Road Map: Process Notes


A few years ago, I was minding my own creative-writing business as an MFA student when my curiosity got the best of me. I signed up for a theoretical, online course entitled "Literature in Cyberspace" intrigued with the concept (There's literature in cyberspace?), hoping it would take less time away from my "real" creative work than my other elective choices.

Instead, I found myself taking a short yellow-brick road detour from my MFA path, off to the see the wizardry behind the marvel of cyberspace. The course's required final project was what led me astray. We were to produce a website to show our new scholarly understanding in a creative way. It sounded challenging but not impossible. I'd ask a web designer friend to show me the basics, then I'd come up with an idea, gain a few new skills, and be done.

My first question: "What does HTML stand for?"

"Hypertext Markup Language," my friend answered.

As a writer, I rather liked that. I was going to learn the language of cyberspace. Web Monkey called it the "lingua franca" of the Web, which seemed profound: a language adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different. It also said basic HTML coding was "dead easy." Dead easy? That was my kind of easy, so I jumped in.

The Project: "Road Trip"

As a writer of print, I wanted to satisfy my curiosity about an entire creative medium all but invisible to the print world. I naturally began to ask questions, like somebody asking directions on a road trip. With that thought, I knew I'd found my overarching metaphor since I loved the whole idea of road trips, seeing and experiencing new things, people, places; as a freelance journalist I'd even done some travel writing. This would now be fun. But the more questions I asked, the larger the project became — discoveries appearing link after link after link, which, of course, is the very nature of the medium itself (my first cyber-insight).

I began to corral the questions and attempted my question-answering in the manner of normal scholarly research. At the outset, it all seemed to be like so much on the Internet—"virtual" print literature, that is, print literature with clicking and scrolling. Quickly, though, I saw that sameness had a twist, a freedom to take one's own path via links, plus more creativity than I expected as I discovered works of cyberliterature. The more I saw, the deeper my questions went and, as an MFA creative writing graduate student, the more inspired I became to try it myself.

So I decided that my cyber "Road Trip" would have two major routes:

—"Road Way" would have answers to my cyberliterature questions, containing research, scholarship, and a cross-section of the creative works, past and present, of the embryonic cyberliterature era.

—"Road Reverie" would be an identically designed page that would be a personal experiment in cyberspace as literary space to answer yet another question: Can an imaginative writer using no templates and just basic HTML code do creative work for the electronic medium different from the printed medium?

And off I went.

By the time I learned that "punching code" was a painfully apt term and exploring cyberspace was as endless as space itself, the project that turned into Road Trip had led me down so many paths that I had to force myself to stop working on it and just turn it in.

"Cool," was my professor's first response upon seeing it. "What program did you use?" was his second.

Program? I thought. My professor had assumed his students would take advantage of templates; I was so green I didn't know what templates were, much less the programs that offered them. "I just learned HTML code in a sort of crash course way through friends," I finally answered. I heard this very long pause on the other end of the phone line and realized he must be thinking that I hired "friends" to create it. So I began talking fast and coherent on the subject to waylay any such professorial thoughts.

As I hung up the phone, I felt like kicking myself. I could have saved hours and hours of time by using a program with this thing called templates! Then I glanced back at my creation and realized I was smiling. I had designed what was on my screen myself with just the very basic knowledge of tables and backslashes and angle brackets and colors. If I had used a template created by somebody else, it would not have been nearly as much mine.

Here, then, was the serendipity: If I had not been so clueless, I would have used a template designed by somebody else, done far less work, probably earned my A, and moved on with a diminished experience, no code skills, and not nearly as big a smile. For once in my life, I was glad I'd been clueless. My Road Trip had done what all good road trips do—it took me someplace new.


The value of learning a little code wizardry in an age of templates

In a Computers and Composition article entitled "The Design of Web 2.0: The Rise of the Template, The Fall of Design," Kristin L. Arola (2010) expressed her first blush experience with code: "[A]fter a few hours creating designs and carefully laying them out in tables, I was hooked. I felt powerful creating my own designs, and for the first time ever I felt technologically literate" (p. 5). That was how I'd felt. If I'd had the choice, would I have chosen to code over using templates? Probably not, so I'm glad my cluelessness gave me no choice. But the question seems to becoming a moot one, if even offered or considered at all.

The ubiquitous presence of templates in our Web. 2.0 world, with its manufactured design template form, lessens the individual freedom over our cyberspace image, says Arola. The "onslaught and impact of the web-as-platform" is insidious to the point that "the only thing most users have control over is the content," she stated (p. 6). She argued that composition teachers should be exposing the Net Generation to design, because there is a rhetoric of design and "modes of meaning beyond the alphabetic" (p. 13). Students are decreasingly aware of this lessening of control and its potential impact, she pointed out. Just because technology is becoming seamlessly woven into students' lives doesn't mean they are technologically savvy. "As one student smartly analogized to me, 'Just because I can drive a car doesn't mean I can fix one'" (p. 5).


Driving stick shift in an automatic world

Her student's analogy was good but not exact, at least for my experience. Since I could never fix more than the slightest code goof, my analogous feeling wasn't one of being a mechanic but a different kind of driver: Creating code felt more like driving stick shift in an automatic world. Even though it's a bit scary at first, driving stick shift is just more fun. And it's great to have the option to park your car with the automatic transmission in the driveway and go for a gear-shifting spin. Of course those who want to create new media or web design need to learn coding, both basic and advanced. But for the rest of us, do we really need to learn how to code? Somebody did invent automatic transmission, after all, so why would anyone want to drive stick shift? Beyond, of course, the aforementioned fun.

All I can truly do is express what value it had for me: As a writer who is not nor ever will be a computer programmer, new media designer, or technology professor, I benefited surprisingly from my detour through code.

Intellectually, along with gaining a scholar's knowledge of its literary history and its current potential, as evident in the Road Way portion of Road Trip, I gained a hands-on introduction, the most basic understanding, to the building blocks of cyberspace. Each day as I use the internet, I've become quite conscious of my bit of insider knowledge about its inner workings. Since cyberspace is now so much a part of plugged-in life on Earth, having even a small grasp of how it all works gives me a feeling of being a tiny bit ahead of the hordes on the Internet superhighway, cruising with a little more zoom.

Creatively, my tinkering allowed me to doodle, to goof, to correct, to erase, to experiment, in a new creative space. Being a visually oriented writer, the kind who sees a thing first then shapes words to express what I see, I found this remarkably appealing. And many creative writing students are the same way. I will never create something that looks as professional as a template designer's work, and no doubt I will certainly lean on such professional work for other cyberspace needs. But to know how they're created through writing all the code myself makes me feel not only knowledgeable in a scholarly/mechanical fashion, as Jenny Edbauer Rice (2008) has recently pointed out, but also in a truly creative one. Despite its simplistic level, my bit of basic coding—the playing with table widths and lengths and colors and shapes, even adding a scanned piece of map from an old road atlas to my creation's background and seeing it pop onto my screen—gave me a charge of instant accomplishment. Working with a program's pre-designed templates would not have given me the same creative vroom.

Philosophically, I began to feel empowered instead of at the mercy of my tools, that is, my computer and its access to the Internet. Instead of feeling they were at odds with my writing career, some sort of threat on my time or my print literary pretensions, I found that my tiny grasp of the world behind the cyber-curtain enlarged my horizons. Each use of the Internet seems less foreign and therefore more user-friendly. And since I believe strongly that the more experiences a writer has, the better writer he or she is, I'm aware how valuable this expansion of my knowledge can be in future ways I cannot imagine.

I've found my way back from my detour, but I'm glad I took it. As mentioned, I am not a professor of new media writing or a computer compositionist. I'm a novelist, freelance journalist, and a college English professor. But now I'm one with an informed knowledge of how cyberspace works, a grasp of a new language, and how creative and essential even a single keystroke can be. Everything is fodder for the creative writer. There is value in a layperson's knowledge, not just physically on the webpage but mentally—the mind-expanding knowledge itself—what it adds to the quality of a person's computer-based pursuits as much as creative pursuits. That's a big thing. A very big thing that informs all sorts of writing, even old school. Like all creative writers, who knows what I'll do with that knowledge? Life and school should be about that, shouldn't it? The acquiring of knowledge, layer upon layer, wisdom expanding with each experience as we rush headlong into the future, armed with only what we've learned along the way?


Bridges are meant to be built

My peek behind the wizardly cyber-curtain also convinced me that the experience would be good for any writer today, both for instructors and students. Since we are all "content" writers in our cyber age, every student could benefit from a bit of experience with code, playing around creatively within its strictures, feeling the empowerment gained from being exposed to its simplicity in form and function.

A writer today can create without understanding code, of course, but rare is the writer who can create without a computer and the Web, and the experience of playing with code informs that use in subtle ways. For the tech savvy, basic HTML code has long been replaced with other more involved software, but HTML code was first and simplest and understanding it in even a small, historical, fun way can be an empowering thing for any writer traveling down the 21st century road.

Whether it can happen in composition classes or not, as Arola suggested, is probably up to the time, inclination, and skill set of the instructor. The same can be said for creative writing classes. But bridges are meant to be built. And it wouldn't be too hard to do if the so-inclined instructor had some helpful aids. From there, the student could take that basic exposure in whatever 21st century ways he or she wants, acquiring more complex skills with more complicated tools in more cyber-dedicated courses.

Or more likely, the students' experience would be more like mine, enjoying the yellow-brick path leading to a peek behind the curtain—finding, like Dorothy and her entourage in The Wizard of Oz (LeRoy & Fleming, 1939), that the wizardry was really something in our grasp all along—and taking that empowerment with them into the future as they interact with cyberspace in their lives and careers.


Road Trip as pedagogical tool, scholarly resource, creative writing experiment

And that brings us back to Road Trip. The fact that I'm not a professor of professional writing or computer design allows for Road Trip, with its basic-code creation asking basic questions and offering basic answers, to be of possible pedagological use.

Its inviting simplicity can (and has been) a place for students and professors to start their first, quick cyberwriting journey. It can also be a bridge for the inclined instructor's engagement with creative writing, electronic literature, and design. A good tool for teachers with limited resources, Road Reverie's travel writing experiment shows what fun a little "dead easy" creative writing/coding can be for the creative writer.

As for my own Road Trip cyber ride, to paraphrase the metaphorical sentiment expressed by both poets and rock stars, it was all about the journey and not the destination. However, if it can be of use for education as well as academic research and creative expression, then the destination will have great worth as well.

In that spirit, I offer RoadTrip.


Road Map

A writer's exploration of cyberspace as literary space

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