Like all people who feel uncomfortable in an uncomfortable world you want to make a map. Well let me tell you it is difficult to make a map in splintered times when whole worlds and histories collide.
— Deborah Levy, Beautiful Mutants
We organize information on maps in order to see our knowledge in a new way.
— Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination
The story is a map, the landscape a narrative.
— Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust
‘What do you do?’ is a conversational gambit that many people dread hearing. How to respond? What if you consider yourself hyphenate, a multifaceted individual who, for pleasure or for income, does many things? What if you find it difficult to communicate this in a digestible way? What if your personal sense of identity and self-worth is founded upon the avoidance of neat labels and the impulse to categorise? Do you filter and select, presenting just part of who you are? Often this is the most convenient path to take.
It is one I am guilty of having followed recently, with a website rebrand, focused on who I am and what I currently do. The indalogenesis domain name that I had used since late 2013 had a now-defunct Twitter association, as well as a story involving a childhood home, a regional symbol (the índalo), a tattoo and a love of cycling. But it did not convey what I can offer to potential clients as a freelance writer, editor and mentor. So I have replaced it with richardmartinwriter. Even then I have had to erase the hyphens, highlighting just the writing aspect of the services I offer. What am I? Who am I? A writer and and and.
The ‘What do you do?’ question requires a simplified response. It demands abstraction and clarity in the same way that a job application form, CV template and LinkedIn profile do. There is little allowance for the complexities and occasional chaos of our lived experience. Where there is space for commentary of any sort, we are expected to apply a degree of narrative coherence, making sense of memories and past events, creating connection and continuity. It is necessary to supply a beginning, middle and end, summarising what has brought us to this current juncture in out lives.
Reality is invariably more shambolic than this. More a hyperlinked web of avenues followed and retraced, jump cuts to elsewhere, occasional returns, disappearances and new beginnings. It is a ball of wool, a tangle of spaghetti, rather than a long straight line or a ladder extending ever-upwards. There are parallel paths too, simultaneously followed, within this entangled mess. Both/and rather than either/or. In his recent book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman observes, ‘From all the physical and sociological evidence, the world appears to run not on absolutes but on relatives, context, change, impermanence, and multiplicity. Nothing is fixed. All is in flux.’ Our lives in a nutshell.
This is what Kenneth and I were grappling with when we were thinking through the theory behind The Neo-Generalist. It resulted in the continuum, which attempted to visualise the blending of specialism and generalism, and the disjointed, contextual experiences that characterise learning and work. While we walked and talked, we took in a Grayson Perry exhibition in Margate, which fuelled hours of additional conversation. While it was on, Provincial Punk, hosted by the Turner Contemporary gallery, provided me with a second, third and fourth opportunity to spend a lengthy period of time standing in front of Perry’s A Map of Days. I have written elsewhere about the first occasion in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
[Picture credit: Fragment from A Map of Days by Grayson Perry]
In the Map, Perry presents his complex personality and plural identity in the form of a walled city. Streets, buildings and other locales represent personal traits and behaviours, indicating a self-exploration that embraces both the positive and the negative, that poses questions, as well as providing answers, binding together truth and fiction. At the centre of Perry’s map is a labyrinthine garden, in which a figure walks, off-centre, pursuing ‘a sense of self’. Each time I look at the Map, either in a gallery or online, I question how my own version would differ from Perry’s. What words would I choose? What images?
As a reader, writer and erstwhile film academic (yet more hyphens), both words and images exert a certain magnetism on me. Together they are particularly powerful. Maybe that is why some of my favourite films are subtitled: I get to read them as well as view them, combining two passions. Images, of course, were one of our earliest forms of communication, including the aforementioned índalo found on a cave wall in southeastern Spain. Each of the letters we use to write are themselves images, so it could be argued that the bond between word and picture has always been hidden in plain sight as far as typography is concerned. Which begs the question: Why are we so limited when invited to sell ourselves to a potential employer? Why do only words matter to the recruiter? Why is such weight lent to words either of the most simplistic and anodyne variety or words so buzzy they are hollowed out of all meaning?
So much time is expended on the crafting of a CV. It is something that summarises our past, the schools we attended, the qualifications attained, the organisations worked with, the roles fulfilled. It is a record of selected facts, facing backwards, destined for the archive. It allows little space to present who we are and what we can do. An artist, at least, can show a portfolio of their work, making it as varied as they wish. They have images as well as words at their disposal. Social philosopher Charles Handy has often spoken of the portfolio career. This is one that includes paid endeavour, charitable work, study and domestic chores. It all contributes to learning and the acquisition of skills. Something picked up in one field can provide insight in another. But how to present these multiple avenues via which we learn and work? How to capture and convey our multidisciplinarity and the potential this offers? Perhaps, like Perry, we need to draw our own maps, reflecting our convoluted journeys, our diversity of experience, the lessons we have learned, the places visited, the destinations yet to be attained. These could be maps of possibility, of intersections, convergence and mash-up. Maps that look to the future and what might be.
Such maps can be presented in numerous ways. They could be topographical, covering breadth and depth of experience. They could demarcate a series of islands, suggesting how you have navigated from knowledge to not knowing to yet more knowledge, dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. Or perhaps a network map of connections and intersections or an infinite loop like the neo-generalist continuum. A map can be presented and interpreted in many different ways, it prompts curiosity and questions, inviting a conversation that rapidly leaves behind the shallow waters suggested by a curriculum vitae. A living document that has the potential to enhance the organisational Atlas; a book of personal maps. Why not show your own map and move beyond the CV? Allow yourself to choose what defines you rather than conforming to a template.
The map of what we call reality is an ever-shifting mosaic of ideas.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge
Between words is silence, around ink whiteness, behind every map’s information is what’s left out, the unmapped and unmappable.
— Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
The process of making a map helps us rise above the limits of the local to see the whole, but this bird’s-eye view isn’t suitable for all audiences. Often we must aim for simple visuals that make the complex clear, focus attention, and transform ideas and understanding into decisive action.
— Peter Morville, Intertwingled
- Waqās Ahmed, The Polymath (Wiley, 2018).
- Marci Alboher, One Person/Multiple Careers (HeyMarci, 2012).
- Chloe Aridjis, et al, Where You Are (Visual Editions, 2013).
- Jerry Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps (Penguin, 2013).
- Emma Gannon, The Multi-Hyphen Method (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018).
- Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason (Arrow, 2002).
- Charlotte Higgins, Red Thread (Jonathan Cape, 2018).
- Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity (Harvard Business School Press, 2004).
- Alan Lightman, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (Corsair, 2018).
- Manuel Lima, The Book of Trees (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014).
- Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin, The Neo-Generalist (LID, 2016).
- Ian Sanders and David Sloly, Mash-up! (Kogan Page, 2012).
- Emilie Wapnick, How to be Everything (HarperOne, 2017).
This post was inspired by several asynchronous, online conversations with Fiona Tribe, Doug Shaw and Mark Storm earlier this year. I am indebted to you all.