Post- Magazine

christmas adventures in openAI [narrative]

on what makes a writer

On the sixth night of Chanukah, which is also Christmas Eve, I am awake and burning in my childhood bed. It isn't a flame, but a computer running on my bare stomach that sears a red spot into my skin. But I can’t find it in myself to move. Not quite a week has passed since coming home, and I’m more at peace than I’ve been in a long time. Dark comes quickly now and so do other things: the sound of locking cars and wind. It’s a pleasant kind of paralysis.  

This past semester was a long one. One where I promised myself I would get back into writing after a disorienting spell of self-doubt and hesitation. All fall, I waited on myself to start writing like I did when I was a child—poorly and abundantly—but the words never came. I’m too busy to write, I said, which was true. I have this idea… but I always choked a few sentences in. But now, I’m not busy anymore. My exams are finished and I’m in the quiet of my room, drinking the good coffee my cousins brought from New York. But I’m still not writing. Instead, I’m playing with ChatGPT—the new mass obsession—and biding time until the sun sets. 

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There’s a cold snap settling in and we’ve camped out in the living room for the weekend. A fire is burning and has somehow managed to stay alive all afternoon. Someone keeps feeding it while I’m asleep or my head is turned. I open my laptop. Recently, I’ve been asking ChatGPT small, stupid questions to pass the time, testing the infinite magic promised by generative artificial intelligence. Draft an email to a professor. What’s a good stocking stuffer? How was your day?

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My uncle sees my computer screen and makes a joke about OpenAI running us out of our jobs. In a room of students, lawyers, and retirees, no one laughs. It’s a bad audience. Not a single one of us knows how to write a line of code; none of us really understands what artificial intelligence is, only what it might signal about our digital privacy or capacity to make and lose money. The conversation gives way to easier things: television shows, recipes for pasta sauce, and books—ones we’ve read, loved, should read, heard about others reading, need to read. I will put the books on my list. I will write the list down somewhere I can remember.

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The day after Christmas, the house stinks of clementines and I want to finish something, for once.  

I’ve had too much coffee and my stomach hurts; there’s a stitch buried in the left side of my waist that feels as if I’ve been running a long, long way. But I haven’t. I’ve been sprawled on my too-small mattress, typing and deleting the same three sentences for half an hour while my window panes hum with cold. I think I want to write something new, something in the style of Anne Carson or maybe Maggie Nelson, but I am light-headed and flighty. I feel pinned like an insect to bedposts with nail polish stains that must be over nine years old. The stitch screams. 

I open ChatGPT. What is the style of Anne Carson’s Nox? How do I start a story? I feel like my stomach is going to hurt forever. 

It tells me that Nox is notable for its codex format and combination of written and visual elements, that two of the five most memorable first sentences in literature are by Charles Dickens, that I should up my fluid intake and try an ibuprofen.

In some cases, stomach pain can be a manifestation of emotional distress or a way for the body to express emotions that are difficult to verbalize.

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Neat, six-line little things written in firm, careful strokes. The pencil must have been dull; the words are soft, almost oily now, and there’s a familiar smear of eraser marks underneath. My first poems were clever, though you might not guess it from the way I rhyme “day” with “away” or “red” with “bed.” It aches a little bit to see all the small, complete things I made and held in my hands.

It’s a gross luxury, all this paper gone stale. I could have dedicated the shelf space to other people’s writing. Instead, it holds a half-dozen, half-filled composition books that neatly chronicle my progression from the six-line rhymes to embarrassing imitations of Poe. But, in my new jewelry and gifted sweater, I’m charmed. I’m generous with myself tonight in a way I haven’t been for a long time. I’m glad someone decided to save these notebooks and glad that, at least, this kind of purposelessness will remain. If anything, we’ve become more compulsive about documenting and compiling our things with no promise that we will ever return to them. 

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Something funny happens when you ask ChatGPT to not just inform you about art, but to create it. Request a poem in any style—sonnet, haiku, free verse—and watch as it hesitates just a moment before spilling forth with clever, cleanly-formed lyric. 

Write a poem about banana muffins. About the desert and my friend’s green shirt. About those 20 minutes after the sun sets but before it is dark. 

After a few rounds, you might notice the poems start to feel stale. Patterns begin to look like programming, and cloying words like “bright” and “serene” say too much and too little at once. For these reasons, poet and critic Katha Pollitt dismisses AI poetry as “cliche and tiresome,” and she’s right. I know that ChatGPT poetry isn’t good, per se. But I don’t think it's bad either. It’s correct, at least, every form satisfied, every word and its corresponding meaning accounted for. And it’s complete—that has to count for something. 

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How do you get better as a writer?

As an AI language model developed by OpenAI, I get better as a writer through the process of machine learning. This involves training me on a large dataset of text written by humans, which allows me to learn patterns and relationships in language. The more data I am trained on, the more accurate and diverse my responses become.

How do I get better as a writer?

The chatbot spits back another list of tips and I get tired halfway through reading it.

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I think what fascinates me most about generative AI isn't its implications for high school history classes or online conspiracies—it’s the way the software attempts to mimic the process of artistic growth. In the span of a few quick commands, ChatGPT can act out the minute shifts from childlike syntax to what we commonly recognize as “good” writing that otherwise takes years to develop. This ability isn’t perfect. A New York Times quiz asked readers whether they could correctly attribute written passages to either a chatbot or a real fourth grader and I guessed correctly every time. In all the passages written by ChatGPT, there was something off. The vocabulary was uniform, the grammar simple but perfect. If you looked closely, you could see it: the touch of something more (or less) than human. Still, it now feels easy to see where this is going. Ask it the right questions, prod it the right way, and it might be possible to draw out my fourth-grade self in stilting bursts of text. 

Do I think I could make her parrot back to me something I once made? Maybe one of the clever poems or the story about the girl with the green eyes in the Wild West? I filled notebooks, at one point, with things like that. 

The truth of it is that something about the idea of ChatGPT made me want to start writing again, for real. Maybe it’s a sense of competition. Maybe it’s fear. But I’m not exactly afraid—not yet, anyways. 

In Nox, Anne Carson writes: “I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds. But death makes us stingy.” When asked to produce a passage in her voice, ChatGPT writes: “The night holds within it a stillness that speaks volumes. It is a silence that echoes, a silence that is a song.” There’s no contest. 

I don’t really believe that this website can write like Anne Carson on command. I don’t think it can even write like me. But it will never stop trying. One AI expert noted that ChatGPT has “no human experiences” on which to base writing, “ but also no human foibles, like exhaustion, distraction, anxiety, or forgetfulness.” While I am staring at the wall, cooking eggs, buying the books on my list, AI is at work. It is compiling more words, turning in on itself, swelling like the heat of a steady, low-burning fire and running combinations until something beautiful eventually emerges. 

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How do I write again?

A blinking pause. There’s a tantalizing moment where it doesn’t matter that there is no human typing back at me. Nothing matters but the promise, the space from which anything could emerge. I close my laptop before it does, pick at my nails in frustration. Underneath, the software hums on. 

I hear voices—someone is laughing downstairs. I hear the beginnings of cooking. I hear the trucks arriving to collect Christmas trees left by the curb. I put a hand to my stomach. I’ve felt paralyzed for a while now, fingers flickering over the keys, unsure of what there is left to say. 

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