Featured Illustration: Rebecca Fassola
“And I see myself standing and looking at the picture with the two lines that cross in the middle, one purple line, one brown line, it’s a painting wider than it is high and I see that I’ve painted the lines slowly, the paint is thick, two long wide lines, and they’ve dripped, where the brown line and purple line cross the colours blend beautifully and drip and I’m thinking this isn’t a picture but suddenly the picture is the way it’s supposed to be, it’s done, there’s nothing more to do on it, I think, it’s time to put it away, I don’t want to stand here at the easel anymore, I don’t want to look at it anymore, I think…”
The paragraph above is the opening to Jon Fosse’s Septology as translated by Damion Searls. The story revolves around two painters, both named Asle, and the lives they lead alone. The novel goes back and forth between the present time and the two Asles’ backgrounds. Though it follows more the Asle obsessed with the painting described above, the novel is an exploration of parallel lives and how, despite several characters sharing similar names, everyone is shaped by a distinct destiny. It is a powerful meditation on death, grief, life choices, and the loneliness of growing old.
The paragraph above, by the way, is not the end of the paragraph. The novel is written in a singular sentence. There are no periods in the book, which is over 600 pages. Though there are paragraph breaks to help signal dialogue, the paragraphs themselves can span several pages — the opening one above goes on for 12 pages. And the novel is divided into seven chapters — hence, Septology — within three previously and separately published novels.
I had never heard of Jon Fosse before learning of Septology. It was a chance discovery. I follow the publisher Transit Books through social media — I’ve read a few of their works before they posted about Fosse’s novel. For some reason, the novel attracted me. It’s one of those attractions to a work of art that you cannot explain. You learn about it, and it just pulls you in. It’s so human to wonder about the possibilities, to want to learn more, to be on a mission for yourself and yourself alone. Septology is not an easy novel. But the structure, prose, and themes make the novel worth it.
I began reading the book in January, around the same time that I began to hear more about AI. The topic has taken the world by storm in the past few months. And for creatives, AI comes with nuance, possibilities, and frustration.
As much as I hate to admit it, I tried using ChatGPT. I convinced myself it was for research — which is necessary for any article — as more and more people were talking about its capabilities. But I’ll admit to wanting to see those same capabilities myself.
No matter what I say, AI is here to stay. Microsoft announced a new version of Bing alongside the Copilot AI for its Office apps. Open AI — the team responsible for ChatGPT — also just announced a new version called GPT-4, which is meant to be more advanced than the original ChatGPT. Since the launch of ChatGPT, there has been endless discussion of how it can — and should — be used. AI is rapidly becoming a labor issue with publications like CNET and Buzzfeed “experimenting” with AI-generated content while Buzzfeed in particular lays off 12% of its workforce. Other forms of AI aren’t innocent either, with AI art generators stealing the art styles of real artists without compensation, infringing on copyrights, and leading to complaints and a lawsuit. (For any artist interested, the University of Chicago has launched the Glaze Project to protect artwork from AI). And let’s not get started with the mess that is Deepfake AI.
Despite these concerns, AI is still being praised as a new method for productivity. It’s being developed for music with programs like Soundraw. Some are embracing it to help write their stories. There are programs — like Sudowrite, Jasper, and Dramatron — programmed to help writers with their content, whether it’d be a short story, a novel, a screenplay, or a simple blog post. There are benefits to using AI for creatives, and it is clearly here to stay.
The AI “revolution” in content creation emphasizes the increased productivity across all mediums. Need a blog post? How about a script for a YouTube video? A storyboard for a screenplay? Or maybe even chapters for your novel? AI is there for you now. It’s there to help you save time, brainstorm more ideas, and lessen your workload. It is there to help you create more, and create it faster. It makes sense why companies are embracing it so much. They are in the business of making money — productivity is everything. The more you create, the more you can sell. And that’s fine for a lot of content creation, which must be put out there consistently. When it comes to professional emails, resumes, and blog posts, then AI is clearly a lifesaver.
But what about art? What about creative writing? It is easy to say that, at the time of this writing, AI cannot replace writers. Having tested out ChatGPT myself — as well as Bing Chat — the current state of these LLMs (Large Language Models) are unable to create complex writing. Whether it is playwriting, screenwriting, short prose, or poetry, AI is not at our level yet.
However, it is harder to say that AI will never be creative. Again, the advancements we expected for AI for years have happened within a few months. Even at the current mediocre level of its creativity, the market is already being inundated with books written with AI, and some are dramatically declaring the end of high school English. Despite my current tests with ChatGPT, I’ll admit that I can see its potential in a short amount of time. It will get better.
That said, I will declare something myself: for any writer who needs to hear this, know that you will always be better than AI. It is the same for artists.
AI can try, but you will always surpass it for one reason alone: because you are human.
Art is a frustrating endeavor. It is a way to live that does not always help one make a living. And in a global setting affected by rising inflation and price gouging, it is hard to convince anyone to become an artist and support yourself financially.
I chose to become a writer in high school and pursued it for the past 13 years. It is not a decision I chose lightly, and I’ll admit that there were times when I questioned my life choices. My finances are normally in the gutter. I work full-time but hardly make anything. I don’t get paid for my writing, regularly sending it out to small magazines and publications that “pay” in exposure but are more willing to take a chance with an unknown like me. I have yet to finish the book I’ve been writing for over a decade. And while there have been some close opportunities through screenwriting since moving to Los Angeles, none of them have come to fruition.
And yet, despite all of that, I do not regret my decision. Writing has been the one thing that has made sense for me. In my darkest moments, I turn to writing. In my moments of peace, I turn to writing. It all stems from a central philosophy I’ve had for years now: the purpose of art is to express oneself. Writing is just the best way I can personally do that.
I often give a talk to college students in my hometown once a year. A good friend is an instructor at my old community college, and they tend to reach out to me to give a talk to their creative writing students about the publishing industry. I tell them what I know about pitches, submissions, literary agents, and so on. That said, I always end the talk on the importance of the writing itself. A lot of beginning writers — myself included — dream of publication and can lose sight of the beauty of our craft. We dream of the moment we can find our books/writing on the shelves of our favorite bookstores alongside our favorite authors. After all, we were likely influenced by something we read to pursue writing ourselves. It is natural to dream of being there too.
But the writing itself is what’s important. There are now plenty of options for putting our work out there, whether it’d be a blog, a newsletter, or self-publishing. There are many ways to bypass the gatekeepers. And as we’ve seen, AI can do the work for you. But creating your art that way and for that purpose defeats the main use for art, which is the need to express oneself.
There is a scenario I use as an example for the students in the class, which is to wake up early every morning and get ready for your 9-5. You’d have to get up, shower, eat breakfast, prepare a lunch, commute to work, get started on your assignments as soon as you’re there, do that for hours with some breaks in between, clock out when you’re done, commute back home, maybe pick up some food along the way, prepare dinner as soon as you’re done, and relax for what few hours you have left in the day before going to bed to do it all over again the next day. For anyone in that situation, I sincerely ask: where is your outlet? How do you let out your frustration, your anger, your sadness, your happiness, your pride, and the emotions that make you human? How do you let the world know how you’re doing?
This is where art comes in. Art is an expression of your current state, of your emotions, or your ideas. It is through art that we as human beings connect and relate with each other. We connect with art that speaks to us, and that art stems from experience. By hearing one’s story, we understand them better. Through the work of an artist, we feel things that may even be difficult to express ourselves. Even though we feel the same, sometimes hearing it, seeing it, or reading it from someone else validates what we are feeling. As romantic as it may sound, being an artist is a heroic endeavor. Your art, if it reaches the person who needs it most, can save a life.
Why would you want to turn that over to AI? You can’t. AI-generated art is created through its narrow understanding of algorithms and previously created content. It cannot form anything on its own. It has to look outward to create. Humans look inward. AI can try its best to write about the human experience. But it cannot capture it. Try asking ChatGPT if it can write about the death of your loved one. Tell it to write about the first time you fell in love. Have it write a story about your proudest moment. It will come up with something. But it will fail to capture what you felt with that experience. It may summarize a story of the meeting of soulmates. But it cannot describe the feelings the couple feels as they lock eyes across the room, fail to look away, and know from the bottom of their hearts that they are seeing the one they will share the rest of their lives with right in front of them. AI can write a story. But it cannot write your story.
It is through reading and writing that we connect with our own humanity. AI may be good for productivity and content creation. But that is not art. That is not what we connect with. We connect with the experiences people share and we identify with.
AI does not share experiences. It shares content. That is not the same.
A few weeks ago, I received two messages from complete strangers. As I’ve written and published my writing, I receive comments from readers who reach out and tell me their thoughts on the piece. My most recent piece was the most vulnerable I’ve written thus far — a personal essay about leaving my hometown. Though it was published last year, I received two messages on social media from people who just discovered the piece. They were from different parts of the world, but they thanked me for writing something that spoke to them. They both mentioned feeling seen by what the piece talked about through my personal story, and they reached out to thank me for it.
AI will never have that. An LLM will never have someone reach out to tell it how much they love their work. Those messages, that connection, comes only through sharing genuine human experiences. It can only come from stories, from art. It can only come through artists.
AI may someday be capable enough to replicate Jon Fosse’s stream of consciousness. But it will never understand the true meaning of its text. As I finished reading Fosse’s novel, I reflected on what it spoke about. I connected with knowing that life is finite, that I can live a long life and outlive my loved ones. I can understand looking at a piece of art I created and feeling frustrated. I can understand sitting down, looking out, and seeing my life entirely as Asle does in the novel. I connected with the ideas and themes of the stories. I was emotionally invested in the story because it was so human. No matter how many times I had ChatGPT write me a story, it never provided the same catharsis as Fosse’s novel, as the writers who have inspired me before him, as the books, stories, and poems that made me want to write in the first place. It cannot speak for me. It cannot represent me.
Thus I declare what I believed from the start, and I declare it to every artist worried about AI as it continues to grow and evolve: you will always be better. You are human. Your experiences are human. And that is enough.