Brian Conn

Maps & String

Back in Fall 2007, when I was teaching a fiction workshop at Brown, I had my students do something called “Travels Through an Imaginary Landscape,” from the book Water In the Lake, by Kenneth Maue. This book is filled with activities that are something like games and something like performance art, with maybe a pinch of ritual thrown in. Some of them are more abstract. They weren’t designed as writing exercises, but there I was with a dozen smart kids and I was supposed to make them do something creative, and I thought this might get things going.

Here’s how “Travels Through an Imaginary Landscape” works. You get a bunch of maps, and everybody cuts pieces out of them and tapes the pieces up around the room, wherever they like. Then you start making roads between map sections by taping up lengths of string; after the string gets going you travel between map sections via the string roads, making more string roads as needed and also taping up index cards with accounts of the imaginary experiences you have in the various locations. You don’t talk to each other, but as you travel you can read about the imaginary experiences of the other participants, and possibly build on them with your own imaginary experiences; so you can interact with each other, but only in the imaginary plane.

I made one modification. Maue’s instructions call for “common road maps”; instead, I had some aviation-looking maps of Antarctica, the Middle East, and northeastern North America (Newfoundland, Quebec, and so on), plus road maps of Madrid, a few Midwestern states, and Greater Boston, a Muni map of San Francisco, and a map of Swan Point Cemetery showing the location of H. P. Lovecraft’s grave.

There were twelve students, plus myself, and we went for a little over an hour. People wrote unexpected things, drew pictures, fled imaginary zombies. I liked the result, and I’ve recorded and preserved it here in rudimentary fashion.

If you’d like to look around, there are several places you might begin. Stratton is entirely suitable; or if you want to start in the center of things, I recommend San Francisco’s Civic Center Station. If you want to follow one student’s quest for rabbits, your best bet is Madrid’s Parque del Cerbo Almodovar. If the zombies interest you, they seem to have originated in the Zagros Mountains before migrating to Braintree and beyond. Or you could start somewhere cold.

If you enjoy yourself, thank the students of Fiction II Section 3, Fall 2007, who did the work, and also Linnea Ogden, who donated most of the maps.