Writing Without a Map

One of my favorite pastimes when I am visiting a foreign city is to go for a walk, alone, and purposely allow myself to get lost. Of course I do all those things most tourist do: notice landmarks, key on certain street names, check the skylines for prominent high rise buildings or mountain ranges. But mostly I allow myself to follow my instincts, my impulses, my curiosities. I plunge into interesting side streets, follow the strains of distant music and once I even followed a stray cat. And the thrill comes when I realize that I am totally lost, that I have no idea where I am. And there is also another guilty pleasure: I realize that not only am I lost, but nobody else in the entire world knows where I am.

There are two things I like most about getting lost. First: I know that I am going to stumble upon or discover elements of the city that will surprise me, intrigue me or maybe even frighten me. Witnessing a police raid in the back streets of Tokyo was amazing and frightening and dangerous. And, Second: I know that the challenge of finding my way home (hopefully without using a map or asking directions) will be a new adventure all in itself. It will be an adventure that will tell me more about where I am going than if I had never got lost. writer in the abyssThat’s the most important benefit of getting lost. When you get lost you might find a way home that holds up a mirror, let’s you see who you really are, let’s you see your journey and even your destination in a whole new light. I once heard of a book entitled: The Blue Line. I never found it or read it but I did know what it was all about. It was a cross-country journey and the author had decided to traverse this continent by traveling only on the minor roads, the roads on the map that were the ‘blue lines’, the undeveloped and often untraveled roads. I was always intrigued with this notion. I searched for the book, couldn’t find it. But the concept stayed with me. And I’m still intrigued.

That’s the way I like to travel and that’s the way I like to write. I like to follow the blue lines, or even better, write without a map. I am often intrigued in my writing with the fact that I am not sure where I am going. Sometimes I think I write in order to get lost. Maybe I will keep a few signposts in mind – maybe not. When I write I look forward to those moments when I literally have no idea how I am going to get myself out of the mess I have created – out of the dead end street I have wandered down. One of the most powerful experiences in writing is finding a way out of the rabbit hole you have not only dug but have thrown yourself into. Finding your way out of the abyss is far more interesting and revealing than following a map that has been created for you, by someone else.

When I am writing I like to stay in the chaos and avoid swimming for shore.

-Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter: Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the   Spotless Mind

I know there are so many great books out there written masters of screenwriting and storytelling. Many of them are my friends: Syd Field, Blake Snyder, Chris Vogler, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, John Truby, etc. These books will give you guidelines, structure, 22 steps, 6 parts, the 3-act structure, turning points or beat sheets to guide you through the process. They are maps. They are guides. They are the “Hop On, Hop Off” buses in every city that will take you to predetermined locations, letting you stay there as long as you like, then you hop on again, check your map, and decided whether or not to get off at the next stop.

As much as I admire (and depend on) the insights and guidance of these masters, I am keenly aware of how limiting and even dangerous it can be if I follow one of their maps as I write. But on the other hand, one of the most beneficial aspects of these books is to pull out one of the maps after I have completed my journey – after my first draft is done. After I have been lost and dug my way out of the rabbit hole it’s enlightening to see ‘the map I created’ in contrast to a map that would have guided me.

When I can look back and see where I have been, why I got lost and maybe how my getting lost actually helped me find my way, then I’ve struck gold. When I can “stay in the chaos” and “refuse to swim for shore” there is a greater likelihood that I will tap into insights, characters, situations, resolutions and epiphanies way beyond my imagination.

Can you imagine, someday someone is going to invent a GPS system for writers. Just type in your desired destination and the device will guide you there, safely, and you won’t get lost.

7 responses to “Writing Without a Map”

  1. Patti Meyers

    Getting lost reminds me of going off on a tangent or in a new direction when writing my script. It’s an opportunity to find something wonderful or wind up getting myself and my script into a godawful mess. I have copies of all the books you mentioned but still follow my own path rather than anything formulaic. Then I go back to see if my script hits the plot points or even comes close. I hope no one even thinks of inventing a GPS system for writers. It would be stifling.

  2. ora

    i am 77 & I will continue “Writing Without a Map till my dying day.
    Thank you,

  3. Charlie Bury

    Insightful post Mark. Though, I’m a little vigilant to wondering foreign territories on my own (I need to get out more!), I certainly love to dive into those foreign territories of my mind. I will keep that quote by Kaufman by my side.

    The other day I was in a hotel room and couldn’t sleep and decided to start on a fresh story (rather than picking one from the heap of previous scraps I have) and it led me to the most bizarre places when I was persistent to resistance. I led imagination lead my acts and eventually bring them (in part) together. It truly can be exciting. But, like you say, once you reach the shore, bring the structure back and “check your map”. I am yet to do this with my tableau from the other night, but this post has been a great reminder, to myself, that I like the freedom on the page and what a liberating process it can be.

    I would be interested to hear from more screenwriters about their ‘flow’ processes. I indefinitely struggle to follow any previously laid act structures I may have outlined, the dialogue or actions always drag my draft off the shore.

  4. Elsha Bohnert

    Mark, a great way I allow myself to get lost in both my writing and my real life is by following my Committee’s lures and warnings. It’s like hitching rides deep into the unconscious and it’s a sure way to come up against the strangest of obstacles. The question I hold as my guide is the question you always ask: What would I write about if I had no fear? And how would I live if I had no fear?

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