What AI Can’t Write

If you’re a creative writer who’s been following recent developments in AI and related technologies while chewing your fingernails down to bloody nubs, I have great news: the robots are not after your job.

 At least, not exactly. They can write content (sometimes riddled with factual inaccuracies -two recent ChatGPT sessions about a writing colleague of mine gave him two separate birth years and credited him with two novels he’d never written), they can write pretty credible passages in a certain style if given enough information, and they can write in a way that sounds like someone (you) gave them a template to follow. AI can also write content that might work to promote a B2B business, and articles about as accurate as a Wikipedia page written prior to 2021. 

AI can also write a blog post. Or can it? 

A middle-aged femme-presenting person wearing a cardboard and foil robot costume.

I asked ChatGPT to write me a 1000-word blog post about whether or not AI could write creatively. After prattling on for a while about what “creativity” is and whether or not AI could theoretically be creative, out popped this paragraph: 

“The truth lies somewhere in the middle. While AI can produce works that are original and impressive, it is unlikely that it can truly replicate the depth and complexity of human creativity. This is because creativity is not just about producing something new, but about the underlying thought processes and emotional experiences that lead to the creation of something truly original.”

(Which actually just means that this was the general sentiment of the language model used to train ChatGPT.)

All art, as hippy-dippy as it feels to me to write it, is at its core about feeling and connection.You can’t make your three-act play cause someone to feel catharsis if you’ve never felt it yourself. You can’t write a novel about heartbreak if you haven’t felt, or at the very least seen others feel, similarly distraught. And you can’t make someone connect to your painting of your pet goat, Sigmund, if you don’t love Sigmund enough to paint his portrait in the first place. Feeling and connection are to creativity what umami is to the palate: we can taste salt and sugar without it, but when you add it in you experience a richness that you couldn’t have gotten any other way.

AI can also be seriously wrong (as in, errors of fact), like Google Bard erroneously claiming in a public demo that the James Webb Space Telescope “took the very first pictures of a planet outside of our own solar system.”. That gaffe (exoplanets were first discovered using European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope) cost Google $100 Billion in plummeting stock.

AI, clearly, can make mistakes. Big ones. But what it can’t do is defend them, wallow in them, make them into song lyrics, get into a fight because of them, or use them as a reason to drown their sorrows at the neighbourhood pub. Chatbots and other forms of AI are dependent on the data models that their human creators have fed them. All the messy idiosyncrasies of being human aren’t understood by humans themselves (think of how much we still don’t know about how human brains process memory, for example). So how could a human train a chatbot on a set of data that doesn’t (as yet) exist? We cannot accurately map the human feelings of falling in love, stubbing one’s toe, almost drowning, or being provoked to seething rage. As of present writing (March 2023), we therefore can’t train an AI to map them into its neural network, either. Therefore, it can’t show signs of fully understanding these experiences.

You can also tell ChatGPT a style to write in, but it does poorly when coming up with metaphors of its own. ChatGPT and similar systems are trained on large samples from existing language patterns, so their metaphor output is rife with cliches. I asked ChatGPT to write 7 original metaphors for falling asleep, and here’s what it came up with: 

  1. Drifting off to dreamland like a boat on a calm sea.
  2. Falling asleep is like diving into a soft, fluffy pillow.
  3. The sensation of drifting off to sleep is like being wrapped in a warm, cozy blanket.
  4. Falling asleep is like a gentle, slow-motion freefall into a peaceful slumber.
  5. Sleep is like a soft, warm cloud that gently envelopes and lulls you to rest.
  6. Slipping into slumber is like slowly sinking into a feather bed.
  7. Falling asleep is like a slow, steady fade into a serene and restful state of mind.

These examples are neutered of all personality, to be sure, but each one of these suggestions also feels deeply unoriginal, even if we’ve never seen this exact combination of words before. You can’t (as of yet) train a bot into generating fresh and exciting language. You can’t, therefore, give its output the same level of personality as something created by humans.

Which brings me to the other day. I was watching an episode of the TV show Arthur with my two-year-old niece. We were watching the episode where Mr. Ratburn, the third grade teacher, is getting married and the class hatches a plot to make him fall in love with the local librarian. They go so far as to write the (female) librarian a love letter “from” Mr. Ratburn. Aside from the obvious flaw of Mr. Ratburn being in love with a man, the plan falls apart right here. You can tell a group of 8-year-old anthropomorphic animals exactly what Mr. Ratburn looks and sounds like, but when all is said and done they still have all the limitations of third graders. When they try to write a love letter to a librarian, it comes across as disingenuous – particularly as they have incorrectly spelled the word “library” multiple times.  

AI has all the limitations of AI. Poets, novelists, screenwriters, and essayists (and especially that original: you!) just don’t.

9 Hard-Won Submissions Truths I Wish I’d Known on Day 1

At the risk of sounding like a geezer cracking wise in a rocking chair on my dusty front porch, I’ve been doing this whole “send your writing out to magazines” thing for quite a while now. I’ve learned a few important facts about writing submissions in that time – facts I would have given a kidney actual cash for if I could have known about them in advance. I’m giving them to you here for free, in the hopes that you won’t have to make all the big mistakes I did. Here they are:

A pair of gorilla hands type a writing submission at a Mac-style keyboard, a yellow prop banana close by.
  1. Don’t assume anything.

You don’t know as much about submissions as you think you do. Did you check each publication’s submissions guidelines? Odds are, they’re all different. Did you assume your poem goes right to the Editor-in-Chief? More than likely, it’s screened by an overworked slush pile volunteer. Did you address that managing editor named “Jordan MacKenzie” as “Ms. MacKenzie” without knowing the person’s actual pronouns? Yikes. There’s a lot you don’t know you don’t know. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can start learning it all! 

  1. Be prepared to wait – measured in months and years, not days (or even weeks).

Magazines and journals are busy and intricate enterprises. Your writing might go through several rounds of editorial consideration, which can take months.(Many months, sometimes, if the staff have shortlisted your piece for potential publication.) I have had longer work, like book manuscripts, take over a year before I heard back. Patience is the name of the game, so get comfy and grab a beverage. You’ll be here a while. 

  1. Don’t depend on “name brand” journals – especially early in your career. 

Truth: most writers want to be in The New Yorker. Harsher truth: most writers will never end up in The New Yorker. It’s wonderful to think big and even to fantasize about having your essay in Yale Review or Ploughshares. But it’s a numbers game: the more name recognition a magazine has, the greater the likelihood that they get a staggering number of submissions. It’s all well and good to submit to these places (because hey, you never know!), but don’t depend on them as the backbone of your submissions strategy. Backs, when stacked with that much pressure, tend to break. 

  1. You will get rejected. A lot. Learn how to fall. 

I’ve been rejected over 200 times (and those are just the ones I kept track of in Submittable). Rejection is the most likely outcome for every literary submission. “How to be rejected gracefully” is one of the most important muscles you can exercise as a submitting writer. Practice being a “gracious loser”. Mentally congratulate the writers whose work is getting to be where your work isn’t; you’d want the same from them. 

  1. Rejection will hurt you. 

The first time I was ever broken up with romantically, I cried so much that it felt like there was no fluid left in my body. You won’t cry that much (hopefully) over a writing rejection, but you will still face disappointments. Some of these may sting. Maybe that contest you thought you had a really good chance at was a “no”. Maybe the same piece keeps getting rejected over and over again. Whatever the reason, bear witness to your own discomfort, and know that this, too, (however unpleasant) is a natural and expected part of the submissions process. Remember to breathe, sleep, and do the equivalent of eating your Wheaties. It will be okay. 

  1. Rejection might also help you

Maybe you sent that short story to a publication that wasn’t the best fit. Maybe, after submitting your poetry to X magazine, you hear about Y contest that would have been perfect for it. Sometimes, a rejection is liberating because it enables you to find where the work was actually supposed to go. One of my book manuscripts was rejected because it read (to the press’ editors) like it was written by multiple different people. The same book then found my dream publisher, ECW Press, and exceeded all of my most feverish expectations. Even the paper they printed the book on is perfect. If your work has been rejected, ask yourself: “is there a bigger ‘yes’ waiting for me somewhere else?”

  1. Don’t develop too thick of a skin. 

This runs counter to most advice about rejection. “Develop a thick skin”, editors and casting managers say, “and the criticism will just bounce right off.” That’s exactly the problem: criticism in all its forms is how we learn, develop, and rise to challenges as writers. If we get too toughened by the process, we treat all rejection as someone else’s fault instead of inspecting our sentence structure or submissions strategy and seeing what we might try differently the next time. Rejection and criticism are important feedback if we let them be. Don’t let them bounce off you – but don’t absorb them like a sponge, either. They’re trying to tell you important things about your writing career, not permeate the darkest crevices of your soul.

  1. Acceptance is a gift – not an inheritance.

Never treat acceptance as something you’re expecting to happen. This isn’t a trust fund, and the friendly, underpaid editors to whom you’re submitting don’t owe you jack. If you get a piece accepted, then wonderful! But that’s not a reliable benchmark, and there is only one guarantee in the writing world. 

  1. Good news: the only guarantee is completely within your control.

The only guarantee is that you keep growing and maturing as a writer, and -this part is crucial – that you keep writing.  

I once met an English professor acquaintance who needled me about my (at the time, still very young and bad)  writing career. He eventually confessed that he, too, had wanted to be a writer – but he quit because he couldn’t handle the constant rejection. It wasn’t worth it to him. 
I hope it’s worth it to you, because now we can’t read that guy’s stories and poems. But we still have a shot – a big, terrific shot –  at reading yours.