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Robot Writers, Surfing, and the Art of Saying No
Could Rosie the Robot Write Books For Me?
Many of us who grew up watching The Jetsons are a little disappointed that we aren’t living in the space-age future we were promised. Where are the jetpacks? Why isn’t there a weird little robot arm that brushes my teeth? And why aren’t robots doing all the work while we enjoy lives of leisure?
I was having lunch with fellow Portland author April Henry, and we got to talking about artificial intelligence. I had no idea that there was such a thing as AI for writers out there. April is much more on top of…well, everything than I am, and she told me all about it. Type in a prompt, and the robot spits out a paragraph! It’s usually a pretty weird paragraph, so this is more of a parlor game than anything else, but it got me wondering: How good is this thing, really? Could it, for instance, render historical fiction accurately? Does it understand different periods of time, in other words?
When she got home, April typed a prompt into SudoWrite and sent me the response.
Here’s her prompt: “Write an exciting scene set in 1872 where a wealthy matron gets angry with an upstart young woman who has crashed her party.”
The first couple of responses were mostly dialogue and a bit weird. So she added these instructions: “Make more descriptive and quirky”
Here’s what she got back:
Lily sat in the front pew of the church and cast a glance back toward the door. The wedding had been beautiful; the organist's music had soared up to the balconies and filled the nave of the church with sound. The guests whispered amongst themselves, but no one noticed Lily perched on the back edge of a pew. She slid a little bit forward, letting her skirts pool onto the floor and her slippers poke out under her dress. She never could sit still; that was why she liked to dance. Her eyes flicked back to stare at the door again, but still no one came in. She frowned, because she had been waiting all day for this person, ever since they had left her small house in the early morning. It was not like him to be late—the man had never so much as arrived five minutes after his appointed time in all their months of acquaintance—and she pushed down her feelings of annoyance and impatience. She had worked hard preparing for this occasion and was looking forward to seeing him again. She wondered if she would be able to sense if he finally walked through that oak door or if he would catch her completely by surprise.
The young woman blinked up at the tall ceiling. The crowd was a jumble of dark dresses, stiff, starched collars, and shiny shoes. A paleness hung in the air, the pale faces of the people blending together and toning into a gray blur. The young woman held her breath as she could feel the whalebone pressed tight against her bosom. She had never dressed in such an elaborate gown before and she felt like a child playing dress-up. An unexpected sob escaped her lips and she noticed the plump matron who had hurried over to her side. The woman's lips were pursed in a thin line and her eyes were narrowed in anger. She pushed the girl hard, pushing her into the young man who had brought her to this party. "We don't want your sort here," she hissed. Her words were like an icy draft gliding down the young woman's back, leaving goosebumps in its wake.
So…huh. It’s coherent. Nothing wildly inaccurate for the time period—nobody’s calling an Uber—and the reference to the corset is a bit obvious and overused, but clear evidence that the computer understood the historical angle.
April said that she liked the part about the skirt pooling on the floor and the slippers poking out.
I said I liked the phrase “a paleness hung in the air,” which is just slightly strange but not incomprehensible or trying too hard.
It’s also interesting that the computer decided to take the prompt about a party and make it a wedding in a church. It took it in a slightly different direction. It had an idea.
Otherwise, I would say that it feels like mediocre historical fiction written today. It doesn’t feel like it lives in 1872. It makes me wonder what this AI robot is being fed: modern novels? Old books? Dictionaries and encyclopedias? Diaries and letters?
After five whole minutes of googling, I learned that the underlying technology relies on text that can be found online, which means that Rosie the Robot probably hasn’t read all the Hilary Mantel novels. (I’d be very curious to know if this technology, called GPT-3, is somehow buying and digesting ebooks, for example. If you know, post a comment and tell me. I’m done asking one computer to tell me about another computer for today.)
So…I don’t know. It’s an amusing little game, I guess. It might be a way for a writer to get unstuck, and in that sense, it’s not too different from some of the tricks I use. When I was writing the Kopp novels, I kept a stack of novels from the 1910s around, and I’d open them to random pages, hoping to stumble into a new idea. Or I’d open Newspapers.com and read the day’s newspaper from whatever day I was writing about. Is this really so different?
It still kind of creeps me out. Don’t even get me started about AI for art. That just makes me feel sad and weird. Where is all of this going? I don’t know. Feel free to discuss in the comments.
I’m Going to New Zealand. Wanna Join Me?
The Urban Sketchers Symposium, an annual international gathering of people who like to go out into the world and sketch, is happening for the first time since before Covid— in Auckland, New Zealand on April 19-22, 2023. Registration details are here, and I warn you: this is like buying concert tickets! You need to be online and ready to order (and double-check your time zone!) when they go on sale. I bought an early bird ticket. Those sold out within 24 hours.
I’ve only attended one of these before, in Porto in 2018. I loved getting to take workshops from artists from around the world, and it was fun to try out new materials (the swag is generous, and the makers of paints and pencils and so forth sometimes donate materials for the workshops), but what I really loved was being in a city where people were sketching everywhere, all the time. Eight hundred artists, all out on the streets drawing pictures!
If this appeals to you, read all about it here and feel free to post questions in the comments to this newsletter, which I will try to answer if I know how.
But now we have to figure out where else we’re going, as long as we’re traveling all that way. A few years ago, my husband joined me for a book tour in Australia, but we didn’t get to see New Zealand on that trip. It’s a long damn flight. How do we make it worthwhile?
The people I know who’ve been on epic New Zealand vacations have mostly gone on loooong road trips, usually staying in a different place every night, trying to hit every “must see” stop on the lengthy checklist of amazing New Zealand experiences. The way it’s been described to me is this: New Zealand is roughly the length of California, but without the superhighways. Imagine one vacation where you try to see the entire state of California, but only on two-lane roads, and by the way, you’re driving on the other side of the road.
I like the kind of vacation where you just go somewhere and stay there the whole time, and live like a local, and don’t have a very packed itinerary. The way I would normally plan a vacation would be to book a plane ticket to, say, Barcelona, rent an apartment for the duration, and figure out the rest when I get there.
But I get why people don’t do this in New Zealand! It’s so far away! You might never go back! Must see it all! I joined a New Zealand travel planning group on Facebook, and people post these meticulous 21 or 28-day itineraries, with hotels and campsites and tours booked every day, and long hours of driving from one stop to the next. I get it!
But…uh…I’m not going to do it. We’re going to park ourselves in two or three places, see what we can from there, and call it good. The incredible scenic attractions I drew in the sketches above? Probably not making it to any of those. (Oh, and we’re also going to stop off in Tahiti on the way. More about that as I figure it out.)
Feel free to share any and all New Zealand opinions, or travel-related insights of any kind, in the comments. And yes, you are perfectly welcome to tell me I’m crazy for skipping any of the four attractions in my sketch.
I Did Not Think I Would Love a Surfing Documentary. But This is So Good!
An adventure/surfing documentary is not usually my thing, but I heard so much praise for this that I started to watch it and then I was hooked. The trailer, honestly, does not do it justice. They try to make it seem like this is a real-life action flick, but it’s so much better than that. It’s a deeply human story, it lets you nerd out on the details of a sport you probably know nothing about, it’s a bit of a travelogue (the famous 100 foot wave is just off the coast of a fishing village in Portugal), and it is visually stunning. It’s showing on many different streaming platforms at once right now. If you’re looking for gorgeous beachy scenery and a nice bit of escapist TV, this is for you.
It’s Time to Paint Some Pumpkins and Some Leaves.
It’s pumpkin spice, sweater-wearing, leaf-gathering season. Want to paint with me? Here’s my class on painting pumpkins, and here’s one on painting fall leaves (and flowers.) You can take these classes on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style membership platform, or on Udemy, where you only sign up for the classes you want to take. I teach a lot of other classes on both art and writing! You can see them all here.
“No” is a Complete Sentence. Here Are Some Others.
Writer and literary critic Edmund Wilson apparently accomplished what most of us can only dream of: he reached a level of success that allowed him to say no to All The Things. It’s funny, isn’t it? You do All The Things in the hopes that it will bring you some level of success. Maybe you’ll even become so successful that you can stop doing All the Things and just do Your Thing.
Anyway, it’s a hell of a funny sort of auto-reply. Worth considering: what would be on your auto-reply, if you could do one of these?
Get Yourself a Tub of General Pencil Brush Cleaner
I don’t know what’s in this stuff. It looks like ordinary soap to me. A hard cake of soap in a little plastic tub. But this amazing brush cleaner, made right here in these United States and available directly from the manufacturer or at any art supply store, can get any sort of paint, ink, etc. out of any tool or off of any surface, no matter how old or dry or far-gone the situation might be.
I was reminded of this yet again this last week, when I spilled most of a bottle of acrylic ink on my very nice wood floor. It was a deep purple ink and it was EVERYWHERE. It truly looked like a bloodbath, if blood was purple. It is not quick or easy to get that much ink out of a wood floor—it takes as much elbow grease as soap—but it all came up. It also gets wine and other such seemingly impossible stains out of floors, furniture, etc. Even if you’re not an artist, get one of these and stash it in the laundry room. You’ll use it.
A Newsletter Recommendation:
Writers, Aspiring and Otherwise, Meet Courtney Maum
I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned Courtney Maum in this newsletter, but thanks to the handy search feature here in Substack, I went through all my archives and apparently I’ve never told you about her. Time to fix that.
Courtney wrote a novel called Costalegre, inspired by a true story about Peggy Guggenheim, that I just loved. It was published by Tin House, a fantastic independent publisher located right here in my very own neighborhood. I’m friends with those people and because of that, I got both a galley (an uncorrected pre-publication copy put out for the media), and a finished book.
During the most locked-down part of Covid, I had an idea to tear up a book and make collages out of the text. Ripping up a galley was appealing, because they’re basically worthless once the book is out. So Costalegre and I made some art together! Courtney acted like this was a totally normal thing for an almost-stranger to do and was very nice about it when I showed her what I’d done. Here are my favorite pieces from those days. (Why did I stop doing this? I love these things.)
Anyway, after that Courtney wrote a terrific book called Before and After the Book Deal, which is a totally useful and enjoyable guide to—well, all that transpires when you write a book.
And now she has a Substack! In all honesty I can tell you that if you are wishing you could hire a writing coach to just explain How It All Works and offer encouragement and useful instruction? Courtney’s Before and After the Book Deal newsletter is it. She digs deep into all of the weird little questions we all have when we are trying to navigate the publishing world. Can I re-query agents with a revised manuscript after they already rejected it once? How do I come up with a good title? These questions and more are posed by subscribers, and Courtney answers them, plus she just dispenses all kinds of good bookish wisdom. If you are a writer with questions (and that is all writers), I hope you will check out her newsletter.
What Are You Reading?
Much to my surprise, I found an Anne Tyler novel I haven’t read. (There are 24 of them, I’ll probably find a few others I missed over the years.) Anyway, it’s as good as any other Anne Tyler novel—a quiet, domestic story about people trying to figure out how to be human beings—but I couldn’t help but think, as I read it, that in the hands of a different type of writer, say a Liane Moriarty or a Gillian Flynn, it could’ve been quite a nifty little domestic thriller. Not that Anne Tyler should ever stop being Anne Tyler! But if you read it, you’ll see what I mean.
I’m feeling like I really just need to call a halt to the reading slump that has had me retreating to familiar, lovely old novels in the last few years. Stay tuned to find out whether I actually get into James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, which I thought would be an interesting book to read in advance of our trip next year. Michener was a Very Big Deal around our house when I was growing up, but I’ve never read one of his books. It’s not a terribly long one by Michener standards. We’ll see how I get on.
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