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Afterpaper by Jackie Craven for
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 suspected—and 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 enriching.
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 tragedy—The 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 sequence—The 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.



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