Friday, March 2, 2007

You Had to Be There

Thanks ever so much to the hyperlink for an important reminder. As the computer has supplanted the typewriter, so has the hyperlink yanked us by the collar into the twenty-first century, causing us to wave farewell to that icon of centuries past, the footnote.

As I came up the ladder of experience at the university, as a writer, and then in the publishing profession, the footnote was visibly in trouble. Like unwelcomed relatives or tenants, the footnote was pushed from its customary place at the bottom of a text page to the rear of a chapter (in a smaller type size), and ultimately to the rear of the book, where it could be ignored. True enough, we knew where they were if we wanted them, and in many ways, unless we were pursuing the academic vector of research, we could afford not to want them. I can recall genuine moments of horror as a boy, coming upon a footnote long enough to impinge on one or more of the following pages. For some years, the mere sight of a footnote was enough to put me off nonfiction, impatient with the distraction. In years later, as a working editor, I was able to extract some revenge on the footnote by suggesting to the author that footnotes and attributions be built into the text.

The hyperlink is another order entirely, one that leads me once again to a discovery of a large implication in a small thing. Hyperlinks transport us immediately from one source to another. Thinking about using them in these vagrant notes, should the occasion arise, I have discovered that it is possible to configure them so that they do not irrevocably lead the reader away from the original subject at hand.

And thus we arrive at the thrust of this entry. A hyperlink is a journey away from a text even though supporting or enhancing that text; it embodies the writer's obligation, which is to take the reader somewhere.

Text as transportation. Ah, that sounds too much like the English Department, or a course in critical studies. I think the culprit is the word "text." Narrative sounds more like it, but story nails it. Story as transportation.

As I prepare for a summer school course in the writing of genre fiction (see, there's the academy again--in publishing, we call it category fiction), I begin to list the inherent promise the writer of a genre makes to the reader: a mystery that will intrigue, a romantic complication that will wrench the reader's heart, a fantasy with an irresistible source of magic, a science fiction that is so plausible as to lead the reader over the abyss of disbelief.

A story must take the reader somewhere, transport the reader to the landscape where urges for Oreo cookies or checking one's email vanish.

And how do we get them transported? Why, the same way the hyperlink transports us; we ourselves become drawn away from the need for another cup of coffee or the second trip to the mailbox to see if--fat chance--the mailperson had missed some important letter (an acceptance of a story, or, dream on, a royalty check).

Some of our theater-trained actors speak of being in the moment, which is to say they inhabit the entire world of the character they are portraying. They are "in part." Writers need this. I need this. I need to be "in story," a pilgrim in the very landscape I have created. I need to be hyperlinked from the text of my education, all the books and stories I have written, and all the books and stories I have edited, away from my experiences in this text and able to convey all the experiences and fantasies I have entertained within it through the sensitivities of the people I have set in motion in this new place.

Just as dialogue is not conversation or, indeed, American English, but rather its own language, the Los Angeles of my birth or, in more recent years, the Santa Barbara of my present life are not the Los Angeles or Santa Barbara of reality; they are respectively the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara of my hyperlinked narrative, created to evoke the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara of reality, but informed by my entire vision.

"You had to be there," commentators sometimes say of a situation that seems funny or meaningful or ironic to those who were present--but not so much so to those who were not. By saying this, they mean you had to be a part of the landscape to get the story. You had to have been hyperlinked. You--the writer--had to have been there to get the story in all its depth.

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