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 for writers of creative nonfiction, memoirs, autobiography, and biography.
Why? Because the metaphor emphasizes the gap between our representation and what we seek to represent.
This gap is both necessary and useful: Without it, representation ceases to be meaningful. A “gapless” map, for instance, 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 useless as a map.
This gap is also a consequence of selection. By choosing to represent something, we make choices. When making a map, for instance, we choose both a certain point of focus and a particular point of view. We consider which of our needs we must meet and which needs to meet of our fellow wanderers.
For writers striving to represent “the truth,” the map is not the territory can be a liberating 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.
The gap is not just a product of form but of function. After all, maps, aren’t only representative: They’re operative, too. As Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther writes 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.”
Ultimately, that the map is not the territory should provide comfort: 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.