by | May 9, 2024 | Publishing, Writing | 0 comments

This is a subject I’ve been thinking a lot about, so this post might be a little all over the place.

When it comes to using AI in the creative process, there are some very heated opinions.

Writers and artists who are against AI accuse it of stealing. They look on “prompt engineers” as hacks who devalue the very foundation of art itself without understanding it.

In the other camp, pro-AI people see it as the inevitable progress of technology making creation easier and more accessible. They look on “real artists” as whiny, gatekeeping luddites who need to wake up to the 21st century and accept a new status quo.

There are a few people who walk the middle path. They might use AI as a tool for ideation and exploration in building larger, deeper work. Some try pushing the boundaries of prompting to find the most idiosyncratic approach to creation they can in the confines of AI’s limitations (including, but not limited to: hallucinations, copying, and just general blandness). Most of these people keep quiet about it to avoid pissing off either of the above two groups.

Personally, I don’t walk any of these paths. I’m not particularly interested in using AI for my own work, so I’m mainly in observer mode. I already have a whole suite of tools and skills I’ve accumulated over time to develop my stories, and I don’t see how AI can yet meaningfully add to them. As for writing actual prose? That’s my favorite part, so why would I hand it over to an LLM?

However, this whole debate has me thinking about what it means to be a writer.

To anyone who is walking this creative path, I would like you to consider the following question: Why do you want to be a writer? Is it to explore new, fantastical worlds? To delve into the meaning behind human relationships? To examine the course of humanity from now into the distant future of star travel? To therapeutically explore concepts, worlds, characters, or memories that just won’t leave you alone?

Or is it to see your name on a book cover? To be called an “author”? To make money?

And hold on just a second before you keep scrolling. Don’t just jump to answer with whichever one you think should pick. I’m not there with you, staring over your shoulder as you read this, judging your response. Really think about it. These two sets of options are not mutually exclusive, but in your heart, you know which ones you’re more drawn to naturally. This answer is between you and whatever elder gods you worship, so make it honest.

What my question represents isn’t anything about AI, but about internal versus external motivations.

I would argue that if your motivations are largely internal — you enjoy the craft of writing, you have things about yourself/humanity/philosophy you want to explore via the written word, etc. — then chances are you are less interested in AI help with your work. It literally can’t help you with those extremely personal, idiosyncratic elements, so why would you bother?

However, if your motivations are external — make money, have your name on a book cover, etc. — then you’re more likely to fall for the promises of AI publishing. I mean, if you just want to have work out there, why take the hours/weeks/years to actually write/edit/submit/polish only to get rejected and have to start over — especially if you don’t have to?

We live in a world of instant gratification. Want a movie? Stream it or download it in seconds without even looking up from your phone. Want food? Have it delivered through your food delivery app du jour. Want a partner? Swipe, poke, or whatever the kids are doing these days to each other’s dating app profiles. Want friendship? Social media feeds and parasocial relationships via YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram are all there for you 24/7. Hell, with the dawn of Ozempic, even weight loss has become instantly gratifying if you have the access.

This is just the way humans and capitalism function. When we want something, we build systems to get/deliver/profit from that thing.

One thing that’s eluded instant gratification in the past has been the satisfaction of creation. Before the siren song of AI, the cultural capital of being an author, an artist, or a musician had to be earned through practice, rejection, and paying one’s dues. They were the result of constant internal motivation and development, of being a member of a community.

But these large learning models have changed all that. You no longer have to “earn” calling yourself a writer with actual writing. You can pump a short story out in a few minutes with the right prompt, slap it up online with an AI generated cover featuring your name, and BAM! Another hit of instant gratification. You can say to people “I am a writer! My name is on that cover, see?”

Some of the more perceptive of you will notice the parallels in this discourse to when self-publishing really took off in the early 2010s. There was a lot of judgment back then of people who posted their books online with a low-effort stock image as a cover instead of going through the tedium of the traditional publishing process. People were mocked for pulling out their trunk novels en masse, regardless of the quality of those novels (which were always assumed to be trash, even if whoever was assuming hadn’t read said work).

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that traditional publishing is slow and sometimes myopic. It can leave people, experimentation, and the exact kind of meaning-making we’re thirsty for out of the conversation. If you’ve poured your heart out on the page and done everything you could to get traditionally published, only to be told after years on submission that your book wasn’t “marketable,” self-publishing was (and is) a valid option. In only a few clicks, your book could be available to readers.

However, using AI to rush out a draft isn’t the same thing. Pumping out AI books necessitates viewing literature as pure commodity, where the final product is the point more than the journey or the meaning behind it. It strips out the process of creation to streamline your path to that instant gratification dopamine hit. Some may argue that they still have to edit/curate/experiment to get the right words to come out of an LLM, but we have a name for people who take a base of work they did not write and fix it up: editors. We don’t often credit them as the authors.

I’m not saying any of this to judge the people who use AI, at all. It might seem that way, because I am a bit skeptical of the use of AI in artistic pursuits (mainly because it doesn’t align with my personal approach/interests). But to me, this has nothing to do with the morality of the individuals and is entirely around the principles of creation and the ways our monkey minds work. I’m observing in an attempt to define and understand, not prescribe actions or determine human (or artistic) value.

The conversation around AI has centered so much on whether or not it’s being done ethically and who gets to call themselves an artist. There has also been plenty of discourse on whether AI work is any good (subjective and mixed). But what I genuinely want to know, in a deep philosophical sense, from people willing to be honest with themselves and the world around them: why, tho? Is AI actually helping you delve into something deeper artistically? Or is it another form of instant gratification? If you really really think about it, and look deep into your own heart and motivations, is this journey about the work itself, or is it more important to have your name out there? When you finish an AI-written work, do you just look for the next hit, or is it fulfilling in itself?

I know this has been a much longer, rambling blog post than usual, but I think this is a complicated moment in human history that requires a bit of rambling. The internet has made it feel like anything we consume should be free, easy, or both — including our stances on hot-button topics. I think the conversation around AI in art is an extension of that, but I’m deeply interested in how other people feel about it, whether they use AI or not.

Also, quick plug: for those who want to develop some tools to work on your stories without using AI, I have a workshop coming up on Saturday, May 11th with Reach Your Apex about using Tarot in your storytelling. You don’t need a deck or any prior knowledge, so if you’re interested you can check it out here!

Pin It on Pinterest