The Materiality of Meaning: the Format of Words on the Page
It has long been the realm of poets to think about line breaks and format on the page. There is a myth that for prose, the words should speak for themselves. We have the idea that prose writers who manipulate how they put their words on the page somehow undermine the meaning of the words, as if calling attention to the fact that they are on a page takes away their power. When poets think about the way they format their work on the page, they are being artful, purposeful, but when prose writers do it, it is a gimmick, a trick. It’s as if readers of prose are meant to mind meld directly with the words. We imagine that the way the prose is experienced does not matter. This is not the case. Whether we are reading words in straight lines on a page, in text boxes, with line breaks, wrapped around images, on an ebook reader or online, our physical experience of the words matter. It is not true that we feel the words as completely separate from the physical medium through which they are presented to us. Because of this, we, as writers, must be more cognizant of the ways in which we are offering our narratives.
We are living in a time when the possible modes for storytelling are more numerous than ever before. It used to be that recitation, handwritten manuscripts, and books off a printing press were the only media available to writers to disseminate their works. The forms that these works took followed the physical limitations of these media. Works meant to be recited were written with meter and rhyme, so as to be as easy as possible to remember. Books from a printing press used uniform fonts and lines to conform to the constraints of the machine. Straying from this form was expensive and difficult. Even adding images or color consumed near impossible time and money.
With the advent of the digital age, however, the possibilities for publishing and storytelling have exploded. This explosion means there is also a myriad of ways that a reader can experience a text. Audio books, Prezis, digital storytelling, hypertexts, and ebooks all offer new possibilities for narratives to be presented. Because of these new technologies, we can see the fallacy of the direct experience of the word. A book put in each of these formats takes on new meaning and affords the reader altered ways to encounter the text, even as the words stay the same. It becomes apparent, then, that reading is an experience that is dictated, at least in part, by the physical choices that authors make concerning format and medium. In this way, we can see the importance of the material medium that a writer chooses. The writer can now be a painter, a sculptor, and a poet all in the same work.
Even if our work remains in traditional ink and paper form, the options in terms of choices a writer can enact are plentiful. We are no longer beholden to the constraints of traditional printing presses, but can now digitally format our words to be printed in a diverse array of forms. Writers can choose varying fonts and font sizes. We can include images or sculpt the ways our words look on the page. We can choose the way that different ideas get juxtaposed or separated. We can change color, font or style midsentence, or even midword. Rather than being automatically a gimmick, these devices can be used to add a more dimension and new layers of meaning to texts.
Take, for example, Kamau Brathwaite’s essay “Trench Town Rock.” In his introduction, to the essay, John D’Agata writes:
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a ‘performative essay,’ but I know that there are texts that are more profound because of the arguments they try to demonstrate rather than merely state … that simultaneously enact the concepts they represent… Brathwaite therefore emphasizes the experience of reading his texts, encouraging us to find alternative paths into their meanings: visually, aurally, authentically participatory (D’Agata, 599).
Brathwaite uses an array of devices in his essay to make the reading more experiential. He uses images, changes the sizes and fonts of his texts, uses varying margins, italics, and bold type. It is clear that he was purposeful in his choices. The some sections of the essay are scattered and disjointed, while others read like traditional poems, news reports, or transcripts. The format of each of these sections visibly shows the differences. The effects of these choices on the reader are palpable. Instead of reading an account of the deaths, the reader can feel the chaotic, disjointed feeling that being in Jamaica at the time must have been. The reader’s sense of the order of things is disrupted, leaving her with the feeling of lawlessness and turmoil that mirrored Brathwaite’s Jamaica. In this way, the reader experiences the feelings more directly than words following a traditional format would have allowed.
The ways that a reader encounters words on a page will change the experience of those words. Different fonts can be used to show different voices. The words telling the story of a journey can show the journey in addition to telling it, following the route along the page. Two versions of similar stories can be juxtaposed to show the differences in perspectives. Different colors or fonts could be used to give the reader different feelings. Text that is askew on the page can be used to literally show a skewed point of view. Rather than being interesting effects and ways to play with words or experiment, current technologies make it possible for these new layers of meaning to be the norm.
It is indeed true that form follows function. Thus far, writing has taken a very specific form, following the function of the technologies available to us. But is it true that linear, left-to-right, uniform font on sequential pages should be the default form in which narratives are experienced? In a postmodern world, where texts are becoming ever more disjointed, we must ask the question if it serves the purposes of the individual text to be written in a linear manner. It may be true that this form is useful and logical for narratives that follow a traditional linear structure. However, for works that do not follow this narrative structure, the form of linear font on sequential pages does not follow the function. As the technology to shape the experience of the reader becomes more and more accessible, writers have more of an obligation to take these possibilities into account when making decisions about their work. It should not be assumed that all, or even most works are best suited for traditional formats. Not all narratives or experiences or essays follow traditional, linear structures, and their formats should adapt to the experience. Now that we are released from the technological constraints of traditional printing, writers need to let go of the constraints in format that came along with that.
It is not the case, of course, that all writing from here on out should be in non-traditional formats. Rather, writers should make conscious decisions about how their work looks on the page and take into consideration the effects of those decisions on the reader. We should let go of the myth of the spiritual, non physical power of our words and understand that they are experienced through the choices we make about format and medium. More and more, the decisions about such things fall into the hands of writers. Rather than buying into the idea that the power and meaning of our words lies only in putting one letter after another, we should allow ourselves to utilize the full potential available to us by making thoughtful, conscious decisions not only about the words we chose, but also how we chose to send those words out into the world.
Brathwaite, Kamau. “Trench Town Rock.” The Lost Origins of the Essay. Ed. John D’Agata. St.Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009. Print.