Volunteer Holly reads into a book.

Writing is timeless. Perhaps this is because human nature is timeless, and great writing captures the essence of human nature. People will always love and hate, strive and succeed, fight and lose. Certain desires are so universal that no translation is needed; a mere facial expression says it all. A writer who can capture those common elements will ensure that his words will be read over and over for years to come.

I’ve recently discovered the book A Mapmaker’s Dream by James Cowan. The subtitle is “The Meditations of Fra Mauro, Cartographer to the Court of Venice.” Though the front cover declares the work to be a novel, the introduction claims, very believably, that the book is a translation of a journal written by a sixteenth century monk in Venice. The book even includes historical footnotes to further support this claim that the words are those of a cartographer from the Renaissance era. Cowan infuses the journal with poetry during his translations. This results in a melding of ages in the readers mind. At once, we are in Venice, trapped in a monastery, listening to the voyages of world travelers who come specifically to share their grand tales for posterity; we are also in present day, caught up in the beauty of the language and seeing the naïve brilliance of Fra Mauro from the perspective of our modern viewpoint. This is an ageless piece of writing that looks at the entire world from one man’s limited perspective.

What I found most intriguing about this piece is that Fra Mauro would love to venture outside of his cell and into the world, but instead, he lives vicariously through the stories that are brought to him. Then he uses this knowledge in the creation of a world map. More often than not, his interpretations of the stories turn into a philosophical exploration of the heart of man. “What lies beyond the margin of the world often sings to us with the voice of a siren, as if calling us into its embrace. We listen, we are lured, and finally we are seduced.” Isn’t it this same calling that entices writers? Writing is an act of exploring strange new lands and discovering new people all while sitting alone with our tools of the craft. As the monk created his maps, we create our stories.

The book, What if? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter suggests exploring possibilities within a story. One exercise in the book is to “write five ways of continuing the story… to the next event, scene, etc… Your what if’s can be as diverse as your imagination can make them…” by opening our minds to the unfamiliar, we are opening our stories to new possibilities.

Fra Mauro goes on to say, “Every compass I box in my mind directs me toward an imaginary land. I am seeking new ideas, visions. I do not wish to affirm what I already know.” I believe that this is our greatest calling as writers. If we can stretch beyond our own limitations, we can learn and grow and share that new perspective with others. Flannery O’Conner said, “You ought to be able to discover something from your stories. If you don’t, probably nobody else will.”

A give-and-take exists between a crafter and the world he creates. The stories of others provide the inspiration that is transferred onto the page in a new way. This is then read and used by the very world that inspired it. Fra Mauro says, “I see the world as a series of clues that somehow explain the universe. Pachyderms and narwhals… flightless birds and boa constrictors – all are part of some cryptic message that needs to be deciphered if we are to encounter its wholeness.” Being observant and listening to the stories around us opens us up to discovering the aspects of life that have been with us since the beginning of time. We can capture the timelessness of human nature and create a map outlining our shared experiences. As Fra Mauro says, it is “an invitation being extended to all of us to participate in something deeply imagined.”