I’ve been entranced by text and image mash-ups since I was four years old and found Mum’s girls’ storybooks from the 1930s. I loved running my finger across titles pressed into their covers; inside, drawings broke up wodges of text, and the seductive thick, felty paper made me feel as if I was absorbing the story through my skin.
I also enjoyed the picture books of my own childhood although the thinner, sleeker paper they were printed on didn’t cast the same touch-spell.
I find now, as then, that story-pleasure deepens immensely if my eye can focus on the tight-leash of text, as well as rove across images.
Recently, two things happened that enabled me to fuse text and image in new ways; I began writing flash fiction stories, and bought an iPhone. The economy of flash, a story portable enough to easily read on screen during a tea-break or bus ride home, was an instant hit. And the iPhone meant I could take stills and videos with a device I slipped into my pocket.
I thought it might be fun to post a flash story reading on YouTube – not one of me standing in front of a mic, a video focusing more on the story. I decided on three constraints: to film in a single continuous shot, from behind, walking in bare feet. My partner shot the footage and the audio was recorded separately in a friend’s bedroom studio. I also included found sounds such as cars or birds that happened along during filming.
I live at the bottom of the planet in New Zealand and thought the viewership might extend as far as family and friends. Instead, “The Onion” has gained almost 800 views from around the world.
I posted more flash readings until there were ten, all made using the same constraints. They’ve been seen over 3,000 times in 37 countries. New Zealand, USA and Canada top the list which includes South Korea, Yemen and Puerto Rico.
The message-in-a-bottle experience of releasing these stories online and having them pop up in unexpected places encouraged me to try another digital platform – SlideShare.
A non-fiction presentation I had shared on SlideShare was gaining a surprising number of views. This tapas-sized summary of my Master of Creative Writing exegesis was text-only, around one paragraph per slide. Yet, in 18 months “Literary Benefits of Linguistic and Cultural Hybridity” had been viewed well over 4,000 times.
This platform is primarily used for conferences and meetings – but I wondered what would happen if I shared a flash story?
I took nine still shots from video footage of “The Onion” to use as slides, and added a story paragraph to each one. It’s possible to include audio but as I worked on the piece, I found silence more compelling. In three months, this SlideShare version of “The Onion” was viewed 630 times. I recently posted another flash story, “Pirates”, 18 slides long – 250 views in two days.
The three presentations have been viewed in 53 countries. Most popular are NZ and USA, with France, India and the UK runners-up.
I like subverting the business-orientated slant of SlideShare into one where fiction stories unfold like photographic cartoon books. And I particularly like that the viewer can click through the slides (turn the pages) at their own pace, skimming or lingering on either image or sentence or both.
The story is the focus but as with picture books, I find images make the text less claustrophobic, the eye can rove and imagination grow.
My latest text/image mash up has been analogue – street art – yet that too has grown digital wings.
I love Instagramming nature shots and thought I’d have a go at combining these with flash stories, creating PinUps.
I like how street art flares up with the brio of weeds bursting through cracks – so I chose macro shots of succulents, honesty pods…weeds; printed them on a photocopier and put them in $1 picture frames. I pasted a story on the back and added the tag – Please take me home, I’ll look good on your wall. I then snuck around town “posting” PinUps in public toilets and alleyways, on monuments, shop walls, band rotundas. People could take them or leave them, but if they took one I hoped they’d turn over the frame and read the story on the back.
One PinUp travelled from Auckland to Wisconsin after a tourist took it off a café window and put it in his bag. It now hangs on his lounge wall “in the hope,” he wrote, “that someday it will disappear from our wall, one dinner-party evening, to look good on another wall and carry the story into another imagination.”
Another American asked me to send him a PinUp which he posted in a New York Public Library phone booth.
New York-based online zine Awkword Paper Cut then wrote a piece about PinUps – next thing, Amsterdam’s street art ArTicks Gallery mentioned them on their website’s front page, right next to an item on Banksy.
It’s been such fun having stories seen, heard and read around the world both digitally and with the surprise travels of PinUps.
However, I’m haunted by the soul-deep pleasure of Mum’s 1930s storybooks, how they engaged my senses through my fingertips – the embossed covers, the satin ribbon running the length of the spine, that thick felty paper that made me sink deeper into the tales.
This is the direction I’d like to explore next – a chapbook slim enough to slip into a pocket, with drawings and text on touch-lovely paper, and a letterpress cover that can be read with both eyes and hands.