“Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer” – Peter Turchi

“Cartographers must continually confront the fact that there is no such thing as objective presentation” (Turchi 73).

As I discussed in my previous post, literary cartography constantly struggles with trying to represent objectively (the best they can) the geography of wholly subjective texts. Making a map of one’s personal experience of a fictional geography is one thing, but constructing a map that includes a general representation that many readers with all different experiences can understand and appreciate is completely different.

This is a transit map of Auckland, New Zealand. Even on real maps this is a crazy amount of information.

With a book, it is considered the author’s job to provide us with a text that can be interpreted in ways relevant or personal for the reader. The words act as a loose framework for a reader’s and the author must present those words and sentences in a way that makes sense. The words are read one at a time in a horizontal line and down the page. They are many rules in which those words must be order and constructed for them to function properly, or else the story is chaotic. Maps are, the other hand, present all its information at once. A reader is bombarded with all the symbols, lines and names of places wherever they look. This means the reader has to make decisions about where to start reading, where to read next and where to end. The first time looking at a new map, I don’t start in one place and continue in a systematic manner – my eyes dart around picking out pieces of information seemingly at random until I find my place (or a character’s place). In order for the map to make sense a mapmaker must prioritize and omit information, or else what’s presented on the page is just chaos. In this way, authors and mapmakers are inherently similar. Authors however, can also act as cartographers, even without the help of mapped representation. They create space with text, but maps cannot create space, only represent it, or so it would seem.

This brings me to the reading for today. Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, written by Peter Turchi, discusses they ways that writers and cartographers are similar, how writers can be cartographers, and the processes and implication regarding space, place and cartographies of fictional worlds and how the authors perceives them and the readers perceive them, particularly when they are represented on maps. There is much discussion on the abstractness of space in text versus the physicality and realistic nature of maps. It was useful while reading to have already had a basic understanding of cartographic principles, like what I learned in lower level geography courses.

“A reader enters the world of a poem or story, realistic or otherwise, willing, for at least a short time, to believe it and to accept its terms” (67).

Robert Louis Stevenson's map of Treasure Island. He apparently drew it for stepson and was later inspired to write his book.

Turchi says that the author of a fictional story that takes place in a fictional world must act as the explorer of that world as well. He calls for authors to “fully embrace” exploration and to contemplate their original intentions and the “vast unknown” of their imaginations. In fact, one must be wary of the conflicts that can arise while using maps to develop an imaginary world.

“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” (14).

Is it bad then to map out an imagined world and then make a story from it? Not necessarily, I don’t think. In fact, Robert Louis Stevenson drew a map of an island, and was then inspired to write Treasure Island. Maps of imagined places also exist on their own and can be used to tell stories that still exhibit great amounts of creativity and imagination. Thus methods of mapping fictional worlds do not seem better or worse than other ones. It does seem that breadth of cartographic creativity is particularly based on the writer’s own ability. Imagination knows no boundaries after all, but it’s those imagined boundaries that that determine the geography of one’s fictional world.


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