Hyper, Non-Linear, and Plain

I’ve been experimenting in hypertext, and I’m reveling in what it can do, as well as discovering its limits.

I’ve been using Twine to create a hypertext story. It’s part choose-your-own-adventure and part an exercise in figuring out what constitutes a pixel in text (a pixel is the smallest controllable part of a picture on a computer). What’s the smallest meaningful part of a story? It’s not the individual word, because words only take on meaning in relation to one another. I can say the word “bark,” but with no other context, you don’t know whether it’s a noun or a verb. Even as a noun, it could refer to a sound made by an animal, or the covering of a tree, or a type of boat.

One can make a case for the pixel of fiction being the independent clause (a group of words that contains a subject and a verb). The number of microfiction posts on Twitter make a compelling case for sentence as pixel. I believe that fiction on that level functions much like poetry. Writers who work under those circumstances need a strong command of language and have to have a clear vision of the work from the outset. I’ve heard longer-form authors say “I was writing and I the character took me by surprise.” Poets and microfiction authors have to exercise tight control over every word. A word out of place weakens the structure.

But hypertext is different from microfiction. Each piece has to further the story, carry meaning, lead the reader to the next piece. Which means that, although a single sentence can be a node or pixel or whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t have to be.

And, like writing with Lithomobilus, to write decent hypertext fiction, you have to work in multiple threads, possibly in multiple storylines simultaneously. As I’ve been working, I’ve been going back and re-writing parts of it so that they make sense with parts that come after. Making sure the verb tenses all work. There’s only one character, which is fine for now.

And all this is in aid of a much larger project that I might want collaboration on: stories based on tarot cards, but stories that work when the tarot cards are laid out in a pattern. This means writing multiple nodes of text for each card – tens of thousands of pieces of text. It’ll take a while.

Now comes the hard part: figuring out how to share.

My Dip in Bambi Lake

I haven’t posted in quite a while, partly because I’ve been superbly busy, and partly because I just haven’t been doing anything interesting to anyone but me. You all know about my software project in process, and it’s still in process. *yawn* You’ll want to hear about it when it’s closer to done, but right now? Probably not.

But tonight, I had a brush with greatness. I wonder why more people don’t go to public readings. It really is the very best entertainment one can get for free. Mostly, you get to sit in a nice bookstore that doesn’t smell weird and have someone read you a story. Sometimes there are snacks. And sometimes, things happen that rival the very best live theater in the world.

My friend S. G. Browne’s book Big Egos came out recently, and he was having a launch and signing at The Booksmith in the Haight. The Pirate and I got there a little early and had seated ourselves, when someone came in and said, in a very deep voice “You know who wrote the introduction to my book ?” And gave the name of a fairly famous music-related person whose name I have now forgotten, but at the time, I thought “I didn’t know that Scott knew anyone that connected.”

What sat down in front of me was a painfully skinny person with big, pouty lips, long brown hair and and a well-filled pink tank top. She turned to me and said “I like fat girls and blondes. What’s your favorite poem?”

This picture does not contain the lipliner, which appeared to be eyeliner around the lips, applied without benefit of a mirror.

In addition to being a fat girl and a blonde, I happen to have the penultimate two lines of my favorite poem tattooed on the inside of my right forearm: “I have promises to keep/ and miles to go before I sleep.”  She squinted at them for a few seconds.

“It’s from Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.'” I said, and she heartily approved.

She said several times that she stole (“But they know I steal,” she said, gesturing vaguely at the staff. “So I guess it serves them right,” I said.) and that she lied. She asked me to guess whether she was lying when she said that her grandmother was Betty Grable and I thought it might be possible. Then she asked me to guess whether she was lying when she said that her grandmother was Joan Crawford. I have to say, that face had some very nice bones going on, and good skin, too (“Burt’s Fucking Bees,” she said at least five times during the conversation “Get it at Walgreen’s”) but I told her that she couldn’t be the grandchild of both of them. She maintains that she’s Joan Crawford’s grandchild.

She asked me my favorite color, my favorite song, and when she asked the Pirate his favorite punk band and he said he liked X, she lit up. We talked about Exene Cervenka, and she claimed that Exene wrote the intro to her book. But she had come in claiming that someone else had written it, so I filed that in the same bin as Betty Grable and Joan Crawford grannies.

“I’m drunk, sorry.” Visuals travel faster than either sound or smell, but all three had already told us that.

She complimented my shoes and told me that she knew a guy who did custom-made shoes and Marilyn Monroe dresses. She told me that she’s a submissive. That whenever she has trouble coming, all the man has to do is snap his fingers and she comes instantly because she’s so submissive. That Marilyn Monroe was so submissive, she’s dead. I laughed so hard that she got up and said it again into the microphone at the front of the room. And it was funny then too. She approved of my dress and my shoes and my tattoos and my hair, and told me, when I sang a bit of my current favorite song (Regina Spektor’s Samson) that Adele had nothing on me. Nothing, I pointed out, but a few Grammys.

She turned her chair to face us and kept leaning forward and taking my hands. She said that she likes women, but she loves men, and who can blame her? At one point, she said something about Bambi, then said “I’m Bambi, by the way.” But I had figured that out already.

She insisted that I closely inspect her art deco earrings, telling me to put out my hands so that she could cup them in hers and place the earrings in them. I wouldn’t have called them art deco. They looked more 50s vintage, but they were fun, no doubt. Although, I have to say, not as fun as the amazing pearl starbursts I got the little kid as part of her Audrey Hepburn costume.

Meanwhile, every time she got up to get more of the wine and cheese on offer, the Pirate and I looked at each other and started cracking up. This is not the first time that someone with an alternative take on reality has zeroed in on me as a kindred spirit, and, for the life of me, I do not understand why.

She had put her jacket on the back of the chair next to me, but was still sitting in the chair in front of me when three of my friends arrived. One took a seat behind me, but I practically had to beg the other two to sit next to me, moving Bambi’s jacket back to her chair. We made introductions all around because it would seem rude not to, and everyone’s comments were surprisingly tame. This is a pretty snarky crowd.

Bambi went back into the bookstore proper and returned with a large softcover coffee table book with the world “men” in the title. Inside were various pictures of men next to pictures of likely places of manly pursuits. There might be a closeup of a 20-year-old with a deep tan and a 3-day beard next to a picture of a pristine beach with a Jet-Ski sitting on it. That sort of thing. The Pirate looked at it and said “Oh, look. You brought us a catalogue.” We paged through it and said things like “I could use one of these in the kitchen” while Bambi cackled and promised to get a lady catalogue for me. I was fine, though. I’d like one of those for the kitchen as well.

Then Scott got up to read, and things started to go south.

The opening scene of Big Egos takes place at a party full of dead celebrities. As Scott read, Bambi stage-whispered in that way drunken people do, “Name dropper.” One of the staff came over and asked her to be quiet. Bambi got up and made her drunken way back into the bookstore, returning with some paperback and accidentally knocking some cups off the table that held the wine and cheese. By now everyone in the room was very determinedly watching Scott’s reading and Not Looking at Bambi, and something became clear to me.

Bambi knew that everyone was looking away. She counted on it.

As she came back to her seat at the front, she stood up for a few moments, blocking the audience’s view of Scott, who never stopped reading. She pouted her lips and tucked her hair behind her ears and posed, and I drew my eyebrows together and shook my head just a little, trying to communicate “I was feeling kindly disposed toward you earlier, but don’t blow it by behaving badly toward a friend that I like better than I like you.”

She sat down and, without trying to be subtle in any way, proceeded to put the book into the depths of her backpack. Scott finished his reading and asked if there were any questions. Bambi demanded to know if Scott actually knew any of the people he wrote about. Of course he doesn’t. “Well I knew all of them,” Bambi said, and then proceeded to tell Scott that his writing was shallow and affected and terrible. At this point, a male staffer came over and told her she needed to leave. “Call the cops” she growled. “Okay,” he said, and went off to make the call.

She was fidding in her backpack, getting her self together when one of Scott’s burlier friends yelled from the back “Come on, honey, it’s time to go.” At this point she was standing up, and she yelled “Who are you, fat boy?”

“Nobody, but it’s time for you to go. Let’s take it outside.”

“I have to go,” she growled at the crowd. “The cops are coming.” The she looked at the bookstore staffers, who were handling the whole thing with the aplomb that I assume comes of working at a bookstore in the Haight and said “Fine, you want me to leave, I’ll leave.” And with that, she threw some chairs around and walked out.

The room was silent for a few more seconds before Scott said “Are there any other questions?”

After the reading, which couldn’t help but be a bit anticlimactic, my friends told me that they assumed that Bambi and I were old friends by the way we were interacting, and I admitted to only having just met her when she attached herself to me upon arriving. A man told us that he’d known Bambi since he was 18 (he looked to be in his mid-30s) and that Bambi was “a character.”

But nobody seemed to have noticed what happened. The book went into the backpack, in full view of everyone, but when she was ejected, everyone was so relieved to have her gone that I’m sure nobody bothered to remove it, which, I realized, was the entire point. What better way to create a distraction from one misdeed than with another, larger misdeed? If this had been a movie, everyone would have been cheering for Bambi.

As it was, I was the only one in that crowd, and my cheering was all internal. Go, Bambi. You’re brilliant.

And, for the record, Exene Cervenka did write the intro to Bambi’s book.

A Dream Where I Am Both Naked and Flying

Last night, I dreamed that I was corresponding with two different people, both of whom were slightly odd. One was a man I knew who liked to have long, rambling conversations about fantastical, nonsensical things. He would drink bottle after bottle of cheap beer, smoke the occasional cigarette (just to see if he still thought it was gross) and hold forth. His letters, therefore, were long, written with at least four different pens, usually contained at least one beer-bottle-bottom ring and smelled of cigarette ash that I’m sure he flecked in there on purpose.

Each time I received a letter from him, I would read it all the way through and laugh and think and feel privileged that he wrote to me. I would sit down to compose a reply, but I could never reply all in a single sitting, so I carried both letter and reply around with me for days until I had worked my way through the whole thing, then posted it back to him.

The other correspondent was also a man, but his letters were even stranger. They referred to current events, to minor local celebrities, to world politics and arts and literature. They made wild suppositions and fantastical claims and sly jokes. I had only written back once, and the reply asked me to come and visit him.

I came right from visiting the rambling beer drinker, who was in sort of a funk. He was a teacher at a private high school, and now that the school year was over needed a job for the next few months. He’d been doing this kind of work for years, but he always seemed taken by surprise when summer came. I invited him to come with me to meet the other person, but he seemed hurt by the prospect that I was corresponding with someone else, as though letter writing were our love affair and I should never have done it with anyone else. I left wondering if I would ever get another letter from him.

The address was in a small open-air mall in an expensive part of town, making me think that my mystery correspondent was a shop owner. As I came around a corner, I saw about twenty chairs arranged under some potted plants, most occupied by men and women holding sheets of paper that they were reading, writing on and showing each other. As I walked among them, I heard snatches of the contents of the letters I had received, sometimes verbatim, sometimes slightly altered.

It took me a few minutes to realize that what I had taken to be an anonymous, delightful correspondence with a smart, interesting individual was, in fact, a delightful experiment with literature and the magazine form. It was a new kind of magazine, hand-written by its authors and mailed out in letter form. It was like a chatty letter from home. When I wrote back, they decided to ask me to come and write for them. I was intrigued by the idea, and immediately sad that my friend, whom I considered to be a much better letter-writer than myself, had decided not to come.

 

When I woke up, I thought for a long time about what magazines are, and what we want them to be. We use social media to feel connected with people, but I believe that the reason it doesn’t work is because we know that the person sending out a missive on social messaging took about 30 seconds to do it, and that the same message is available to everyone. The feeling of holding a letter that had taken someone hours to hand-write was so intimate and thoughtful that the revelation that one of my correspondents was actually a magazine felt even more delightful. What are the possibilities of an epistolary periodical? It seems like it would be the most fun thing in the world, both to create and to receive.

Eye to the Keyhole

After the grind of yesterday, I decided to skip the one lecture I was going to attend this morning. I slept in, then showed up for the critique workshop from 1 to 4.

Grant Faulkner of Nanowrimo asked me if I would prepare a pep talk about giving good feedback. I’m excited because I feel like in the last year, between the critique group I belong to in San Francisco, my grad school responsibilities, workshops I’ve taken and working for Lunch Ticket, all I do anymore is give other people feedback on their writing.

I’ve noticed a particular thing about my criticism. I like doing my critiquing face to face, because I like being able to have a conversation – letting the person whose work I’m taking apart ask me questions and get their answers in real time. I make meticulous notes on their paper or electronic copy, but I need to talk to them about it as well.

You see, when I make my notes about a written work, I’m thinking about one thing: you (the writer) want to sell your work, and you’re asking me to tell you what will make it more saleable. I think about what would keep me, as an editor of a fiction publication, from accepting the piece of writing I’m looking at. I normally read something four times. The first time, I make no notes at all. The second time, I make notes on the text itself – big things like pieces of text that should be deleted or moved, to tiny things like misspellings and incorrect punctuation. The third time, I make general notes about the piece as a whole. The fourth time, I make more general notes about things that, after many readings, still bother me.

What that means is that if you only look at my written comments, it’s easy to think that I don’t like what’s been written. That’s why I always want to have the conversation. I think that it’s important to say what did work – things that I especially liked or thought were well-done. I don’t normally mark them on the page, only because I personally use other people’s markups of my work to do corrections, so I like to have only those things I need to fix on the page.

It also happens that every time I start talking about a work, new things come up as I have the conversation. New things I might notice as I’m talking, new thoughts in response to the author’s comments, etc.

For as much as being with people is stressful to me, I have found that for things as important as literature, there’s no other way to do certain things.

Culture of the Hidden

I was talking to my mother this morning about the stuff I’m reading for grad school. Right now, it’s the satires of Horace and Eddie Signwriter.

Cover image for Adam Schwartzman's Eddie Signwriter

I have to admit, a book with a plot is more interesting than a dead Roman preaching at me.

My mother was telling me about the book she’s reading that has a character who is found living in a museum. It made me think of the character in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – the woman secretly living at the top of the Empire State Building. My daughter just finished reading Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, an entire book about a kid who lives in a train station.

What is our fascination with people living in secret spaces in public places? Could it be some spark of hope that if we become victims of the slow economy, that we might still be able to live a charming, eventful life in an airport (a la “The Terminal“) or any of the weird places (a hospital, a circus, a submarine, a cave)  the Baudelaire children lived in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events? Perhaps it’s some kind of gentle admonishment to people who move through subway stations and shopping malls every day to stop and notice what’s going on around them. Or is it the hope that there’s more going on than the mean, grimy mundanity of our lives betrays – the chance that we’re in the proximity of magic every day without even realizing it. That’s the way I look at it.

Gotta Be Cruel to Be Kind

In addition to my own writing and revising and inventing new literature, I do a great deal of reading and commenting on other people’s work. It’s hard revising your own work – you’ve been looking at the same words for months, or maybe even years, and by now your mind fills in all the things that aren’t there and should be, and glosses over all the things that are there are shouldn’t be.

girl with typewriter

With my new typewriting machine, re-writing every page a dozen times will be as easy as washing my 14 sister’s petticoats in my new mangler!

I have a long list of rules for my writing, and when editing myself, I can run through this very technical and mechanical list no matter how familiar with the material I may be. My computer’s “find” function doesn’t care whether the word “were” is in the proper context, is irreplaceable or is the prefix for something only half-human, it will find and display it. Also true for “had,” “seemed,” and all adverbs, including my own list of 50 or so that don’t end in -ly.

But when you’re editing for someone else, is it fair to hold them to the same standard you hold for yourself? For instance, I want to know the precise moment on the fourth page where the reader began nodding off, so I can punch up the action, but is it okay to doodle “losing consciousness….” in the margin of your editee’s manuscript? I want to know which of my jokes fall flat, but is it okay to rubber stamp “NOT FUNNY” on every failed play on words in your friend’s novel?

Frankly, I think it is. I think that not only is it okay, but it’s required. I feel that when I’m editing or critiquing someone else’s work, they’re saying to me “I want to make this work commercially viable.” Modern publishing being as competitive as it is, I feel that I would be a rotten friend, colleague or student if I soft-pedaled my opinion of things that aren’t up to snuff.

Mah Jong Massacre

The last one standing gets his blog turned into a book!

The one thing that anyone getting criticism from me has to remember, though, is that I am only one person, and a little bit warped, at that. When it comes to other folks opinions of your puns, your imagery or your use of “so” at the beginning of every other sentence, your mileage may vary. If you think that I’m being mean when I point out dozens of instances of passive voice or strike out as unnecessary an entire section it took you weeks to perfect, it’s not because I hate you and want you to die. It’s because I like you and want you to succeed. You’d be forgiven for confusing the two things, though. My kids do it all the time.

Sex in Translation

Once again, sorry for being away. Okay, I’m not that sorry. Like a lot of people, I have a life that doesn’t always allow for sitting around and thinking up things I want to shout into the void. I started typing out a little of what I’ve been up to, but even I dozed off in the middle of the process, so I won’t bore you with the mundane details.

One of the things I’ve been doing is listening to the audio version of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Haruki Murakami has never shied away from sex in his stories, and this one is no exception. There are all kinds of sex scenes between all kinds of people – willing and unwilling sex, drunken orgies, masturbatory thoughts. Sex is one of the many themes of the book, so there’s a lot of it.

I don’t speak Japanese, but I do know this about it: it’s a language spoken by human beings. And one thing I know about human beings is that they have lots of words to describe their genitals, and different words have different connotations. Prick, dick, cock, dong, shlong, manhood, sex, pussy, snatch, cunt, ladyparts, and that’s just the ones I could type without stopping to think. People like to talk about their privates without sounding like a doctor, so they come up with all manner of colloquialisms.

On the other hand, none of those fun words made it into 1Q84. In that story, no matter the circumstances of the sexual encounter, no matter how sensual or violent, no matter how happy or unhappy or confused it made the people involved, a penis is always a penis, a scrotum is always a scrotum, a vagina is always a vagina and breasts are always breasts. At one point, one of the characters says that “every couple of weeks, he visits a prostitute he knows and has sex. Like getting a haircut.” It’s a great description of every single sexual encounter in the book.

It’s one thing to know a language well enough to have a perfunctory conversation about bus schedules or restaurant orders. It’s another level to be able to listen to a news broadcast and understand it all. Yet another level is knowing the language enough to be able to tell jokes and understand wordplay. And then there’s pillow talk. It makes me wish that one of my friends who speaks Japanese and who may have read the book in its original language would tell me how the words translate in English.

My greatest fear is that Murakami didn’t use any slang at all, and that he wrote all his sex scenes using the most clinical, dry language possible, stripping them of all subtlety and sensuality, stripping the mood of the sex scenes away and leaving nothing but the physicality. In a way, it’s like inside-out Hemingway. With Hemingway, there is no interior life in his characters and the reader has to guess at what might be going on in his characters’ minds. With Murakami, his characters most intimate moments are so stripped of any nuance of language that the reader has to fill in any accompanying emotions. Actions devoid of thoughts can be hard to understand, but thoughts devoid of feeling are no clearer.