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The Benefits of Writing Graffiti With Your Friends
What I'd Like to See

Scott Rettberg

I came to hypertext because I wanted a better way to write with my friends.

Let me explain.

I've been writing things on my own for years and years.

Some of them good, some of them mediocre, some of them bad.

It gets lonely, writing.

The best writers I know are some of the loneliest people you could ever meet.

It's almost like this strange priesthood, writing. There's this romantic myth that sustains writers, this myth of the individual genius, locked away in a cabin, or a small room, whatever, wrestling with demons, or dancing with the muses, and then pouring her heart out onto the page.

This myth is not entirely untrue.

But it's exaggerated. Good writers often have good friends who help them write. Sometimes it's a matter of subtle betrayal, stealing the stories of other people's lives. Sometimes it's having someone to tell you honestly that the story falls apart on page five. Sometimes it's a simple matter of someone who will listen. Sometimes it's just a cup of coffee and an understanding that the writer needs to be left alone. Sometimes, rarely, it's the real deal, full out collaboration, different minds, writing together.

Collaboration is not easy. Loneliness is painful, but watching someone else fiddle with your work, that's real pain. It takes a certain girding of the loins, as the poets say.

But it can be worth it. You get a scene in the mail, it sparks an idea, you want to respond, or to argue, or suddenly you have what James Joyce would have called a petty epiphany. Maybe it makes you want to tell a joke.

Suddenly you realize that you're not completely alone.

So I got together with some old friends, William Gillespie and Dirk Stratton, and we began to write The Unknown. We didn't know much about hypertext when we started. But we discovered that it was a thing that we could do together, that it was a mode of writing that offered both opportunities for togetherness, and breathing space for autonomy. Writing a collaborative hypertext works more like a conversation than any other kind of collaboration we ever tried.

Our understanding of hypertext was more based on the ideas of writers who wrote books than the ideas of those who wrote hypertext, or wrote about hypertext. Our touchstones were writers like Cortazar, Gaddis, Pynchon, Beckett, Joyce, Borges, Carole Maso, David Markson, theorists like Barthes, Derrida, Baudrillard, hell, Marx, Kenneth Burke, Kristeva. The Oulipo. We read a lot of books, and we talked about those books with each other. They shaped the ways that we think.

My co-author William argues that the golden age of hypertext was books.

I think that our ignorance of "the" rules was to our advantage. Rules can be a cage. We didn't know the rules, so we made them up as we went along.

For instance, Mark Bernstein said at the TP21CL conference that links are out, that it's all cycles now, and that "we've" known that for two years. Good thing we didn't know that, or else we may have been reluctant to explore the nature of the link as a poetic, as a new grammar, as a conceptual device with great possibility. We didn't know that the link was a dead end, so we played with it.

Too many rules can kill a party. We weren't writing our dissertations, we weren't writing for a room filled with scholars. We were writing for fun, to an audience that we imagined would potentially enjoy our writing.

Readers. Those people are important, I think. Those people who read your stuff. If they aren't important to you as a writer, you're masturbating. Not that that's a crime. But it is lonely, even if you are very good at it.

I'd like to see a hypertext literature with an audience that talks back. I'd like to see hypertext that takes itself seriously as a literature, without taking itself so seriously that it loses its sense of humor. I'd like to see hypertext that lives within a changing world, rather than apart from it.

I'd like to see what happens when a minimalist composer gets together with an illiterate plumber, a merchant marine, and an epic poet. To write a hypertext about water.

I'd like to see artists in different media coming together in cyberspace, and working hard until they have created something with a kind of coherence.

Maybe it's true, as some critics have been inclined to say, that collaboration inevitably generates graffiti.

I'd love to point such critics to some beautiful walls here in Chicago, created by painters who gave up selling crack because they discovered that they love to paint. Lucky kids, it's a good way to not get shot, painting with your friends.

I'd like to see kids writing hypertexts together in high school, or even after school. Maybe they could do that instead of playing DOOM. Maybe they could fantasize about writing the next scene, rather than about killing the classmate who hassled them in the cafeteria.

More people, everyday people, at least here in the wired world, are writing more now than they ever wrote before. They're writing email to their friends, they are reading love letters off a glowing screen.

God knows what all the screen time is doing to our eyes, but I have to hope that it's good for our brains. People are reading their news, their horoscopes, their stock quotes, their idle banter, off the World Wide Web. I'd like them to be reading electronic literature, rather than online soap operas. Literature is a precious thing, a thing worth fighting for. I think we've got a small window of opportunity here, a chance to fight for a place for literature on the Web. It won't be long before the bandwith is such that video is ubiquitous, and text marginalized. It could be television all over again, and that, in my book, would be a real tragedy.

Art is one of the few redemptive things about this horrendous group of self-destructive creatures we call humanity. I'd like to see more of it on the Web, and I'd like to see the kids experiencing it, and making some of it themselves. Wouldn't you?

I guess that covers it. I guess that's sort of what I meant to say. This thing that we're doing is not unimportant. We've got a real job ahead of us.