With a paintbrush, you can swirl any color in any direction, and that variety is basically infinite. For a painter, that opens a plenitude of possibilities, and I assume that having the universe at your finger tips can be very satisfying emotionally. We writers are remarkably limited in that sense. Until recently, and for the most part even now, what we do is black on white. In addition, because it is the nature of language (and thus writing) to move in one direction, writing is linear. A dramatic example of this is the fact that if you had a big enough piece of paper, the novel War and Peace could be one straight line.
Yet I would claim, with evidence that sparkles like the jewels of truth, that when it comes to imagination, creative ambition, or outright inconsolable craziness, writers can take on visual artists any day of the week. Except Fridays. We stay home on Fridays with all the lights turned off.
It makes tremendous sense to me that writers could be the sort of people who would on occasion feel rebellious against black and white in straight lines on a rectangle. It isn’t difficult to find such rebellion rising up in the Rectangular Kingdom. Almost from the moment the first novel was published in English (Robinson Crusoe in 1719, not that dull trash Pamela as many people claim), Lawrence Stern wrote the parody Tristram Shandy (1759) that included elements challenging the idea of what a book is, such as a blank white page for the reader to draw a picture.
More recently and vividly, the Russian futurists, having sadly arrived in the world 100 years too early for the internet (around 1910), created works using images and color and in which words did not follow straight lines. Stretching writing in a different way, James Joyce kept the black lines in a rectangle, but pushed the ideas and even the words themselves hard enough to fall off the edge (Ulysses in 1922, Finnegans Wake in 1939). I was told in college that Faulkner, writing most prominently around the 1930s, wished he could use color (although there’s a dude who managed some crazy shit without color).
We could find other examples of pushing the envelope on what writing is, and not just in English. The technological possibilities with the internet are in some ways leading us into a new world for writing, like an ancient Egyptian writing on a piece of papyrus who looks up to see a glossy modern magazine. Several years ago I published a hypertext story in an online magazine, written so that the reader would choose links of what to read, helping to create the story as they went. Many other writers have also tried this, and more will.
Of course, even if it’s exciting artistically to create a story like that, it has a serious downside. You can stick a paperback novel in your pocket and read it when you want, even years later. A hypertext story, no matter how glittery and cool it is with links and color and gosh who knows what, needs the technology for the reader to experience it. A computer. Electricity. Possibly the internet. With the story I published, for example, the page that says the story exists is still there, but the story is gone.
Mostly I write fairly straightforward narrative (if elements of magic are straightforward), but now and then the whiskey mood hits me and I’m tired of walking in a straight line. So I write in styles that I consider “experimental”, gathering my test tubes full of words and cranking up the machine that makes blue sparks. I figured out a few years ago that I seem to have two basic approaches to this. Either the story itself is a fairly normal tale of anguish and woe (human life) but with radically reaching on style, or else the style is an easy readable form, but the story does unusual things.
Lately I’m in a whiskey mood, and a week ago I finished a story using each of those approaches. In the “normal tale/stretched style” story, I wrote about a man murdering his wife, but the story is told entirely from the point of view of four animals, dog, cat, bird, and cockroach. Here, for instance, is a “sentence” from the dog’s section: “two-legged-dog-with-high-sounds give me touchtouchtouch, but MeMeMe hungry— two-legged-dog-with-deep-sounds come into room, loud, MeMeMe smell hair bristle/snarl/dry mouth.” I also inserted pictures of the animals to indicate who is speaking.
It’s probably not for everyone. Most readers would find the style of the other story much easier to read, but the story itself takes place in four time periods (1965, 1979, 2002, 2033), telling the life of a woman from ages 5 to 73. In this story I tried to keep the point of view focused on how the character might feel at each age.  She waggled the doll back and forth, and influenced by the drawing she had just done, she spoke for the doll. “I’m going to the circus. I want to see the lions and I think I’ll ride on an elephant.”  Unexpected memories seemed to swirl through Marci on a daily basis, tiny bits of the past suddenly filling her mind. It was certainly ironic, given how bad her memory was now.
At the moment, I’m working on two more stories, also experimental. Maybe sometimes when my own life feels small and restricted, I’m more in the mood to pick up a bag of words and fling them out into the universe, as a way of saying, “You can’t stop me.”