I often hear things of interest to writing and the writing life when I am driving around in my car. I hear them on the pop rock station my radio is still tuned to, even though I no longer have teenagers in the house. I hear them on the station that on Thursdays plays three songs in a row by the same artist and tells stories about the making of the music. And I hear them constantly on my local NPR station, which is why I write a check to them every year in support. (The plea that always gets me is the one where they say, “How many times have you stayed in your car in the driveway listening to the end of a story?” The answer is, “So often, I think my neighbors are worried about me.”)
The other day I heard a teaser for a piece on NPR’s Science Friday on how telling stories to robots makes them smarter. I was like, “Whoa, WHAT?” I thought it was going to be a story about how robots could be taught emotion from stories. Later I went to the NPR website to listen to that podcast and it turned out to be a fascinating discussion about using stories to teach a robot manners and morals. All good stuff – but not what I had hoped for. What I had hoped for, however, was contained in a story that was linked to it – a story from 2015 about a guy who was actually teaching computers to tell stories.
The work featured was from Mark Riedl’s Scheherazade. Riedl is the director of the Entertainment Intelligence Lab – “the premiere venue for emerging, high-quality research on the role of intelligent systems in creating, understanding, and interactive management of narratives.”
Posted on the NPR site was this example of a story written by Scheherazade, the computer:
With sweaty palms and heart racing, John drove to Sally’s house for their first date. Sally, her pretty white dress flowing in the wind, carefully entered John’s car. John and Sally drove to the movie theatre. John and Sally parked the car in the parking lot. Wanting to feel prepared, John had already bought tickets to the movie in advance. A pale-faced usher stood before the door; John showed the tickets and the couple entered. Sally was thirsty so John hurried to buy drinks before the movie started. John and Sally found two good seats near the back. John sat down and raised the arm rest so that he and Sally could snuggle. John paid more attention to Sally while the movie rolled and nervously sipped his drink. Finally working up the courage to do so, John extended his arm to embrace Sally. He was relieved and ecstatic to feel her move closer to him in response. Sally stood up to use the restroom during the movie, smiling coyly at John before that exit. John and Sally also held hands throughout the movie, even though John’s hands were sweaty. John and Sally slowly got up from their seats. Still holding hands, John walked Sally back to his car through the maze of people all scurrying out of the theatre. The bright sunshine temporarily blinded John as he opened the doors and held them for Sally as they left the dark theatre and stepped back out onto the street. John let go of Sally’s hand and opened the passenger side door of his car for her but instead of entering the car, she stepped forward, embraced him, and gave him a large kiss. John drove Sally back to her home.
We can all read that story and recognize it as a narrative, but we can also agree that it is flat and dull, wholly lacking in the secret sauce that we come to story for.
The question, of course, is then, well what IS that missing thing? What IS that secret writing sauce that holds our attention and rivets us to the page and makes us feel something deep and essential?
I happened to be working this week on a webinar I am going to be giving today about the memoir H is for Hawk – a webinar about why this memoir by Helen Macdonald has taken the world by storm and what we can learn about our own work from it. (You can still sign up and either join me live at 9 am PST for the webinar or get the recording.) So I have been immersed in writing that was the opposite of flat and dull -- writing that is imbued with that secret thing. You can feel it almost any random lines from the book. For example:
“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”
“Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all affliction,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’ Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own conscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other humans to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”
No computer would ever put the words “tense, shining dullness” together in a sentence, or grasp the sorrow in the passage of time the way that first paragraph does.
And the writer seeing Muir’s words as a “beguiling but dangerous lie” and being furious at herself for her “conscious certainty” just takes too much self awareness and introspection and layered understanding for a computer to grasp.
Even the line “hands are for humans to hold” is so simple and straightforward – and yes, maybe a computer could come up with that line -- but the way it is used is packed with so much meaning and emotion, and it’s hard to imagine a computer ever grasping those layers. This writing is the product of a human in touch with her own humanity.
Just for fun, I went back to the computer’s story and edited it so that we could see precisely what was missing, and where the writer (if a computer actually had volition) could go back to try to repair it. I wasn’t paying attention to the grammar and the structure of the computer’s story (where there are a lot of problems) but just to the emotion and meaning.
Take a peek at what I did HERE and you will see how often I am asking, “Why?” and also “And so?”
Because that’s what we come to writing for. That’s what we are desperate to experience and feel – the why of it, the meaning of it, the sense of what things mean to another living soul.
Next time you sit down to work on your own writing, think of the souls on the other end of the exchange who will one day read your work, , hoping to make a connection. They’re cheering for you!