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A simple map to build a wall of story

PANAMA CITY — Author Bill Roorbach has a thing for geography — specifically, for maps. They play a role in his storytelling, both as an essayist and fiction author, and he uses them to help guide students through the early steps of writing a memoir.

He also turns to them pretty easily when he’s in unfamiliar territory, fearlessly using his GPS to locate schools, parks and restaurants. In February 2014, Bill visited Panama City and the beaches as one of the featured authors at BooksAlive 2014, an annual festival of reading and writing put on by the Bay County Public Library Foundation at FSU-PC. In addition to leading two sessions at BooksAlive, he visited the writing class I teach as part of Gulf Coast State College’s Education Encore and he spoke with two groups of students at Mosley High School.

(Not yet knowing about his love of maps, I sent Bill a map of GCSC’s campus to help him locate the building where my class meets.) The take-away is a lot of free advice from a gifted novelist, past winner of the O’Henry Prize and the Flannery O’Conner Prize, as well as a retired university professor — which is also just one example of the great gifts BooksAlive brought to this area over the years. (Alas, Books Alive is no longer alive.)

Bill talked about ways to capture “the quality of memory,” ways of using images and dialogue that contain “the truth of the moment” you’re attempting to evoke in your writing. Think of tastes and textures, sounds and scents; use all of your senses when you’re recalling a place and time, not just the visual elements.

One way to do this is to draw a map of the place you’re writing about. It doesn’t have to be to scale or even legible, so long as it helps you to navigate your memories. For practice, draw the neighborhood where you grew up. Now, where did you play, and with whom, and what were they like? Where did the weird person live, and what made them seem strange? What smells came from the house next door? What sounds?

(Bill explores this method in depth in his book, “Writing Life Stories,” which is employed in writing programs all over the planet.)

“How do you go from an anecdote to a full story, to the exploration of what it is to be alive?” he asked. Bill equated the process of building of narrative to that of building a rock wall: You go down to the creek and gather large, round stones, cart them up to your property, and dump them out. You make several trips to the creek, gathering all the stones you can, and then you begin to place them one on top of another. You find the big picture (the wall) by building up the salient details (the rocks), he said.

Some rocks (or bits of memory) won’t fit your wall, no matter how interesting they look. That’s OK. Set that rock aside for another time (and another story), but keep building until you have a sturdy wall.


PHOTO CREDIT: I shot that. It's Biill speaking to students at Mosley High School in Lynn Haven in 2014.

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