Manchester Art Gallery

Writer’s Takeover

Art and Writing: Imagining stories through artworks

Carole Page – English teacher, teacher educator, gallery educator, writer

Some weeks ago, The Guardian printed extracts from The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, edited by Huw Lewis-Jones (Thames and Hudson). In these extracts, Robert MacFarlane wrote about the map of Treasure Island, that Robert Louis Stevenson drew to entertain his twelve-year-old stepson but which went on to inspire Stevenson to write his first novel. Frances Hardinge explored the map of Moomin Valley by Tove Jansson, that she had pored over and loved as a child and Miraphora Mina described being part of the team that produced the complex and beautiful Marauders’ Map for the Harry Potter films. These were all maps that I knew and had loved, either as a child or as a mother reading with her children. This was clearly a book I had to have, and I promptly ordered a copy. It sits on the table beside me now and what strikes me, apart from the beauty and intricacy of the maps within it, is the power they have to enthrall and engage. Story maps allow you to locate yourself within the landscape and make the journeys, either fraught with danger or wrought with wonder, which the characters have embarked upon. Nowhere, it seems to me, do visual imagery and words combine more powerfully with the imagination, than in a story map. Maps can sometimes seem to be deceptively simple but the connections we make offer up so much more. It is easy to get lost in a good map – figuratively speaking!

The map as a trailer

Personally, I have always loved a book which begins with a map. As you turn the first few pages and the map is revealed, it is like the literary equivalent of a teaser trailer for a much anticipated film. Where does the action take place? What journeys might the characters embark upon – both physical and mental? From here on in, the map becomes a reference point to be returned to as the novel progresses. In this way it is also a structural device at the heart of the reading process.

It is this latter aspect in which I have become increasingly interested. I have frequently drawn on maps in my teaching, often to provide a clear, visual overview of a complex narrative structure. What I have begun to consider in my own writing and teaching is the way in which a map might become a creative and structural device at the heart of the writing process. What I want to explore is the symbiotic nature of a story map in shaping, and being shaped by, the emerging narrative.

I have recently been reading my father’s ancient copy of Treasure Island, given to him as a gift in 1933 when he was ten years old. The map is there at the start, with its memorable locations: Spyglass Hill, Skeleton Island.  However, what particularly interested me was Robert Louis Stevenson’s own exploration of the role of the map in the process of writing, discussed in the introduction. Stevenson drew his map of Treasure Island first and the book emerged from this. As he notes:

… as I pored upon my map of Treasure Island, the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection.

For Stevenson, then, the ideas of the story emerged from the visual creation of an imaginary place, envisioned as a map.

Encouraging a new generation of writers in the city

The opportunity to explore these ideas further was presented by Manchester Art Gallery’s exciting and innovative initiative for Manchester schools – Writers’ Takeover – a series of workshops in partnership with Manchester Library, Manchester Literature Festival and the Writing Squad. The workshops were for KS2 and KS3 students, and were designed to enthuse and encourage a new generation of writers in the city. The initiative ran from Tuesday 16th to Friday 19th October 2018 and I was lucky enough to be part of this. I delivered a creative writing workshop for KS3 students, which was developed initially through a project funded by MaxLiteracy.  This workshop enables students to look closely at an artwork and begin to interrogate the images they see through a series of activities designed to open up a creative, written response to the painting.

Impossible questions

The painting used in the workshop is Under Windsor Bridge by Adolphe Valette. It is a murky, atmospheric, urban landscape of waterways and bridges in which a lone mysterious figure draws the eye.  Students’ initial impression of the painting tends to be that it is dull and not particularly interesting. The almost monochromatic tones make it difficult to distinguish significant features at a glance. The workshop activities draw on elements of tone, line and colour to slow down the ‘looking process’ and explore mood, genre, and personal connections with the painting. The opportunity to interrogate what they see using ‘impossible questions’ allows narrative plot lines to emerge and character to develop. What had been regarded as ‘a bit boring’ soon becomes a tense drama of potential spies, villains, dark deeds, danger, flight and melancholy as the questions spark imaginative responses and they begin to weave together the possible storylines.

The students are generally not short of ideas about what might be happening in this picture but I was keen to find ways to help them shape these ideas into a narrative structure. This is where I feel that story maps may have a part to play. In the series of workshops I delivered, I asked students to create a map of the landscape of their story as suggested by the painting. They named the significant locations and began to chart their character’s journey through this setting. In this way, I was hoping that story maps would enhance the students’ creative responses to planning and structuring their stories.

Robert Louis Stevenson was in no doubt as to the value of creating a story map prior to writing. He regarded this as an important resource for the writer: to generate ideas and plot development, to provide continuity and a sense of grounding the story in ‘reality’ and, crucially, as a lightning rod of creativity which will spark new connections and ideas each time it is consulted:

It is my contention … that he who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support … The tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words. Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone.  But even with imaginary places he will do well in the beginning to provide a map. As he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon. He will discover obvious though unsuspected short cuts and footpaths for his messengers; and even when a map is not all the plot, as it was in Treasure Island, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.

Over the next two posts I will reflect on how far the story maps the students created, offered up ‘a mine of suggestion’ in terms of plot development and narrative structure. I will also consider the synergy that may be created between the map and the writing process and how the idea of ‘mapping the narrative’ might be further developed.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *