Wednesday, March 19, 2008


The kids are into maps these days. Garret found one in the back seat of my car and now studies it everywhere we go. It's one of those thick, wire-bound tomes and it details the roads in every town in eastern Massachusetts. The edges have tattered over the years and it's sadly out of date. Untold subdivisions are still represented as green fields. Newly widened thoroughfares are still marked as tiny roads. Yet, to Garret, it holds some secrets and he seems to feel that if he studies it long enough, all will be revealed.

Now, Sammie has picked up the habit, as well. She draws maps everywhere. Hers have people in them, and they come with stories, but they are maps all the same. From them, she dictates the directions to grandma's house, to swimming lessons, to the store. On the way to the doctor's office yesterday, she told me how to get there. "First, we go this way," she said and lifted her finger from a sheet of paper on which she'd drawn lots of smiling people to point left out the window. "Now we go straight for a little while, but up and down some hills." She was very serious about the whole thing. Mostly right, too.

This study and interest reminds me of the topographical maps I studied when I was learning to fly. I had to look at them before a cross country flight in order to get an idea of any obstacles I might encounter and at what altitudes. And then I had to find them in the air. I remember flying and looking from the map to the ground. Where's the tower? Where's the highway? Where are the railroad tracks? Where's the little lake shaped like a horseshoe? And finally, where's the runway? You wouldn't think there'd be time for that, but there is. In a little Cessna 152, there's ample time to look at the ground and the map to figure out where you are. In fact, it's the only way to get anywhere.

In writing, maps are called outlines. Unfortunately, this label unfairly robs them of all their sexiness. An outline, or a story map, contains all of a story's signposts, all of the markers you need to pass before you're done. They are the only way I can get anywhere in a story. I write them constantly, sometimes while reporting. In a bowling alley at 2 a.m. I wrote out a crude story outline, just to make sure I'd gathered enough sound. I've written them on old envelopes and on the backs of grocery lists. I've written them while writing a magazine story, just to make sure I'm doing what I think I'm doing. I've written them after I've finished a book chapter, to figure out where I got lost. I've used them to help me think through a short story, even though no fiction writer I've ever met admits to using outlines. And now, I'm doing one for the book, in part to keep the anxiety at bay, in part to figure out what's here and what's not. Actually, I'm doing several. One detailed map for the whole text, then another one with just chapter titles and possible titles. There will probably be a third one with concepts but no anecdotes. 

I just wish mine were as pretty as Sammies, with all her smiling faces.

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