I have been in love with interactive fiction ever since the first time I slipped the first 5¼” floppy of Infocom’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” into my Commodore 64’s disk drive. It was an intoxicating melange of Douglas Adams’ peculiar brand of surreal silliness, devious puzzle-solving, and the idea that I could slip inside a story and become part of it.
Later, I would find some measure of satisfaction in constructing scenarios and settings within MUDs, but did not know enough about coding to do much more than world-building and Easter-egg-hiding. Role-playing was firmly within my wheelhouse, though; as a theatre brat who dabbled in playwriting, stage directions and emotive word-choices were second nature to me. I decided that role-playing was my bag, and I’d leave interactive fiction writing to the professionals.
But interactive fiction popped up on my radar again when I came across Zoe Quinn’s “Depression Quest”. It hit me hard the first time I played it, then harder on replay: certain options you wish to take are simply unavailable to you. They sound good. You know you should do them. And yet you cannot. This, to me, communicated an intrinsic aspect of depression. It was a brilliant piece of game construction. The rest of it is also excellent, but this part stuck with me. I was curious about how it was built, and that’s when I first heard about Twine, an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories. I noodled around with it a bit but didn’t have a story idea begging to be told this way, so I promptly forgot about it.
Recently my friend Gavin Inglis wrote an interactive story called “Hana Feels”. “Story” seems like a flaccid descriptor here because the project’s goals are much larger than telling a story. “Hana Feels” teaches us how to talk to people who self-harm. It exercises our empathy muscles. It asks us to push past our own experience to connect with another human who needs it most.
“Hana Feels” is a poignant and dismaying and important piece of writing, not only for addressing the stigma of talking about issues such as self-harm but for showing us there is still a great chasm between what we say, what we mean, and what someone in distress is capable of hearing and understanding. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so see it for yourself (note: it is still in beta, with the final release later this month). Gav created this story with Twine, and experiencing the complexity of “Hana Feels” inspired me to reconsider using Twine to write interactive fiction myself. And then he told me about Twiny Jam, an event that ended just this morning, in which creators use Twine to make a 300-word interactive moment and share it with each other.
The prospect scared me. So I knew I had to do it.
Some time ago, I confided in a dear friend that the worst part of saying goodbye is the moment where you could, if you wanted, turn around and just not go. Just stay. I described this particular feeling in an airport – when we were still able to accompany our loved ones to the gate – but you can think of it in any setting, physical or not. We encounter this moment all the time and yet we somehow make the choice, the reasonable choice, over and over.
The idea for this particular story came from not making the reasonable choice. Most of the story was cut due to the jam’s word-count limit, but I’ll tell it in longer form someday. For now, it says what I wanted it to say. It’s called “Departures” and I hope you enjoy it.
Frank Conroy © Bruce Davidson
1. Why do people hate creative writing programs so much?
Well they don’t really, not everyone, or there wouldn’t be so many of them—hundreds. From modest beginnings in Iowa in the 1930’s, MFA programs have spread out across the land, coast to coast, sinking roots in the soil like an improbably invasive species of corn. Now, leaping the oceans, stalks have begun to sprout in countries all around the world, feeding the insatiable desire to be that mythical thing, a writer. Somebody must think they’re worth founding, funding, attending, teaching at.
But partly in reaction to their very numerousness, which runs afoul of traditional ideas about the necessary exclusivity of literary achievement, contempt for writing programs is pervasive, at least among the kind of people who think about them at all. In fact, I would say they are objects of their own Derangement Syndrome. Logically, any large-scale human endeavor will be the scene of a certain amount of mediocrity, and creative writing is no different, but here that mediocrity is taken as a sign of some profounder failure, some horrible and scandalous wrong turn in literary history. Under its spell, a set of otherwise fair questions about creative writing are not so much asked as always-already answered. No, writing cannot be taught. Yes, writing programs are a scam—a kind of Ponzi scheme. Yes, writing programs make all writers sound alike. Yes, they turn writers away from the “real world,” where the real stories are, fastening their gazes to their navels. No, MFA students do not learn anything truly valuable.
Never mind that all of these answers are—at least in part—demonstrably wrong. The interest in slamming creative writing programs soars above the niceties of measured assessment and factual demonstration, catapulted there by deep-seated feelings about the nature of creativity, which we all love, and school, which we emphatically don’t, at least not in this context. The broadsides against creative writing programs have grown so regular in their appearance, and so predictable in their conclusions, that the people who attend and teach in them—and who might have their own misgivings about this or that aspect of the MFA machine—tend to greet the latest salvo with a shrug and a roll of the eyes. As though to say, in a thought bubble, “in the time it took you to write that, another writing program was founded.” And yet, in the last year or so, in response to a book I wrote on the importance of writing programs to recent American literary history, a few newish questions about them have been raised. They are no less hostile than the usual questions, and their answers no less foreordained, but their novelty does open up to a broader view of what literary fiction means to us these days, whether it issues from a creative writing program or not.
2. Is writing inherently elitist?
Elif Batuman thinks so, and she also thinks that to pretend otherwise is “both pointless and disingenuous.” She says this in a much-discussed review of my book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, in which she unloads as many charges against the discipline of creative writing as one can easily pack into 8000-plus words (which turns out to be quite a few), and scolds me for my equanimity in the face of its many sins or, rather, dubious virtues.