It’s All Been Written

The secret about secrets is that they like to hide in the open. It’s kind of like being a fugitive on the lam — you’re best off hiding in a city among a lot of people. This may sound counter-intuitive, but there’s no better place to preserve your anonymity and go unnoticed (not to mention find the basic necessities of life) than in a teeming metropolis. So it is with fundamental truths, such as the meaning of life, or the secret of success. They were discovered millennia ago, and are all lying in plain sight, openly available to us. They expect us to walk right by them, and we typically do.

It's All Been WrittenThat is my convoluted way of saying that I’m finding no real surprises in my writer’s journey thus far. Everything I’ve encountered has all been chronicled and foretold by those scriveners who have preceded me, especially the battle-scarred journeymen and acolytes who have truly struggled and suffered. It’s all down there in black and white (or other garish colour combinations adorning a million web pages) — the loneliness of the work, the episodes of self-doubt, the necessity to exercise self-discipline and write constantly, the certainty of rejection, the requirement of having a literary agent, the need to ignore critics and believe in yourself, the shameless hucksterism required after the book is published.

One other truism I’d encountered countless times, but only now truly appreciate, is that writers don’t write because they want to, they write because they have to. It’s a compulsion, pure and simple, and not necessarily a healthy one at that. How do you know if you have it? Try not writing, and see what happens.

Admittedly, there are rewards, but not the ones you might think. It’s certainly not for the money. The truth is, as virtually any fiction writer will tell you, writing is a laughably ill-paying job. Oh, sure, there are best-selling authors who have hit the jackpot, but the distribution of wealth in publishing appears to match that of the world at large, with one per cent of the writers earning 99 per cent of the money. The vast majority of published fiction writers cannot actually earn a living from their craft without some sort of supplementary job.

So why do it? Some might think it’s a kind of ego trip, but most practicing writers have had that sort of excessive pride walloped out of them long ago. Personally, I find the real reward is more zen-like — crafting something that might pass as art, the satisfaction of a story idea coming to fruition, and immersing myself in a mental activity that requires my full concentration.

Oh, yeah. And getting to hang onto my sanity for a little while longer.

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Getting Hyper Over the Hyperlink

Do excessive hyperlinks invite lost users and disrespect readers?With so much information out there and so little time to absorb it, I generally do a fair bit of high-level skimming. The problem with that is that you sometimes miss details. Recently, I came across a campaign for “delinkification,” which protests the excessive use of hyperlinks embedded in writing, and it prompted a knee-jerk reaction from me.

How ironic, I shouted, that these pundits had posted a campaign against links on the web, which, let’s face it, has become the de facto platform for disseminating humanity’s information.If you look up in the address field of your browser, you will see the first two letters are “ht” and that, my friends, stands for hypertext. “What is hypertext?” you might ask. Well, it’s text that is linked, allowing you to branch off to related topics or media. From that simple little concept came the weird wired world that, love it or hate it, has totally revolutionized our lives.

Once I looked closer at what the delinkification folks were saying, though, I calmed down. I realized they weren’t condemning the concept of hyperlinks per se, just how they were being used willy nilly by the mainstream.  And, certainly, there’s a lot of truth to that.  Links don’t confuse people. People confuse people.

From the very beginning, developers who started implementing hypertext systems quickly realized the risk of their users getting “lost in hyperspace.” Each link is a potential interruption – an  invitation to let the mind wander off. When hypertext pioneer Vannevar Bush coined the concept of “trails of association,” which he believed mirrored the thought processes of the human mind, his target audience was educated researchers, not sightseeing cybertourists.

I used to lecture on hypertext, and here’s the cautionary example I gave. A student, let’s call her Alice, is reading Hamlet and she comes across the unfamiliar word “bodkin” and clicks on a glossary to get an explanation. It tells her that a bodkin is a type of dagger, commonly worn by men during the Elizabethan Age. Alice clicks through and finds out that the Black Death was a major peril that people faced. She follows a link to find out more about the Bubonic Plague and discovers it was spread not by rats, as originally thought, but by the fleas they carried. Intrigued, Alice explores fleas further, and reads how they have these big hairy legs, so she pulls up a close-up image. She was supposed to be reading Shakespeare, and instead Alice ends up counting the hairs on a flea’s legs.

It’s generally true that you want to keep your users, especially novice students, on the straight and narrow, and shouldn’t let them wander off the path. Give them a well-marked trail that’s hard to stray from, with lots of signposts, and with breadcrumbs to find their way back if they get lost. That’s just good information design. Unfortunately, many established design principles target the lowest common denominator, which drags everyone down to that level.

In the example above, the flea-infested world Alice stumbled into is a bad thing if you’re teaching English Lit. But what if she ended up becoming a future entomologist? I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in loving the free-form exploratory aspect of hyperlinks. I’ve stalked many a hard-to-find fact across multiple URLs, scanning and clicking through, or else have just happily just followed my world wide whimsy. In both cases I have been very grateful for the hyperlinks that people thoughtfully provided. When we say someone’s mind wanders, the connotation is typically negative. We certainly don’t want it from our surgeons or air traffic controllers. It’s not a bad thing for our thinkers and artists, though.

The promoters of delinkification say that sprinkling links in the middle of content impedes reading efficiency, and that’s probably statistically true, assuming you want a left-brain rather than a right-brain result. Some also say those links disrespect the reader, and there I take some issue. Personally, as a writer, I find it a tad arrogant to assume that whatever I’ve written is so brilliant, that readers should not be allowed to branch off at will – especially if I’ve given them an idea worth pursuing. If you love someone, let them go.

OMG!

It’s admittedly a bit of a stretch, but I think I know how someone with liberal leanings must have felt during the McCarthy Era. In my case, it has to do with the subject matter of my novel skyfisher, which debuted on Apple’s iBookstore three weeks ago and will hit mainstream venues this week.

OMG religion's become uncool.The story in skyfisher deals with three ad men who conspire to create a fictitious religion as  a dot-com get-rich-quick scheme.  Now, I’m not interested in writing simplistic, purely plot-driven potboilers (not that there’s anything wrong with that – some of my best reads have been potboilers) and since mythology, comparative religion, and human spirituality have long been reading interests of mine, I wanted to explore those areas a little further in the book. In doing so, I actually did not condemn or debunk human religion. Aside from the fact that I felt a spiritual tone made a nice literary counterpoint to the fraud and cynicism emanating from the storyline itself, it reflects the open mind I’m personally trying to keep on the subject.

But now, people have taken to asking me straight out whether I’m religious. There’s nothing wrong with the question per se, it’s the way people ask it. It’s like they’re asking me if I’m a terrorist, or on a day pass from the loony bin. OMG! Religion has become way uncool in contemporary western urban culture.

It all came to roost this week when Steven Hawking actually went on the record as to say modern physics has officially eliminated God from the equation. Hawking’s great predecessor was never so bold. In fact, he once wrote:

The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.
– Albert Einstein, The Merging of Spirit and Science

And that’s not a bad way of summing up my own position. Obviously I’m not in the same intellectual universe as Professor Hawking, but I do know he hasn’t even come close to unraveling the riddle of our existence. The arrogant folly of scientists who erroneously believed with utter certainty that they had all the answers has been seen countless times in the past.

However, to all the inquisitors, and for the record, although I was raised a Catholic I am not now or ever plan to be a card-carrying member of any organized religion (although I did recently take to putting it down as “Zen Jedi Phasmatian” on the forms I fill out.)  But I have cherry-picked several ideas (and ideals) from an assortment of religions and philosophies. I consider myself a spiritual being in that I strive to keep my karmic rap sheet as clean as possible, and try to open my mind to a larger, more mystical possibility than the one that says our human consciousness is nothing more than a freakish and meaningless by-product of the random cosmic mutation that is Life.

I haven’t the faintest idea whether or not God exists, and I make absolutely no predictions as to what transpires following the death of the body. But, for years I have openly worshiped one prophet, and offer his sacred words now:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene V