by Greg Lindsay
"Coffee" is a short story concerning two recent college graduates who are seeing each other for the first time in two years. They met at Northwestern University their freshman year and were friends and occasional lovers until she transferred to NYU for film school before junior year. Her abrupt departure and the unresolved emotional and sexual tension colors the story. Its main action is set in the United Airlines Terminal at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, with alternate storytelling threads springing from various memories and trains of thought.
"Coffee" was written by me and Rachel Laitinen in May 1998 for submission to the NYU Press Hypertext Fiction contest. The idea for the story was conceived long before, in November 1997, as part of a trilogy of stories taking place in airports I planned to call "Flying." One story would be an autobiographical sketch of how the lives of my mother and myself intercepted with flying, one would be a general essay on the experience of commercial flying, and the third was "Coffee." I had always planned for the story to be written by a man and a woman, each primarily writing on behalf of the character of their own sex.
We wrote "Coffee's" 34 lexias (text nodes) in two weeks, barely making the deadline for the competition. Recently, I completed the Web version of the piece, and Rachel and I have just finished storyboarding a CD-ROM version of the work to contain still images, video and sound. Rachel and I will reluctantly star.
I had always conceived "Coffee" as a hypertext narrative and not a linear one. My motives, I am ashamed to admit, were both selfishly ambitious and McLuhanesque. What I mean is, I wanted to write it as a hypertext partly because of the rarity of the form (which would make it at least a little avant garde), and since I would be writing in a new medium, I might as well take full advantage of it. Instead of just writing a narrative story and publishing it electronically, I wanted to make the jump completely to the unfamiliar style of hypertext (I mention McLuhan beacause it's a perfect example of the medium totally shaping the content).
For example, we could have written "Coffee" in the standard short story style, studding the main narrative line (the pair moving through the airport) with flashbacks and tangents about their relationship and coffee, but it was so much easier to carve those segments off the main story line and let them stand on their own. I think Michael Joyce made the original point (and executed it well in afternoon) that hypertext seems to work best when the climactic moment is something in the past, so the story can float around its consequences in the present and the causes back in time. That's what we wanted to do with "Coffee."
The ultimate strength of hypertext as a storytelling form, at least as I see it, is what I call the "Oh, is that what that was?" factor. I'm referring to the element of surprise created by a seemingly haphazard organizational structure that first offers information that out of context seems superfluous and only later assumes importance. It's a common element of any number of mystery or suspense novels, but with hypertext you offer the reader a large number of possible combinations of lexias that can create this effect. Unlike linear storytelling, in which one piece of information is withheld until the critical moment, hypertext lets the constellations of lexias create moments like these that are unique to each reader and that the author never expected.
I know this can happen because the detailed notes I received from my classmates revealed reading patterns I had never thought of using. While I was concerned with the temporal flow of the narratives events, they were switching back and forth between character perspectives and trying to hop as many different trains of thoughts as possible. And they were enjoying versions of the story I would never have bothered with.
This kind of feedback was precisely why I took the course; you don't find many communities of writers in central Illinois, let alone communities of hypertext writers. And being a journalist devoted to writing online about the Internet and digital technology, I felt I should take an online, hypertextual course if I really wanted to work in hypertext.
For the most part, I was happy with the class, although our own occasional sluggishness to respond to each other's posts ate up valuable days of class time. I would suggest that scheduled live chats among classmates be required in the future, to give at least the illusion of being in an actual class and to get the intellectual juices flowing with instant feedback.
But ultimately, I feel the class was a success. The fact that I'm writing this essay and offering it to a community of hypertext writers validates taking it. It opened up my possibilities not only as a writer, but also as a member of the hypertext community. I hope at least a few of you will drop by "Coffee" and offer your thoughts.