Afterpaper by Jackie Craven
Media Morphs the Messenger 98
Shifting Perceptions and New Frontiers
In the aftermath of the Hypertext Writers Workshop, "Media Morphs the
Messenger," I sent our facilitator, Deena Larson, a panicky e-mail: "Can I
rewrite my Forepaper? Can I firebomb it?"
My Forepaper described observations made while writing the short hyperfiction, In The Changing Room.
At that time, my focus was on theme and imagery. I was primarily interested in the ways
separate narratives could be intertwined by creating links between common images. But now
that I had met with a talented group of hypertext writers and peeked "under the
hood" of some of their work, I questioned some of my assumptions. I discovered that
my own hyperfiction had problems I had not suspectedand possibilities I had not
imagined. Moreover, I learned that as a reader of literary hypertext I had been neglecting
strategies and overlooking details which make the experience more meaningful and
The workshop gave me the opportunity to closely examine the paths of carefully formed
works such as Larson's Samplers (Eastgate Systems). Discussing the
interrelationship between shape and meaning opened my mind to new possibilities for
organizational patterns. Reviewing projects presented by workshop participants, I
discovered link titles that formed poems, navigational maps that formed pictures, and
hidden nodes (coined "Jane spaces" by our group) that solved mysteries and
served as a gravitational centers for complex works.
In the past, I have felt that writers of literary hypertext who depend heavily on
overall topographic structure run the risk of composing works which are mechanistic and
contrived. The findings in this workshop, however, suggest that the ways text is linked
can contain as much beauty and meaning as the text itself.
Acknowledging the interdependency of shape and meaning raised a dilemma: How do
hypertext writers announce their structure without becoming trite or condescending?
How can hypertext writers explain navigational strategies without bogging readers down
with cumbersome instructions? And, how do writers and readers achieve a sense of
closure in works that are non-sequential and non-hierarchical?
As we discussed these issues, I learned that my own work of hyperfiction, In the
Changing Room, baffled some readers. Although I had created a default story line which
followed my characters in more-or-less chronological sequence, I had not clearly informed
my readers how to find that path. Lacking a compass, some readers meandered aimlessly
through the work, missed key passages, and became frustrated.
Consequently, I have now revised Changing Room to include clearly labeled
navigational buttons and an expanded introduction with
guidelines for readers. Links have been adjusted so that readers who follow the default
path will reach critical spaces. The concluding node in each narrative strand now links
back to the opening menu.
Writers of literary hypertext walk a fine line between being obscure and becoming
overly directive. Our workshop discussions persuaded me that my task as a hypertext writer
is not only to create literary works, but also to gently inform readers how to approach a
genre which may seem new and unfamiliar.
Writers of hyperfiction have often gravitated toward tragedyThe literary canon is
peppered with car crashes, dismemberments, wrenching farewells, and violent deaths. In a
genre where narratives rarely reach a definitive conclusion, catastrophic events can
provide an easy out for writers seeking to create a sense of closure. Furthermore, the
non-linear nature of hypertext narratives may make writing humor difficult, if not
impossible. Comedy, after all, often depends on sequenceThe punch line loses its
punch if it is revealed too soon.
Nevertheless, several works discussed during our workshop demonstrated engaging
wit. Bill Bly's The
Romance of Lost Causes uses word play, absurd situations, and mock epic devices to
spoof academia. Julianne Chatelain's Murmur of Water features the
amusing incongruity of water molecules which talk among themselves. My own
hyperfiction, In the Changing Room, also reaches for humor by juxtaposing calm
narrations with bizarre events.
A one-day workshop cannot provide sufficient time to delve deeply into the issue of
hypertext and humor. Our discussion did, however, stimulate a train of thought which will
follow me in the year ahead. Can links lead to laughter? Which comic devices work
well in hypertext...and which inevitably fall flat? Can the lag between linked
passages function as a comedic pause, heightening the humorous effect? Do some
aspects of hypertext lend themselves to comic effects not possible in linear writing?
Inspired and enlightened by the Hypertext Writers Workshop, I am now launching a new
project which explores these questions.