The phrase, “the map is not the territory,” was coined in 1931 by semanticist Alfred Korzybski. Ninety years on, it’s more relevant than ever, especially for writers, and most especially for writers of creative nonfiction, memoir, autobiography, and biography.
Why? Because the metaphor emphasizes the gap between our representation and what we seek to represent. This gap is necessary, but it’s also useful: A gapless map would reproduce territory in a one-to-one correspondence. It couldn’t provide a picture of relative position necessary for way-finding and would be a useless map.
This gap is also a consequence of selection. Whenever we represent something, we make choices. When, for example, we decide to make a map, we choose a certain point of focus and a particular point of view. We choose which of our needs we must meet and which to meet of our fellow wanderers.
In fact, the gap makes the map a product of form and a product of function—maps are representative and operative. Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther makes this point in When Maps Become the World: “[Maps] also function within our behaviors, our institutions, and our conscious and unconscious understanding of phenomena. Maps are not solely static, general, and abstract.”
For writers striving to represent “the truth,” the map is not the territory can be a liberating, and comforting, expression. It reminds writers that there is—and should be—a gap between the territory they explore and the way-finding they offer in their book.
Ultimately, there will always be space between what is and what is represented. There’s no need to eliminate it: The reader simply requires a bridge—and of course a guide—to this new territory.