What I Did Over Summer Vacation: Creamed Corn and the art of hyperfiction
(Due to a computer glitch, I lost the end of this essay. You can, however, find the entire essay at the end of my book Creamed Corn.
I was ten years old and in fifth grade the first time I bought a Choose Your Own Adventure book. This I remember very specifically. Its title was Your Code Name Is Jonah and was a spy thriller involving underwater creatures and international terrorism. The cover had a deep blue painting of whales and menacing-looking men in mirrored sunglasses, and to this day whenever I see that particular shade of blue I am uncontrollably reminded of fifth grade. I read that book and read that book and read that book some more, sometimes along one of its alloted paths, sometimes just from page to page, ignorning the options and storylines. Over the next few years I started buying up CYOA books in droves and still have a mighty collection in my parents' basement. My addiction to hyperfiction had been unintentionally (and unknowingly) formed.
For anyone not familiar, Choose Your Adventure books are children's stories, still currently being written, in which you the reader choose the path the plotline will take. The stories are set up in a very simple pyramid-like structure: Each reader, each time, starts with page 1, which is a basic set-up of the plot. You are always the main character; the story is always written in second-person. A certain example, say, would find you as a detective investigating a murder. You discover that there's two things you could possibly do to start the investigation--visit the murder site, say, or go interview the only witness. At the bottom of page 1, it would say something like, "If you choose to viit the murder site, go to page 2. If you choose to interview the witness, go to page 3."
This first trip down the branch of that story's pyramid suddenly leads you into ever-widening scenarios based on your choices. Myriad parallel universes expand with the covers of the book, based on the path you choose to tread. In some universes you are killed when you stumble into the wrong place; in other universes you keep making the right moves and eventually catch the murderer. Sometimes you will have a love affair; sometimes that lover will turn out to be a double-agent and will turn you in to the Commies. Some readings of the story last three pages; others last for thirty to forty, and if you read a CYOA book enough times, you can learn of "loops" in the storyline where going down one path would eventually take you to the beginning of the plot again, and you could in theory read forever without finishing.
Choose Your Own Adventure books are arguably the most well-known and most populist examples of hyperfiction, a form of literary theory that was formed earlier this century and has now suddenly exploded due to the invention of HTML computer programming for the internet. What exactly is hyperfiction? Hmm. Like many artistic theories born in the twentieth century, there is no exact definition that everyone can agree on, and for every hyperfiction author you will find a slightly different definition. In broad general terms, 'hyperfiction' is the act of writing a story that does not get read in a set pattern. In American contemporary literature alone, we can define a 'set pattern' a number of ways--from the actual physical act of reading a book from its front cover to its back cover one page at a time, to the emotional act of reading a plot that starts with character development, moves to its conflict, its inevitable climax, and subsequent resolution.
The goal of some hyperfiction authors is to present a story that is read in a completely random order each time. Other authors try to present a story that has either no conflict and climax at all, or else presents it out of the usual order that we Western readers are used to. Yet other authors use hyperfiction to present a traditional story but from multiple points of view at once, changing the entire nature of the story itself depending on the individual biases of each character. (There are of course numerous examples of this in the world of motion pictures, everything from the challenging films of Akira Kurosawa to fluff pieces like He Said, She Said. These are all technically examples of hyperfiction.) And there are yet even more authors who use hyperfiction to construct a 'game' for their readers, where multiple, different storylines exist in one project and the construction of that storyline is based entirely on the reader's actions--like the Choose Your Own Adventure books. The rallying point behind all these disperate endeavors is the quest to make 'dynamic' books, stories that don't just sit there on the page and tell its readers to quietly follow the rules and don't make any trouble. It is 'hyperactive' fiction--or 'hyperfiction' for short.
All of us who patronize the arts are exposed to hyperfiction on a regular basis without ever realizing it. This was certainly the case for me--in addition to the CYOA books of which I was a habituae (going so far as to write my own as a teenager, a spoof of the 'Indiana Jones' movies entitled Ohio Smith and the Library of Doom), I was also a fan of these multiple-viewpoint movies and television shows, as well as a particular fan of a novel by Bret Easton Ellis entitled The Rules of Attraction, where various specific events over the course of one school year at a prestigious east-coast liberal-arts college are described and explained by a host of different characters, changing the story radically with each retelling. Until last year, however, I had no idea that it was hyperfiction that I had become such a fan of, or that it was the act of dynamic storytelling that was attracting me to (what seemed like) such wildly different types of books.
And then I went on the web.
Hyperfiction, since its first public definition in the academic community in the general period around World War II, has long been a fairly esoteric concept. Its use and discussion have mainly been restricted to dusty dissertations and rather intricate and delicate short stories, both of which are dubious at best as popular entertainment. Then something extraordinary happened--a piece of software was developed for the Macintosh computer called 'Hypercard.' The original concept was that a set of 'smart' index cards could be written by the user for home use, so if you wanted to, for example, put your friends into a database, you could construct a list of their names which you could then click on with a mouse which would automatically take you to their addresses, phone numbers and birthdays.
The grand pioneers of computer art in the mid-80s (of which I am a slavish fan) quickly found an untapped use for Hypercard--they found that they could write part of a story on an index card and then include various options that, if clicked on with the mouse, would take the reader to various different, seemingly random other sections of the story. The first time I saw an example of this was in the early 90s when I was vacationing in Chicago from my collegetown of Columbia Missouri. I was attending a show sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Art called "Art at the Armory," whereby the MCA had just bought the old downtown armory in order to destroy it and build their new museum. The MCA decided, as a loving farewell to the building, to commission two dozen artists to construct site-specific, three-dimensional works throughout the enormous labryinth. The show was a combination of art gallery and haunted house, Masterpiece Theatre and The Simpsons, and is to this day the best art show I have ever seen in my life. As part of this show was a large empty room with a Macintosh SE touch screen in the middle, connected to a laser-disc player and large-screen television. The artist had constructed a 'virtual garden' inside the barren room, whereby you first decided which of three women on the computer screen you would go 'chase and woo' in the garden. After the decision the laser-disc would click to an appropriate spot, part of the hours of video they had shot for the project would appear in front of you, and you would again be led to a 'crossroads' in the garden, where you would have to choose on the touch-screen again which direction to turn. It was an esoteric comment on modern feminism, and it was also a videogame! All right!
These original daring experiments, like all computer art projects from the 80s, were clunky, lo-fi, and full of bugs. There has actually been a publishing company, Eastgate, that has been publishing and selling hyperfiction on floppy disks since 1986, and when I recently found The Complete Works of Peter Leroy on clearance for five bucks, I discovered that not only is a proprietary piece of software needed to run the story, but that a certain wrong button pressed on their self-programmed software will crash my entire computer each time. Fortunately for us, the concept of 'hypertext' (the term developed to define the clickable words in Hypercard) was the fundamental basis for HyperText Markup Language (HTML), which was and is the building block by which the entire World Wide Web is based.
For those unfamilar with computers, HTML is the "code," or language, used to tell computers how to show the things on our computers screens that we see. It is an easy code to learn--if you want something to show up as bold on someone's computer, for example, you simply put in a (B) and a (/B) around the text to appear in bold. You can think of each page of a website as a highly-advanced form of index card on the old Hypercard program, and whenever you see a piece of text that is blue and underlined, this is what's officially known as hypertext.
Suddenly this very esoteric and academian concept of interactive fiction became immediately understandable to any schlub who could type the sentence (A HREF="nextpage.htm") and, originally fueled by both the esoteric academians who finally had a practical tool and former geeks who wished to write their own Choose Your Own Adventures, hyperfiction took a dramatic and intensely populist turn. The web started exploding with interactive stories and strange random poetry. Various organizations who first embraced the new medium (including Eastgate's first website and the hyperfiction collective Black Ice) are now legendary on the web, and their groups now regularly win artistic grants and fellowships as well as a fiercely loyal audience.
A lot of people say that most hyperfiction on the web sucks, and they'd be right. However, I have always said that instead of cursing this fact we should be celebrating and encouraging it. When pressed for an explanation, I have launched into a theory of mine which explains my entire fascination with computer art in general but which until now I have kept private for fear of sounding too pretentious (or at least more pretentious than I usually sound). For the purposes of this essay and to explain why I decided to write my first hypernovel, I will now publicly disclose this theory:
There are very few times in human history when an absolutely brand-new medium for artistic expression is invented, and if you happen to be a young creative person at one of these times, you are not only very lucky to be alive but you also have a certain obligation. It is at these times when artists are free to develop truly groundbreaking and profound work for that medium. After all, by definition these media have no artistic rules when first invented, no one saying "This is how you work in this medium" and no other successful artistic projects to point to and say, "Okay, now that's been done." Nothing is at stake and everything is up for grabs. The invention of a new artistic medium is the one and only time in an artist's life that they can become truly seminal, in a very profound and historical way.
In my opinion the last time this situation existed was when photography was invented in 1838 (which may be biased of me since photography was what I studied for four years in college). And as much as I despise the content of Ansel Adam's work and resent the fact that society has embraced him in a way that now unfairly defines what is "good" and "bad" photography, and for as many times in the ensuing years other photographers have "out-Anseled" Ansel Adams and taken photos of more stunning beauty than he ever could, the fact is that Ansel is Ansel. He was the first person in the history of the planet to take photographs like that. He set the rules. He invented them. Hell, he invented an entire school of thought, one that literally is a school now (an unfair school that needs to be destroyed... but I digress).
Often when I was a photography major I would fantasize about being one of these young photographers at the beginning of the century. I would close my eyes and imagine being drinking buddies with Stiegelitz and Man Ray and hiding from the war in Greenwich Village and organizing shows and single-handedly defining all the rules for photography that still exist to this day (because as we all know, when you define a new rule later what you are really doing is simply breaking one of the old ones). I would dream of doing something truly important, something as an artist that would insure my immortality and get me written into the history books. And now, as a writer, on the dawn of hyperfiction as a truly mainstream artistic endeavor, I have that chance. We all do. Which is why I decided in the spring of 1998 to write my first of what I hoped to be many hyperfiction projects.
Even though I can be pretentious at times, I would not be so pretentious as to believe that the very first hyperfiction project I attempted would be the elusive "seminal" project, however one wishes to define that. I am also a believer in the very cliched and over-used concept of flexing your mental muscle as well as your physical ones. I believe that it's a fact that you slowly become better at a mental activity the more you attempt that activity, and that constant "exercise" is needed to build that acuity. I envisioned my first hyperfiction project as my first "trip to the gym"--a chance to examine the equipment for the first time, get on them with the puny beginner's weights, to basically flex and pull and push for the first time and get all sore and hurt myself and hopefully rest after it's over and feel the burn.
It was at this point that I ran across my first stumbling block, one of what would turn out to be many, many serious ones that almost killed the book altogether and what turned Creamed Corn into my own little Apocolypse Now. Namely--what kind of story should I write? This is not nearly as simple a question as the other times I've asked it at the beginning of paper books. I wanted to write a story that inherently embraced the idea of interactive, non-narrative fiction while still being an engaging, entertaining story that my readers would be glad they read by the end. I decided quickly to write an actual fictional story, one with characters and a plot instead of (say) abstract poetry--but still, what kind of story to write? I needed a setting and an activity that would lend itself to hyperfiction but which could still be a good traditional story.
I mulled it over a bit and started reading a lot of other people's hyperfiction. Between the horrible 'vampyre' gothic fiction and the short stories that purported to be hyperfiction but in actuality would only contain one link on each page-- "Click here to go to the next page" --I stumbled across two great projects. One is by New York writer and photographer Janine Gordon and has actually been on the web for a number of years now. Ms. Gordon basically wrote a bucketful of small stories about her real Manhattan friends, a motley crew of hispanic skateboarders, drug dealers, and rap artists. Everytime she'd write a story, she would link all of her friends' names to other parts of the project where she wrote other stories about the same friends on another night. Not withstanding the fact that Ms. Gordon has had sex with most of the men and has included explicit photographs of the acts, the site also became very popular because it was one of the first hyperfiction projects to provide a context. Reading a story and then randomly reading another story about the same person gives us a sense of "Oh yeah, okay, I remember him." By the end of the project we have a complex sense of the full characterizations of these people and what their rough-and-tumble lives are like, while still reading about it as a series of small, disconnected stories. More importantly, we do it by choosing which path to take--we can get interested in one particular character and, instead of having to patiently wait for the author to talk about them again, we can simply choose to go to another story about that person. You can in fact skip all the boring people and read only what is "interesting" to you (which of course changes from reader to reader and is one of the great joys of being a writer).
The other project is the infamous Six Sex Scenes by Los-Angeles-based Adrianne Greenheart, a website which has been recommended by everyone from the late Kathy Acker to Wired magazine. The project itself is simple enough--a series of "short short" stories, one page and under, examining one person's life both in the present and as a child, all written in first-person. The history of the character's physical abuse through the children's stories help us see the motivation behind much of her irrational behavior in the adult stories, while the lessons learned as an adult help us look at her childhood in the right light. Thoroughly enjoyable, but not exactly groundbreaking.
But what Ms. Greenheart then did was take all the stories and put them each on their own web page, including five or six random links to other random stories at the bottom of each page. Reading the project in this context provides a whole other level to the entire book. Gone is the traditional "conflict, climax, resolution" aspect of modern fiction. There is no teary final confrontation with dad, sappy background violin music in tow. No lone bus trip across the country, ruminating on everything the woman's learned. Reading the book in a random order like this, one gets the general sense that there's some kind of conflict here between the main character, her parents and her current boyfriend. One gets the sense that somewhere there was a climax, because in some of the stories the character does act as if she has had some final confrontation, somewhere, and is now a better person. Reading Six Sex Scenes is like actually meeting a real person for the first time and slowly entering into a relationship with them: instead of one never-ending "biography" told to you in the first twelve hours of your acquaintance, the person instead slowly "leaks" stories about their past to you, and as you interact with them on a present-day basis, you take a multiple-time-frame view of them and start to interpret and judge them based on the past, present, and future all at once. Reading Six Sex Stories isn't like reading a book so much as like meeting a new friend, and the result is intoxicating. (Ms. Greenheart and I actually ended up developing a friendship over the internet and many of the points you see in this essay were originally suggested by her.)
So, a number of lessons learned: Provide a context if writing a fictional story, a way to link the characters from page to page so that the reader learns more about them no matter what order they read the story; Understand that "conflict, climax, resolution" can be implied instead of explicit, and in fact the elimination of those elements can add a depth to your story that traditional literature lacks; and know the limits of concentration that people reading a story on a computer screen can tolerate, and limit the number of words on each page to a reasonable level. I started batting around story ideas much more seriously at this point, and was actually a hair's breadth away from writing as my first project an "adult" Choose Your Own Adventure by which a young couple is having their final breakup fight and you the reader choose which direction the fight takes. The final catalyst behind the story I did write was a project which I unfortunately now remember neither the title nor the author. (I'm notoriously bad at this. If you know the project of which I speak, please let me know so I can include it in later editions). In it, we are an omniscient observer at a dinner party in a large city. A small cast of characters are milling about, having small discussions with each other, and each time one character references another in conversation, that person's name will link you to the exact discussion that character is having in the other room at the same time. Over the course of the evening the characters interact with each other and various "verbal couplings" take place, giving us an overall sense of the story in general. It was at this point that I suddenly realized, "You know, to write a multi-part, multi-character story about one single event, I just need to simply set it some place where people really do interact with people randomly." Effortlessly, a setting popped into my head--six friends all at a small crowded music club, watching one of their friend's bands play on stage over the course of an evening. Creamed Corn was born.
Now with a story setting and rough vision of characters in mind, the next decision was how to lay out the story's particular hyperpages. As you can imagine, most hyperfiction works like a website, in that there is a rough heirarchial order no matter the project. There does exist more sophisticated software that will choose a completely random page for a reader to start on each time they boot up the story, but for the purposes of HTML and the web one must choose a specific title page where all readers must begin the story (if you are familiar with the web, you can think of it as a site's "index" page, that first page where you will always be taken if you type in the site's URL). If you envision a flowchart, you can look at this "index," or title page, as a square at the top of the chart from which all future decisions flow down. This is what's meant by a heirarchial order--different "tiers" of a story which can only be arrived at by flowing up or down a set order of other tiers.
Of course, past the required title page, hyperfiction can and does take many different forms. Some of the most popular are: The pyramid, whereby one title page will give you two options, for example, with those two options each leading to two of their own options for a total of four, continuing to double at each level down the pyramid until at the end you may have 60 different separate endings to the same beginning. (This is a very popular form of hyperfiction and is the flowchart behind all the Choose Your Own Adventure books); The circle, whereby the reader is sent in a loop pattern after the title page, reading the same contents as all other readers but simply in a different order; The parallel lines, where several concurrent stories simultaneously "happen" in the course of the project and the reader is constantly given the option to "hop" across from one line to another (think of a dinner party where everyone is talking in little groups and you are hopping from one conversation to another); and The amoeba, where chaos and randomness rule. Some hyperfiction projects have one or more definite endings, places where one can definitively write "THE END;" others constantly loop the reader back and forth to actual content, and it is up to the reader to simply get tired and stop reading the story, thus "ending" it. Some authors use the title page to actually begin the content of the story; others include simply a title and various links to let the reader be in control from the very beginning.
It was while pondering the mechanics of Creamed Corn that I discovered the second difficulty of hyperfiction--thinking about flowcharts and heirarchial structures really makes my brain hurt. Any long fiction project is difficult enough on its own to construct--as any author can tell you, there are many, many times in a book's history where I will write an entire chapter or more, realize that I am heading in completely the wrong direction, and will end up having to throw out 10,000 words or more in one chunk and starting over. Now add to that the struggle of how to randomly chop up these chapters and present them in hypertext format to the reader and how to decide the supposedly random flow of the story. God, what a nightmare. After hours of maddening overanalysis, I finally decided to set up my story in a fairly straightforward parallel line chart. There were six characters, so I made six parallel lines, each approximately the same length (10 to 15 "chapters" apiece; for the remainder of this essay, I will refer to each separate HTML document in Creamed Corn as a "chapter"), each roughly following a timeline starting an hour before the show at an individual's apartment and ending the morning after the show, again at an individual's apartment. My title page would not include any content at all, but would instead provide six links, leading to the chapters of each character's arrival at the club itself. After these introductory chapters, links on each page (again, 10 to 15 for each chapter) would lead the reader all the way forward or all the way backward in the timeline, hopping from character to character. I also decided to include six definite "endings" to Creamed Corn, a place where it actually does say "THE END," but decided to severely limit their access by the reader, in the hopes of keeping my reader engaged in the story itself instead of constantly stumbling into the ends of the story by accident.
Next, the plot. Like most of my contemporaries, I tend to look at my books not only in terms of individual projects and how each individual book succeeds and fails, but also as a piece of a larger "ouevre," if you will, a body of work I am slowly compiling over my life that one day people can step back from and look at as a whole, to disseminate similarities between books, themes than ran through my work my entire life and how I addressed those themes as I got older and (hopefully) became a better and better writer. The majority of my books are about the dynamics of romantic relationships, the ins and outs of love and intimacy, dating and marriage and divorce. Up until 1997, all of my books had had, in general terms, "happy" endings (or, if not out-and-out "happy," then optimistic endings), and my characters had been good people, people my readers were supposed to identify and sympathize with. In the fall of 1997, however, I wrote a novel called t.w.o.h., a story about two people who randomly enter a sexually-explicit relationship over the internet. Near the end of that book, I started including stories about the more disturbing elements of sex, stories that were darker than anything I had attempted before, and the ending of that novel, while not exactly a tragedy, is by no means what one could call a "happy" ending. I found the process very rewarding and interesting, and I felt I had become a better, more mature writer because of it. I developed a fascination with exploring some of these darker themes of sexuality and decided that Creamed Corn would be a good chance to more fully write out these themes.
Copyright 1998, Jason Pettus. All rights reserved.