By Alaina Bixon | Contributing Columnist
There’s a lot of discussion these days about artificial intelligence, its exciting possibilities and daunting dangers. People have been sharing AI-generated art and videos. Some of the new AI programs can research and write a letter, paper, or article on almost any topic, and the resulting essays are grammatical, logical, and well-structured.
The possibilities include increased productivity; it’s like having a new, improved virtual assistant who works without pay or complaint. Writers, editors and critics are considering the dangers – will their jobs be taken over by robots?
OpenAI’s new artificial chatbot, ChatGPT, which debuted in November 2022, is the showiest entry yet. Tell ChatGPT to write a 700-word analysis of “Gone with the Wind,” and you’ll have it in a flash. So far, software that identifies plagiarized work won’t flag AI-written works because they are original and newly created.
Open AI’s Chief Executive Sam Altman says improvements will come quickly, as the bot learns from experience. The chat software is conversational and easy for users to interact with. Need to apologize to your landlord or professor? In seconds, ChatGPT will create a custom letter for you to send.
Another tool, Jasper AI, is trained to write original, creative content for blogs, social media posts and marketing copy.
But what about poetry? How does a bot combine the words, sounds, and emotions that make a poem? Keith Holyoak, poet and professor of psychology at UCLA, says that because AI lacks inner experience, it lacks “what is most needed to appreciate poetry: a sense of poetic truth, which is grounded not in objective reality but rather in subjective experience.”
And yet one of my poet friends disagrees. She thinks that if a software program digests thousands of lines of existing poetry and comes up with a piece that evokes emotion and speaks to us in some way, it’s a real poem. In fact, studies have shown that most people can’t tell the difference between poems written by poets and those composed by computers.
For those wishing to take a deep dive, I recommend “The New Poem-Making Machinery” by Simon Rich in the June 21, 2022 issue of The New Yorker magazine. Part humor, part science, it claims we humans have already lost to computers. (The article includes poems written by open-source software.) And in his acclaimed book “The Most Human Human,” Brian Christian outlines the history of our attempts to tell humans from computers by interacting conversationally with both.
Tell me a true story.
How does this relate to memoir? It’s difficult enough for human writers to access poignant memories and describe how those memories influenced their lives.
Michel de Montaigne, the French writer and philosopher, opened his essays, composed from 1588-1592, with, “I am myself the matter of my book.” Marcel Proust, who mined his experiences for the seven volumes of “In Search of Lost Time,” wrote “We are not provided with wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us.”
Over the years, I’ve led several Inlandia memoir writing workshops, and I’m struck by the way people who share their stories capture the hearts of those who hear them. No matter how different our experiences have been, we recognize the joys and pains of our companions. No computer program can remember the way you felt when your father was furious. Nor can it recall the time when you were so happy, you had to sing aloud and skip down the street. Only you can interview your siblings to find out whether they remember the same incidents you do (in my experience, often not). Only you can research the time frame you’re describing and weave that cultural moment into the story of your own development.
People who enjoy reading memoirs admire the way the writer has overcome adversity (“if she could go through that trauma and emerge triumphant, I guess I can soldier on too”) or has entertained, with humorous versions of whatever demon she’s battling. These diverse memoirs provide the reader with a whole cast of characters, who almost become a new circle of friends.
Bernard Cooper, in “The Bill from My Father,” captures his fraught relationship with his domineering attorney father with humor, anger and finally, understanding. Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” treats alcoholism very differently from “Drinking: A Love Story” by Caroline Knapp.
Memoir is based on fact, remembered and reflected upon. Memoirs tell us how the writers became the people they did. Proust, David Sedaris, Cheryl Strayed, Andre Agassi – thank you for expressing your life’s journey and becoming part of my universe.
No one else has the same history or viewpoint as yours, and if you don’t share your story with the world, who will?
Alaina Bixon is a freelance writer, editor and coach from San Francisco and Palm Springs. She leads Inlandia Institute writing workshops, and her company, Tilton Bass Publishing, helps clients launch their books into the world. She has written and lectured on pseudoscience, women at MIT, food history, and New Age San Francisco gurus.