The Maps We Leave Ourselves

I’m trying to make myself work on my play. I’m nervous to show up to it again, of course. I dig through my bookbag for a little pouch of notecards and find the one I’m looking for. It reads:

what is one’s life?

what things do play?

Is this symbolic?


Is Bradford the devil?

…yeah, I don’t know either. But, phew! At the time, it worked! I started writing.

When I jotted down those questions, I wasn’t sure whether the cryptic prompts would help me or not. It wasn’t meant as a list. I have no direct answers to those questions, and I don’t plan to, but at the moment of writing them, I had a certain feeling that I hoped I could catch a whiff of again when it was time. I had a sense of where I was in the work and where it might go, and these questions–somehow–were enough to guide my mind back to the right bend in the river so I could pick up the trail again without backtracking.

Looking at that little note now a few weeks later, I have no idea how any of it connected one dot to another, and it makes me wonder if the content of what I wrote down in that moment mattered at all. I think of those stories in which a woman gets kidnapped and carried off through the woods, but she manages to tear off a hair ribbon, a bracelet, the hem of her dress to guide her rescuers to her. The rescue party usually involves a tracking genius–someone who knows the forest and just has a sense for these things. (It usually seems to help the story, too, if the master tracker is secretly in love with the quarry.)

So I’ve been thinking about maps.

What qualifies something as a map?

Internet says “diagram,” “representation.” Something that leads someone somewhere?  A plan. A depiction. Most of the maps we use today are more than just the 2 dimensional image of a place drawn to scale, though, they are also voices in our cars that tell us to make a legal U-turn. They change colors according to traffic. Google maps includes a picture of my old car in my driveway. The map of the human genome is a giant sequence that looks nothing like my body as I see it. A story map might be an outline of the major plot points, which exist nowhere in physical space.



I leave myself (and others) all kinds of wacky notes and directions. I don’t think in straight lines, so my work spaces are a complicated series of piles and lists, my recipe cards detail only half of the process, and my notebook pages are latticed with arrows and asterisks. I won’t lie, there is always an underlying anxiety that I’ll never be able to make sense of any of it when the time comes. That the winds will have changed and the trail will have gone cold. That none of it even fit together at all in the first place.

Well, but it often doesn’t fit together yet and that’s what the maps are for.

I make them out of necessity because time is always limited and I need more space than I thought. I make them out of faith because my future self will be a little bit smarter than my present. I make them quickly and without thinking, so to read them requires feeling my way along a less than logical path. I often can’t make out the letters in my own handwriting, but the sequence of squiggles is usually enough to jog my memory. I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

I’m beginning to think the magic must be somewhere in the anatomy of symbol (the key! the legend!)–these little marks we make that contain more meaning than they let on at first glance.

Most of the time we think of having a big idea or message and then using a symbol to pack it into a smaller space, but what if it also works in reverse sometimes? What if we make the symbol because we can tell it’s right in the moment and then we unpack it for the more complex picture when it’s time? We know X marks the spot…and then we go off to learn algebra to solve for X.

If I pasted together all the things I wrote down in a day, where would that map guide someone other than me? If my train of thought got recorded as a little dotted line on a piece of paper, what would be in the center?

Are you making maps you didn’t know were maps, dear reader? Where are they leading you?




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