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Forepaper by Jackie Craven
for Media Morphs the Messenger 98


[Note from Robert Kendall: This hypertext story will be published by Word Circuits]

"In The Changing Room" is a collection of eight interconnected tales narrated by characters who struggle with bizarre dilemmas. Clara loses her reflection in the changing room of a discount department store. Hank loses his gravity. Kevin suffers a hopeless thirst for the moon. Doris struggles to hold down her father, Hank, and to control her husband, Kevin. Rita searches for her soul. Angelo seeks fame as a sculptor of clouds. Gifford is becoming gradually transparent. His wife, Elizabeth, hopes to keep him with a glittering sequin dress. . . purchased, of course, at the discount department store.

The tales are taken from a much longer print work titled 12-Step Parables. I had been working on 12-Step Parables for several years, adding tale after tale and weaving an increasingly complicated web of interrelationships between my narrators. The book was supposed to suggest the kinds of conversations you might overhear at an anonymous self-help meeting. I wanted to string together many voices in eerie, dream-like sequences, creating startling juxtapositions and haunting recurring motifs. But, again and again, I slammed against the tyranny of the printed page.

How could I create the illusion of voices fading in and out? How could I emphasize the interconnectedness of the separate narrators? How could I help my readers feel the tension between the conflicting concepts of control and surrender? How could I convey the ethereal idea that my characters were merging and taking on new forms?

I knew that there were established techniques I could put into play: I could fragment the stories, shuffle the pages, and play games with type fonts and colors. And I tried. But words on paper, frozen in a fixed sequence, seemed to contradict the most fundamental themes of my book: Powerlessness, unmanageability, surrender, and transformation.

So, with only the vaguest notions of what hypertext was and what it could do, I enrolled in Robert Kendall's class taught on-line via the New School for Social Research.

It was love at first link.

Working in Storyspace, I selected parables from my book and divided each parable into 15 to 25 nodes. Readers would enter one of eight narrative strands by clicking an illustration on the opening menu. Then, at any point in a narrative, readers could choose between three possible reading strategies: 1. Click on the narrator's name at the top of each page to follow his or her tale in more or less chronological sequence. 2. Click on selected words in the passage to jump over to a different narrative strand. 3. Click on an icon at the bottom of the page to return to the main menu.

I hoped that my audience would read these tales imagistically, following links between connected symbols such as Rose--Heart--Moon--Soul. I feared, however, that most readers would be content to click through the narratives sequentially, following plots rather than themes. So, every five or six nodes I added basic links which would divert readers to another narrative strand. Readers determined to unravel the plot would be forced to weave in and out of all eight tales, passing through a few key nodes again and again.

Theoretically, this winding could continue indefinitely, because in its present form "Changing Room" offers no tangible clues to inform readers that they have reached the end of a narrative strand. Instead, the final node in each tale links to an important moment midway in a different narrative strand. In order to return to the main menu, readers must click on the "go home" icon at the bottom of the page.

Translating "In The Changing Room" from Storyspace to HTML for posting on the internet necessitated some changes. In Storyspace, the text links are invisible unless readers press the control key. In HTML, links are underlined. I considered using style sheets to turn off the underline feature, but gave up on the idea when I realized that some browsers would not recognize the style sheet commands. Instead, I whittled down my links to prevent large blocks of underlined text. I made my peace with the few underlined words that remained. . . and I even decided that I liked the HTML feature of changing colors for visited links.

For web publication, I inserted .gif images to help readers quickly identify narrators and I added some illustrations to serve as transitions between a few of the links. To further aid readers with navigation, Robert Kendall has indicated that he would like to add JavaScript to my main menu. Acting like Storyspace guard fields, the JavaScript would allow readers to enter a narrative strand where they left off, rather than traveling through nodes already visited. (With a bit of tutoring, maybe I could even learn how to write a bit of JavaScript myself!)

"In The Changing Room" began as a vehicle for learning how to work creatively with hypertext, but it has taken on a life of its own. As I tinker with the work, adding and subtracting links, I wonder whether "Changing Room" could be expanded. Is there room for a few more narrators? How about additional tales narrated by my cast of eight? Just how much complexity will readers tolerate before they click off their computers in disgust?

I imagine that a longer, more complicated "Changing Room" would require additional navigational tools to guide readers through the labyrinth. Perhaps each page could offer a link to a "family tree" illustrating the relationships of the characters and summarizing each person's chief disability (sort of like those charts family systems therapists love to draw). Perhaps each page could also include a row of small icons inviting readers to select a navigational course. For example:

1) A clock = Sequential Path. Proceed chronologically through the narrative.

2) An eye = Imagistic Path. Wind through many narratives, following symbols and recurring motifs. (IE--Visit all nodes which mention eyes--vision--blindness--invisibility.)

4) A heart = Interpersonal Path. Follow links to nodes which shed light on relationships. (IE--Visit all nodes which discuss the conflicts between Rita and her husband, Angelo.)

3) A flight of steps = Ideological Path. Follow links to nodes which illustrate one of the 12 Steps. (IE--Visit all nodes which suggest the themes of self-examination expressed in Step 4.)

On the other hand, there is much to be said for the unexpected digressions and quirky juxtapositions that come from steam-of-consciousness linking. In the present version of "Changing Room," I have often made wild, undisciplined leaps from association to association without regard for structure and with little thought of what paths I might lead readers down. Although I recognize that readers need guidance, I believe that creative hypertext runs the risk of becoming mechanistic when elaborate maps and flashy programming take priority over theme, tone, and character development.

These are issues I've yet to resolve.



Contact site director Robert Kendall at kendall@wordcircuits.com.
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