English, Students

The Last Cartographer: Creating Digital Fiction in SFU’s Digital Pathways Workshop

July 09, 2014

One of the often joys of grad school is the opportunity to branch away from studies and try something new. This summer, Kyle Carpenter took a break from work on his dissertation in the English Department to participate in a workshop on writing digital fiction; here, he describes his experiences.

Called Digital Pathways, the workshop is offered by SFU's Master of Publishing Program. It is organized by Associate Professor John Maxwell who imagined it a year ago in conversation with his fellow facilitators, Kate Pullinger and Haig Armen. Pullinger is a Governor General Award winner, author of traditional novels like The Mistress of Nothing and The Last Time I Saw Jane as well as the pioneering works of online fiction Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths, while Armen is an award-winning web designer who developed, among many other projects, the now defunct CBC Radio 3 web magazine.

The workshop is ambitious. The idea is to conceptualize, write, and collectively produce a work of digital fiction within a week. We have Kate Pullinger's works as a template, and John Maxwell and Haig Armen are there to guide us from a technical standpoint; otherwise we are left to our own devices. The most exciting, and the most challenging, aspect of a project like Digital Pathways is working with a group of strangers – there are eleven participants in the workshop, as well as the three facilitators.

The group includes a mix of different talents and experiences: Jodie is a documentary filmmaker visiting from New York where she teaches film; Allie is a writer from Toronto who works for a tech start up; Bob is a professor who has followed new media from when it was still new; Jessica is a haiku poet and cartoonist. Everyone has ideas, and they manifest in the room through conversations, sticky notes and index cards. The desire to create something creative and vibrant is palpable.

Some elements are agreed immediately. We will centre the story in Vancouver. We know we want to use the possibilities of digital formats to help tell the story – we don't just want to write a story in a traditional way. We talk about examples of existing electronic literature, what we can take from them. We talk about what's going to happen. The first two days, we feel like there is no way it can all come together by the end of the week; and we are all exhausted, strangely, since all we've done is talk.

As we develop the story, ideas proliferate. Water. A girl with a camera. A ghost bike. A couple worried about the future, theirs and everybody's. A cartographer. At the beginning, these are all very different pieces, each suggesting an entire story on their own. Over two days we work on the narratives in small groups, and then share our work. The parts start to come together as we talk about them. Connections are made. Pieces are discarded.

The fact that we are making a work of digital fiction is ever-present. Most of us are interested in media technology, but have never attempted to code anything. Armen and Maxwell help to show us that the creative element is every bit as important as the technical aspect, and that it is best to learn how to program as you go, learning how to apply your tools through use.

We find that working in a different medium changes the way we write. We know that what we write does not have to be linear, and with this in mind we set about creating “moments” rather than scenes, discrete pieces that could fit within a larger story but do not have to. For those of us who are used to writing in more traditional ways, the format of the project fundamentally alters the way we write. I find myself storyboarding, thinking of moments filmically in ways that I never have before.

We title our story “The Last Cartographer.” It is about two people who decide to stay in Vancouver after the waters rise and leave the city vacant. One, a cartographer, and one, a journalist, try to make sense of the changed landscape, rethinking their relationship to the land.

By the end of the week, we haven't created a finished project – but we have a prototype. The moments we have written exist in digital form, and are paired with image and sound to help create atmospheric effects. The scope of the project is ultimately much smaller than our early ambitions and, while the work is not yet ready for publication, the incomplete piece is nonetheless a work of art with poignant moments that didn't exist five days earlier.

What I learn in the workshop is a lesson that I need to re-learn perennially: the key to doing interesting things is to do them. When working on a thesis or a dissertation, it's easy to focus on your project, paralysed by the demand for excellence. Working with others is a reminder of the need to be excited, to experiment, and to enjoy yourself. Before Digital Pathways, I never would have assumed I could help to create a story with audio-visual elements that a reader could interact with on the web; now I see that I can.

The Last Cartographer is forthcoming; this space will update based on its availability.