As a child, I drew maps. Maps which had our family house at the centre and a web of suburban streets radiating out from it, to the various destinations my parents would drive me to school, the shops, friends’ houses and so on. I liked plotting the various routes you could take to get to these places. And although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was constructing a narrative about me and my family in those maps, about the places which were important to us and the people who surrounded us.
I have been reminded of this recently by Peter Turchi’s book, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. I found it in a bookshop in New York City, 3 blocks west and one block north from the apartment I was staying in. The book itself was lying flat on top of a row of other books in the sociology section. I think none of the staff knew exactly where to put it, so it inhabited no particular place in the bookshop’s own aisles – the streets of a bookshop – labelled by genre or topic. It was misplaced on its own map.
I can understand how. It’s a difficult book to categorise. It’s a series of short essays about the relationships between maps and stories – about how mapmaking is storytelling, and storytelling mapmaking. I want to capture just three of the many ideas it presents about this shared territory, and reflect on what it might mean for recording and seeking meaning from the narratives of individuals.
The map as the message
To view a map is to be invited to read someone’s world view. If you looked at my 5-year-old self’s view of my hometown and attempted to find your way from one end of it to the other, it would have been sadly inadequate. But you would have gained an understanding of how I navigated around it, about was important to 5-year-old me and what activities filled my days.
Maps are informed by the mapmaker’s ideas, but they also communicate those ideas. The mapmaker gets to select what features are recorded and what is left out. Maps made by the earliest European explorers of Australia, for instance, might show large featureless spaces in the middle of the continent, reinforcing notions of terra nullius. But if we could ask the local Indigenous populations of the time to show us their maps of the same regions, they would no doubt be filled with symbols describing the features of the landscape, navigating paths for the reader through geographic and mythological territory.
Stories, Turchi argues, are like this. Objectivity is impossible and what’s missing is as important as what’s included. Who’s telling the story and their intentions colour the work. The reader stops being a passive taker of direction and has to ask herself what knowledge is being proffered, what the gaps in that knowledge are and what motivations lie behind the selectivity of the mapmaker.
But we can take an extra step here and imagine the part that the mapmaker’s objectivity (or the lack of it) plays in encouraging the reader to enter their ideological world. Because as Turchi says, to actually use a map – to rely on it to get you from one end of town to another – is to subscribe temporarily to the mapmakers’ beliefs. “To learn how to read any map is to be indoctrinated into that mapmakers’ culture,” he writes, which might give us pause for thought the next time Google Maps tells us to take a certain toll road or suggests we fill up at a nearby service station.
Or we might find it comforting that with every day we spend navigating around New York or Alice Springs, guided by a benevolent mapmaker’s worldview, the more we move and react like a resident, gradually fitting in, gradually assuming a new identity. Becoming a local.
Stories create maps
“Where’s it set?” is a question we might ask a budding storyteller. It’s our starting point from where we’ll find our way to everything else within a story. If the answer is “Berlin 1938” or “the North Pole” or even “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, we as readers of these texts instantly start to build up our own mental geography. We start to conceive of place and create a context for us to help make sense of the story being told.
The storyteller helps fill in these maps with detail. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare helps us picture the tension-filled distance between the houses of the Montagues and the Capulets, and helps us position the Apothecary’s house and the Chapel along the way. Some stories, like those by Tolkien, come illustrated by maps, the better for us to imagine the topographical barriers between Eriador and Mordor. In stories like Moby Dick, The Iliad and Catch-22 we understand the characters by the literal and metaphoric journeys we follow them on, and their distance from home.
The map is also a common motif within storytelling. In a WW2 epic, perforated lines will creep across Europe as our heroes fly overhead. In a TV police procedural, mug shots of the suspects will be placed upon a whiteboard, red tape illustrating the linkages between the two. Stories that are successful and “world building” communicate their geographies implicitly. I know through repeated viewings, for instance, that Fawlty Towers’ guest rooms are upstairs and to the right, its dining room is in front of the kitchen and no-one’s ever had to draw me a map. And in games such as Minecraft and Fortnite players create and explore landscapes of their own making, noting landmarks, forging paths.
In this way, the description of places and the relationships between them is a fundamental storytelling element. And the places created can never be authoritative or 100% factual; even if the storyteller knew the streets and lanes of 1938 Berlin intimately, the version she creates for her story is still her own construct, created for her needs, never exact.
So the navigation between those places forms a kind of contract between storyteller and reader, based on the version the storyteller presents. Thus a shared agreement about the boundaries in which the story takes place is created. “A reader,” Turchi writes, “enters the world of a poem, or a story, realistic or otherwise, willing, at least for a short time, to believe it and accept its terms.” The storyteller becomes our guide, telling us most of the story and trusting the reader to fill in the blanks.
Stories act like maps
What she’s guiding you through is the map of the story. The purpose of a map, after all, is to help you get from point a to point b. Our storyteller is helping us get from the beginning of a story to its end, making sure we visit all the important stops along the way. Characters and incidents are our landmarks. A classic three act structure can be seen as three steppingstones, helping the reader get to the heart of the story, getting closer to the conclusion with every hop.
If wanted to, we could find maps that to help create those stories. We could follow the standard beats of a Hollywood blockbuster, if we wanted, as they have been charted by Robert McKee and others. The Hero’s Journey, as described by Joseph Campbell, can guide us through separation, initiation and return. Maybe these are more recipes than maps, but they all say, “start here, go there and end up there.” And they provide a level of comfort for the reader when that familiar path is followed. We feel in safe hands, that our storyteller knows the way.
In this way, through repetition of the well-worn narrative path, we as readers become inculcated in “good” storytelling structure. We like it when the Hero’s Journey plays out the way we expect because who doesn’t like to hear the hits? And if those familiar story beats aren’t hit in the right order, we can feel disconcerted and short changed.
Turchi was talking about a map’s inclusion of well-meaning cultural signifiers when he wrote, “every map intends not simply to serve us, but to influence us” but I think it also applies here. The more we create stories that intrinsically please us because they follow the one true map, the more those structures become entrenched and the more we seek out stories that fit those structures.
What this means for creating life histories
When we ask someone to tell us their story, we are, like the map reader, engaging in a temporary contract. We buy into their world and we ask them to set the boundaries. We ask them to select the important aspects and omit the unimportant ones. We ask them to start and stop the story. We ask them to assume the primary role in the narrative. They must be our Sherpa, guiding us through a world well known to them, but unfamiliar to us.
We know that perspective distorts the story, just the most common map of the world (the Mercator Projection) distorts the size and influence of many of its nations. And we assign ourselves the role of the cartographer; the person who’s going to make objective sense of this. Although subconsciously, we’ve filled in a lot of the blanks on our own. We’d decided what Berlin 1938 looked like based that movie we saw once, and we’ve decided who to cast as Hitler. (Cate Blanchett, as it happens). We are not – we cannot be – passive observers. We change the story simply by listening.
As a researcher and a collector of entrepreneurs’ stories, I can, at the least, be aware of these weaknesses of method. Still, I think the metaphor of “story as map” also offers a perspective that can be usefully overlaid on the narratives offered by research participants. In the participant’s description of place, the positioning of themselves within their own narrative and the extent to which their story conforms to an established storytelling structure, we can at least note how far they deviate from the familiar storytelling path and let them choose the destination.
Turchi, Peter. (2004). Maps of the imagination: the writer as cartographer. San Antonio, Texas, Trinity University Press.