We create our fictional world as we discover it. . . . .”

We create our fictional world as we discover it just as Defoe did in Robinson Crusoe, Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island and Jonathan Swift in Lilliput. Other writers use settings they are familiar with like me, using Great Neck, New York, in both Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and Indie finalist Kaylee’s Ghost.

Sometimes we begin by looking around us, describing what we see. But even when we think we are just describing what is, how differently each of us will. Some of us know the names of every flower, tree, bird, cloud. But you can’t put it all in, which means that you have to choose what to leave in, what to omit. And that’s part of the creative act. You have to decide where you’re going with the story to know what to leave in and what to leave out. We have to have to arrive at the meaning of our story and that sometimes takes lots of time and lots of, what seems like useless writing, but that’s what it takes.

Some writers, like Cynthia Ozick and Katherine Anne Porter do all the work in their minds. They don’t have to do draft after draft in order to get to where they want to on their maps. But for most of us, knowing where we want to get to involves searching, getting lost, making u-turns. The secret is, don’t give up until you get there. And don’t stop until you get the reader to see and feel what you want him to.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s first novel, Miriam The Medium (Simon & Schuster), was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Her novel, Kaylee’s Ghost (Amazon and Nook), is an Indie Finalist. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives), and Newsweek and in many anthologies. Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in The Coe Review, Compass Rose, The Griffin, Inkwell Magazine, The Iowa Review, Los Angeles Review, The MacGuffin, Memoir And, Moment, Negative Capability, Pennsylvania English, The Carolina Review, and more. She won the Brandon Memorial Literary Award from Negative Capability. Shapiro is a professional psychic who currently teaches writing at UCLA Extension.