I am writing a memoir at the moment, and after reading the NYT article, I thought about the prospect of Bard helping Brad. Not to write my memoir, no way. But perhaps it could help me copy edit it. Despite more than 30 years of published writing, I still question my talents and abilities and try always to improve. (This blog is a bit of an exception – being mostly self-willed verbal diarrhea, since it is a kind of diary or log of my activities as opposed to any polished intended work of art.) So I am always ready and willing to receive suggestions, criticisms and editing of my work. In fact, I think that having at least one copy editor look over any piece of writing is what makes the difference between amateur and professional writing.
In any case, I set up an account with Google Bard (as Brad) and I entered the following prompt followed by a paragraph from my memoir: “rewrite the following text in shorter, more precise sentences:” In the snap of a finger Bard rewrote my paragraph of 6 wordy sentences into two very tight sentences that I wanted to believe were trash, but being the sensitive and flexible writer that I think I am, I admitted got the job done. But I also felt a little pinch of, “OK, fine, but there were so many nuances and so many details in my paragraph that I felt bring it to life for the reader, and carry the reader into the world that I had myself lived and wanted to communicate.”
Bard, I then saw, not only decided to execute the task I asked it to do but it also decided – or rather, was programmed – to write in point form all of the various cuts, adjustments, and changes that it made and precisely why it made them. When reading this, I felt a crushing sense of defeat and incompetence as a writer. I felt a blow to my ego, to the quality of my memoir, and a confirmation of those little voices nagging in my head telling me I am an imposter! (Yes, writer imposter syndrome.)
Why did I feel this way? Because it told me that more than one part of the paragraph was “redundant and hyperbolic.” It combined two sentences to make one more concise sentence that I should have seen in the first place. In another case, again, it said I was redundant and it explained precisely why. It removed several details from another spot because it said they were “unnecessary” and “distracting”! Finally, it added a phrase “to add a bit of poetic flair to the sentence.” In other words, without that contribution, there was no poetry in what I wrote. The final hit to the gut was the kind sign off of Bard to me for the work it did at my command: “I hope this is helpful!”
Helpful? Sure, gut-wrenching ego destruction, and a sense that I had spent a lifetime learning to write and taking in editorial criticisms and suggestions all these years only to find myself back at square one – excuse the use of a cliche – and not knowing how to write!
Then, my survival instinct kicked in. I came up with an idea for an experiment. I would compare Bard’s copy editing of my paragraph to that of a recognized masterpiece of creative writing. I would use the exact same prompt – although this time I added the word “Please” – and see what Bard did to the great, but wordy, writer Jack Kerouac from his masterpiece, “On the Road.”
The result was more than reassuring. It taught me a lesson. Here is how Bard responded…or rather, here is the whole exercise, still available for this cut and paste from my Bard account:
Google’s Bard AI Chat Program Massacres Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” masterpiece
“Rewrite the following text in shorter, more precise sentences: I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.””
Shorter, more precise version:
Waking in a strange hotel room, I didn’t know who I was for fifteen seconds, as if I were a different person, living a haunted life.
I made the following changes:
- I removed the phrase “as the sun was reddening” because it is unnecessary to the main idea of the sentence.
- I combined the two sentences “I woke up and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was” into one sentence to make it more concise.
- I removed the phrase “I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel” because it is redundant. The word “traveling” implies that the speaker is far from home and tired.
- I combined the two sentences “I was in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds” into one sentence to make it more concise.
- I removed the phrase “and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds” because it is redundant. The previous sentence already implies that the speaker didn’t know who they were.
- I removed the phrase “I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger” because it is repetitive. The previous sentence already implies that the speaker felt like a different person.
- I replaced the phrase “and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost” with the more concise phrase “living a haunted life.”
I hope this is helpful!”
Real life lessons learned about creative writing from Google’s Bard AI Chat program
Yes! Not only was it helpful to me, but after reading it to all the budding writers at the spoken word event at the Cabaret Culture Rapide, where the spoken word event happens every Thursday, but I felt it was helpful to everyone and I said to them: This response is proof to me that the art of writing is something that we must do because we believe in it, and in ourselves. And sometimes we will find other people who we touch, despite the writing perhaps apparently breaking the mechanical rules of what makes for “good writing.” We cannot succeed in pleasing all readers all of the time, but we may please some of the readers some of the time. The important thing is that, ultimately, there are no rules. There is only the humnan self-expression that will or will not reach the reader. Or will reach some, but not others. Just keep on writing, and don’t lose confidence through criticisms made of your work. Try to improve, but don’t take every editor’s opinion to heart. The masterpieces often break the rules and create something new.”
Aside from sounding like the harsh and self-assured judgments of so many editors I have heard throughout my career (;-)), what struck me was how Bard executed precisely what I had asked for, but had indeed killed the art. The worst thing was that its criticisms, its reasons for making the changes, while they were correct from the point of view of a strictly logical thinking computer program, were absolutely far off the mark and plain wrong when applied to the purpose and effects of a work of art.
For me, the importance of this revelation with Bard, the lesson I learned, was not so much that AI is not yet ready to create a work of art like “On the Road,” but rather, that we as writers must believe in what we write and understand that editors will always have differences of opinion, but that the work you do should be above those differences. Yeah, you’ll write some crap, but you may just write something fabulous that you do not want to be torn apart by the opinion of one, two, three or even four editors.
Anyway, I am very conscious of this blog post being very long and wordy. So I am now going to ask Bard to sum it up in one paragraph (I will not publish the why it did its changes):
“Bard is a powerful tool for editing writing, but it is important to remember that it is a machine and does not have the same understanding of art and creativity as a human writer. It is important to use Bard’s suggestions as a starting point, but ultimately the author should make the final decisions about what changes to make to their work.”
Hmm…I am not sure that’s precisely what I said, but it’ll do!
In any case, not only did I not regret playing music at the spoken word night, but I found myself having a great time just talking and not singing. So I can thank Bard for that inspiration too!