One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Landscape of A First Draft

Saul Steinberg, Autogeography, 1966

I’m in the beginning stages of starting a new novel and am at once excited and frankly, terrified. Excited by the potential for discovery. And terrified by the possibility of failure that I know, from experience, leads to feeling hopelessly lost. Wandering in the wilderness.

I wish I had a map.

As a plot challenged writer, I have been trying to force myself to think ahead, to plan, and to outline. But making an outline before you write a draft is like making a map of a place you’ve never been. I’m back to thinking that the first draft has to be an expedition, a voyage into unknown territory. Figuring out the paths and sights, the flora, fauna, the people you think you might meet before you get there just doesn’t make sense. It would be like a cartographer making a map of a place he’s never been before he sets out to explore.

In his astonishingly wise book, Maps of The Imagination: The Writer As Cartographer, Peter Turchi says, “If we attempt to map the world of a story before we explore it we are likely either to (a) prematurely limit our exploration, so as to reduce the amount of material we need to consider, or (b) explore at length but, recognizing the impossibility of taking note of everything, and having no sound basis for choosing what to include, arbitrarily omit entire realms of information.”

19th Century map of a woman's heart.

Venturing into the unknown is always a scary proposition. But as Bill Cosby once said, you have to decide you want it more than you’re afraid of it. In other words, if you ever want to go someplace new, do something you haven’t done before, the desire to discover has to outweigh the fear.

It is tempting for many writers (myself included) to stay close to a known path by repeating what we know, doing what we feel comfortable and competent doing. Imitating what has worked in the past is often (although not always) a safe bet. But if we give in to that safe route, we are depriving ourselves of discovering anything new. Of growing both as writers and as human beings.

We do look to other writers and other pieces of successful writing for clues, travel tips, you could call them. But again, if we give in to following a map someone else has made, we will not discover much that is new.

Edinburg Scotland Map 1947
Artist: Kerry Lee
If I want to continue on with the travel analogy, comparing the voyage into a new story with taking a trip, then I guess we could consider the different ways to travel, the benefits and the drawbacks. Going someplace foreign on a guided tour has its merits, although you’re unlikely to discover much that hasn’t already been well documented. Going on your own with a map someone else has made is a bit more adventuresome and you might wander off road now and then, meet some interesting people, see things that you personally haven’t seen before but others probably have. (If there’s a map, you can bet that others have traveled the road before you)

Map by Julia McKenzie Art
But if you strike out into the wild, into uncharted territory, you will have to be your own guide, follow your instincts. You might get eaten by a monster. Or perhaps you’ll find treasure. Even if someone has gone down the same path before you, you will see it through your own eyes without already expecting what might be there. Once you’ve gone out and come back, (if you do come back…) THEN you can make a map.

In the words of Voltaire, “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”

What about you? Are you a mapper? Or an explorer?

Take Good Care,



  1. I love this Voltaire quote. I vote for uncomfortable!

  2. I'm mucking about on my own path right now so this is perfect. Wishing I had a brighter flashlight!