Tuesday 15 November 2022

A chart-maker’s tale – by Rowena House

According to the ABBA blog counter, this article seems to be my seventieth on this site. Almost enough words to turn into a book! A vanity project masquerading as a chronicle of real-world (and, originally, as near as possible real-time) dispatches from the creative writing front. It would take a lot of editing, but maybe one day, Meanwhile, thank you to ABBA for being an enduring writerly space.

Over the years I’ve learned enormous amounts from fellow contributors about the ups and downs of a writing life, about books and writers I’d never heard of, about pitfalls of our trade, and listened in on important debates within the world of publishing.

Thinking about a subject for my own blog each month has become an important part of my writing process, forcing me to stop and reflect, to fathom out and record an element of the fitful evolution of Book Two.

One conclusion I’ve drawn from all of this is the value of metaphor as a means to understand what’s going on and also, often, to express whatever I’m trying to say.

The best all-encompassing metaphor I’ve come across for our craft is Stephen King’s ‘toolbox’ of skills, devices and ways of thinking available to us as writers; how better to conceptualize an otherwise bewildering range of choices?

This month I made a mini breakthrough with my own metaphorical thinking about plot and character development. It is rather tortured and provisional, but time is short so I’m leaving it as the long version for now. It’ll probably get edited down into a sentence. Anyhow, here we go…

Once upon a time a chart-maker decided to join a ship sailing for a little-known shore. The chart-maker had dreamed of this country for a long while, months, in fact, or was it years? Now, though, this country felt knowable and reachable, even though it was a long way away. With ample supplies of coffee and tea, chocolate, wine and cake, plus parchment, pencils and ink, they set sail on a spring tide.

As the ship approached its destination, the land beyond the shoreline looked strange and forbidding, its forests impenetrable, but this was a chart in the making, not a map, so the ship travelled along the coast so the chart-maker could see it well enough to draw. Then other mariners could follow their route from beginning to end.

At first the chart-maker worried about these other mariners – would they understand the intricacies of the chart and its beautiful twistiness? – and lost sleep imagining them hating the chart, until at last he-she decided these other people were far away and hard to imagine and could be forgotten about.

The chart-maker settled down to draw.

It was hard work and frustrating. The ship was sailed by an odd crew and a troubled captain, who took them up and down the shoreline, sometimes coming within sight of land, at others times taking them far out to sea. Nevertheless, haphazardly, in fits and starts, the chart-maker recognised the shapes of peninsulas and make sense of the inlets and islands, the sandbanks and reefs.

The captain, it turned out, steered by a compass, an instrument he displayed to the crew, but in the quiet of the night, without anyone knowing (except for the chart-maker who spied on them all) she-he used a star chart to navigate by. But there were faults in these stars, faults the captain knew nothing about, and when they were discovered, insisted nothing could be done to fix them.

The chart-maker watched the captain making mistakes and growing angry, and the ship going off course and running aground, and everyone shaking their fists at the stars. Back and forth they went, up and down, in and out, until a storm (which they all knew had to come) forced the captain to mend his-her ways.

And, Oh! After the storm, the chart-maker saw the coastline clearly. Clearly enough to draw it in bold lines, clearly enough for others to follow them all the way to a harbour that the chart-maker knew from the start would be there but hadn't known how to find.

@HouseRowena on Twitter

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Penny Dolan said...

Great metaphor, the Flying Dutchman thought, while watching the waters leaking in through the gaps in her own ship.

Good luck, Rowena!
I, for one, do enjoy reading your posts each month.

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Penny! My troubled captain led us into the fog but we will get out. Good luck with all your projects, too.