|Kathi Appelt, looking as sweet as sugar cane pie|
The Map of my Heart
I first read about heart-mapping in Georgia Heard’s wonderful book, Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School. The basic idea is to draw a large heart and to fill it in with all of the things that matter to you, placing the most important squarely in the middle.
I love this. It’s a great way to think about what is important in our lives, and even though Ms. Heard designed the exercise for school kids, I’ve found it enormously useful for my adult students. I’m a firm believer in writing about those things we love, and where better to find them than on a map of our hearts?
But a couple of years ago, with a deadline looming, and the story in front of me becoming darker and darker, I realized that the map I had drawn of my heart, while it named the things that I loved, wasn’t sufficient at that moment.
Only recently, in the midst of the worst drought in Texas history, we had lost my husband’s family home to a raging fire that consumed the house in minutes. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it was a terrible loss for our family. No wonder the story at hand kept sliding into melancholy.
And then, one morning, I woke up to an email from my friend Cynthia Leitich Smith: “Write something funny.”
“No really,” she wrote back. “You’re funny.” Then she reminded me of my earlier picture books, Bubba and Beau, and told me that I could be funny again. At first, I didn’t get it, and furthermore, I knew that the line between funny and stupid was very thin. I’m always glad to be funny, but who wants to be stupid? Still, I respect and admire Cynthia. And I also trust her, so dismissing her wasn’t an option.
I looked at my map. I saw the cats and my husband and my close friends. I saw my kids and music and good white wine. They were all right there. Like the song, “these are a few of my favorite things.” So why was I in such a funk? I stared at the map. And that’s when I realized that there was a hole, an empty space, right in the middle. I had to squint, but there it was, so small that I hadn’t even noticed.
My heart map was filled with everything I loved except laughter. It took a good friend to see it. So I set aside that dark book, and began to work on filling the hole. In doing so, I remembered raccoons and the Ivory Billed Woodpecker and fat, juicy dewberries, things I loved but that were absent on my heart map. The writing itself brought all of them back to me.
What I’m trying to say is that as important as it is to write about the things that we can readily see on the maps of our hearts; it’s equally as important to recognize the holes and to write toward those too. In fact, maybe it’s more important.
So, when you’re setting out to work on a story, go ahead and draw that heart map. Put all of the things that are important to you on it, but then step back and ask, “what is missing?” It’s in the missing that we find the stories we absolutely need to write. I needed to write something funny in order to restore my very own soul. And considering the loss of our family hacienda, it’s not too surprising that The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp has, at its core, the saving of a home, even if it’s a swampy one.
Now, as I embark upon my next project, I’m beginning with a new map. I already know one important missing: a close relative. She’s left an enormous hole. But I have to draw the map anyways, just to see how large the hole is and how deep I have to go in order to fill it back up. It’s the best I have for now, but I trust that as I write, I’ll remember what I loved about her and why I miss her so much. And at the end of the day, I know that it’ll be the writing itself that will bring her back to me. And that hole? That’s the open door for getting there.
P.S. This website gives you all you need for drawing your own heart map. Better yet, buy Georgia Heard’s wonderful book. She’s an amazing poet and teacher. You won’t regret it.
I'm going to order that book right now, Kathi! Thank you for such a "heart-warming" post. . .and such a heart warming book. And thanks to Cynthia for giving you that encouragement to write funny!