It must be the future, because I’m taking writing advice from a computer. I’ve always been a fan of Janelle Shane’s AI experiments, because they’re adorably goofy, like the computer is just starting to learn the ways of human language, or concepts like recipes or colours. But her latest creation writes beginning sentences of novels, and it’s a genius:
I am, or was.
At the mid-day meal the sun began to set and the quiet dragged on.
There was once a man who lived for a very long time; perhaps three thousand years, or perhaps a thousand million years, maybe a trillion or so, depending on how the scientists look at it.
“I am Eilie, and I am here to kill the world.”
I was playing with my dog, Mark the brown Labrador, and I had forgotten that I was also playing with a dead man.
The black stone was aching from the rain.
The moon stood on its own two feet.
The sentence that started the project (generated from a different training set than the above) is just as compelling: “I am forced to write to my neighbours about the beast.” It opens so many questions: who is the “I”? What force is this person feeling? What is this beast? What role do the neighbours play in all this? Why write, if they live next door? I want to know everything. And yet, the sentence itself is straightforward, declarative. You are right there, moving along, ready to see how those questions get answered. Surely the writer who can set up such a scenario is going to masterfully explore and resolve it. And yet, there is no rest of the novel. The writer does not, technically, even exist.
The other sentences have a similar tension between matter-of-fact-ness and suspense. Each one poses more questions than it answers, yet seems to reassure us that everything will make sense in its own time.
Even the sentences that don’t make sense, they don’t make sense in an artful way. Some of them remind me of a writing exercise Natalie Goldberg recommends in Writing Down the Bones. These are some of the ones I mean:
The moon was low in the sky, as though it had been shipped in from the farthest reaches of the solar system.
The first star I saw was a blue one, which became a scarlet one, and then a gold one, and green, and finally a yellow one, which for some years afterwards seemed to be an ebony one, or even a bubbling mass.
The sun rose slowly, like a mighty black cat, and then sank into a state of deep sleep.
The sea of stars was filled with the serenity of a million little birds.
The great blue field was all white, swept away by the blue-gold breeze that blew from the south.
The sky was cold and dark, and the cold wind, if it had not been for the clouds, would have lashed the children to the roof of the house.
“Verbs are very important,” writes Goldberg. “They are the action and energy of the sentence. Be aware of how you use them.” She then instructs us to list ten nouns, any ten. Then choose an occupation, and write down fifteen verbs having to do with that occupation. (For a cook, she suggests sauté, chop, mince, etc.) Your job is now to combine each noun with one of the unexpected verbs, producing sentences like: “The fiddles boiled the air with their music.”
The AI doesn’t know what words mean, so sometimes it uses the wrong one. In doing so, sometimes it chooses the wrong metaphor or action entirely. But if you’re not writing strict facts, the wrong word can be, poetically, the right one. Peruse these computer-generated sentences and see if you might be able to write some yourself that evoke the same sense of confusion and wonder.