A map of the United States came in the mail today from the Sierra Club. On one side are our states, our cities, our major highways, and the topography of our land. On the other side are regional environmental challenges: water pollution in New England, mountain top removal in Pennsylvania, deep sea oil drilling in every body of water that meets our shores.
I lost track of time studying the topographical map, the cities, the regions, the rivers. I'm supposed to be writing a novella. That's what I've been up to lately. It's my fourth and final semester of my MFA program, and I want to do the best work I'm capable of so far. I want to do better than the best I've been able to do, up till now.
I wish I had a map for my story. I want the topography of my characters. I want to see where their streams flow, where the headwaters bubble out of the ground. I want to see their capitals as well as their hidden gems. And on the flip side, I want to know where their conflicts are, what crisis do they need to face, and how do I march fearlessly toward it?
Writing takes trust, courage, and some kind of dim vision, I think. Most writers aren't lucky enough to get the bird's-eye view of their story before they set off down a road and find where it leads. Maybe a little like driving with a GPS.
On a recent weekend camping trip, our TomTom turned us off the state highway and led us down a narrow gravel road, no telling what we'd find along the way or where we'd come out of it. We topped out, in good parts, at 25 mph under dark forests, passing hidden driveways and no-trespassing signs, not a single other car on the road for miles. We were awake and alive to every detail around us. And then, we cleared through the trees and sailed onto blacktop, surprised and a little disappointed.
If I could write like driving down that road, that'd be just fine with me.