Forepaper by Jackie Craven
for Media Morphs the Messenger 98
[Note from Robert Kendall: This hypertext story will be published by Word Circuits]
"In The Changing Room" is a collection of eight interconnected tales narrated
by characters who struggle with bizarre dilemmas. Clara loses her reflection in the
changing room of a discount department store. Hank loses his gravity. Kevin suffers a
hopeless thirst for the moon. Doris struggles to hold down her father, Hank, and to
control her husband, Kevin. Rita searches for her soul. Angelo seeks fame as a sculptor of
clouds. Gifford is becoming gradually transparent. His wife, Elizabeth, hopes to keep him
with a glittering sequin dress. . . purchased, of course, at the discount department
The tales are taken from a much longer print work titled 12-Step Parables. I had been
working on 12-Step Parables for several years, adding tale after tale and weaving an
increasingly complicated web of interrelationships between my narrators. The book was
supposed to suggest the kinds of conversations you might overhear at an anonymous
self-help meeting. I wanted to string together many voices in eerie, dream-like sequences,
creating startling juxtapositions and haunting recurring motifs. But, again and again, I
slammed against the tyranny of the printed page.
How could I create the illusion of voices fading in and out? How could I emphasize the
interconnectedness of the separate narrators? How could I help my readers feel the tension
between the conflicting concepts of control and surrender? How could I convey the ethereal
idea that my characters were merging and taking on new forms?
I knew that there were established techniques I could put into play: I could fragment
the stories, shuffle the pages, and play games with type fonts and colors. And I tried.
But words on paper, frozen in a fixed sequence, seemed to contradict the most fundamental
themes of my book: Powerlessness, unmanageability, surrender, and transformation.
So, with only the vaguest notions of what hypertext was and what it could do, I
enrolled in Robert Kendall's class taught on-line via the New School for Social Research.
It was love at first link.
Working in Storyspace, I selected parables from my book and divided each parable into
15 to 25 nodes. Readers would enter one of eight narrative strands by clicking an
illustration on the opening menu. Then, at any point in a narrative, readers could choose
between three possible reading strategies: 1. Click on the narrator's name at the top of
each page to follow his or her tale in more or less chronological sequence. 2. Click on
selected words in the passage to jump over to a different narrative strand. 3. Click on an
icon at the bottom of the page to return to the main menu.
I hoped that my audience would read these tales imagistically, following links between
connected symbols such as Rose--Heart--Moon--Soul. I feared, however, that most readers
would be content to click through the narratives sequentially, following plots rather than
themes. So, every five or six nodes I added basic links which would divert readers to
another narrative strand. Readers determined to unravel the plot would be forced to weave
in and out of all eight tales, passing through a few key nodes again and again.
Theoretically, this winding could continue indefinitely, because in its present form
"Changing Room" offers no tangible clues to inform readers that they have
reached the end of a narrative strand. Instead, the final node in each tale links to an
important moment midway in a different narrative strand. In order to return to the main
menu, readers must click on the "go home" icon at the bottom of the page.
Translating "In The Changing Room" from Storyspace to HTML for posting on the
internet necessitated some changes. In Storyspace, the text links are invisible unless
readers press the control key. In HTML, links are underlined. I considered using style
sheets to turn off the underline feature, but gave up on the idea when I realized that
some browsers would not recognize the style sheet commands. Instead, I whittled down my
links to prevent large blocks of underlined text. I made my peace with the few underlined
words that remained. . . and I even decided that I liked the HTML feature of changing
colors for visited links.
For web publication, I inserted .gif images to help readers quickly identify narrators
and I added some illustrations to serve as transitions between a few of the links. To
further aid readers with navigation, Robert Kendall has indicated that he would like to
allow readers to enter a narrative strand where they left off, rather than traveling
through nodes already visited. (With a bit of tutoring, maybe I could even learn how to
"In The Changing Room" began as a vehicle for learning how to work creatively
with hypertext, but it has taken on a life of its own. As I tinker with the work, adding
and subtracting links, I wonder whether "Changing Room" could be expanded. Is
there room for a few more narrators? How about additional tales narrated by my cast of
eight? Just how much complexity will readers tolerate before they click off their
computers in disgust?
I imagine that a longer, more complicated "Changing Room" would require
additional navigational tools to guide readers through the labyrinth. Perhaps each page
could offer a link to a "family tree" illustrating the relationships of the
characters and summarizing each person's chief disability (sort of like those charts
family systems therapists love to draw). Perhaps each page could also include a row of
small icons inviting readers to select a navigational course. For example:
1) A clock = Sequential Path. Proceed chronologically through the narrative.
2) An eye = Imagistic Path. Wind through many narratives, following symbols and
recurring motifs. (IE--Visit all nodes which mention
4) A heart = Interpersonal Path. Follow links to nodes which shed light on
relationships. (IE--Visit all nodes which discuss the conflicts between Rita and her
3) A flight of steps = Ideological Path. Follow links to nodes which illustrate one of
the 12 Steps. (IE--Visit all nodes which suggest the themes of self-examination expressed
in Step 4.)
On the other hand, there is much to be said for the unexpected digressions and quirky
juxtapositions that come from steam-of-consciousness linking. In the present version of
"Changing Room," I have often made wild, undisciplined leaps from association to
association without regard for structure and with little thought of what paths I might
lead readers down. Although I recognize that readers need guidance, I believe that
creative hypertext runs the risk of becoming mechanistic when elaborate maps and flashy
programming take priority over theme, tone, and character development.
These are issues I've yet to resolve.