Maps as Inspiration and the Stories They Tell

personal mapsIf you’ve followed me from my I Heart Edmonton days, or have seen very much of my artwork, you’ll know that I’m a teensy bit obsessed with maps. I’m inspired by them and love incorporating them in my work. What’s the big deal about maps? I could write for days about all the interesting things I’ve learned about them (and maybe someday I will), but for now I’ll just share what I think is one of their most interesting features: how we can use them to tell stories.

If you’ve ever taken a road trip, you can identify with the map as storyteller. It shows you the ground you’ve covered since leaving home. A few years ago my brother and I drove all the way around the United States, touching 34 states in 2 months, and I used a map to keep track of our route. I kept it as a souvenir: the thick yellow line running in a rugged circle around the country reminds us of where we went, of the things we saw, and of the adventures we had. That yellow line is as evocative for me as a photo album.

Maps can also tell the stories of where we want to go. I’m thinking of all the times I’ve planned a trip – whether to a foreign continent, or to an unfamiliar part of of the city I live in – poring over the details on a map, trying to visualize a journey from one place to another and imagining how it might turn out.

Even if we spend most of our lives in one place and have no need to physically look at a map, they are still constantly helping us understand the world around us. We create mental maps of places familiar to us: of our route to work, of the aisles we regularly visit in the grocery store, of our path around the house as we get ready in the morning. Just think of how disorienting it is to walk into a grocery store in a different part of the city; on the outside it looks the same as the one we’re used to, but inside things are backwards or mixed up. Our mental map tells us to go one way but reality tells us something different. These mental maps help us define how we fit into the world around us.

Mapping can be more abstract as well. We talk about mapping out our future, or making mind maps when we’re trying to solve a problem. Though they refer to time or ideas rather than space, these visual representations have as much to say to us as the maps created by our footsteps. To create a map of the future, we have to explore the map of the past, examining what worked and what didn’t and using that as a jumping off point to get somewhere new. When we explore the contents of our mind, we are sometimes surprised to discover uncharted territory. Either way we learn something new about our character and our stories.

Our bodies, too, form maps as we seek to understand and cure injuries or illnesses. I recently spent 5 months seeing a physiotherapist for pain in the back of my leg. The pain moved around, traveling up and down and the physiotherapist had to explore the interactions between different parts of my body to discover the cause and to heal it. I can now trace the path between tension in my lower back and pain behind my knee. I have a map. And I have a story.

We normally associate maps with straightforward geography, looking at them as completely objective representations. But they can mean so much more if you’re willing to dive in and explore a bit. I would be willing to bet that no two people would draw a map of an area in exactly the same way; everyone sees things a little differently, and everyone’s interpretations would vary. Some might focus more on physical details, and some on emotional. Think about it: if you were to draw a map that told the story of you, what would it look like?

If all this talk of maps and stories has got you excited and you want to explore the topic further, I will be teaching a brand new workshop on Wednesday, October 1, 2014 from 6-8pm called Personal Map-Making in which I will guide you through the process of mapping your own story. Will you choose to focus on geography or on emotional states? On networks of relationships or of memories? Either way, everyone has a powerful tale to tell, and I hope that you’ll join me to try to represent that tale with your own unique map. Find more information and register here.

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