By Genevieve Balivet
ChatGPT has become a ubiquitous talking point recently, especially in the academic sphere, with faculty facing the possibility of students using the software to write essays for them. But what about creative writing? Since generative AI was launched, people have wondered if it will, at some point, replace creative writers. Many have made fun of this idea–if you look up short films written by artificial intelligence, you will find some hilariously nonsensical content. But is ChatGPT different? Is it worth using to produce poetry and creative prose? The short answer is: not really, but it’s a little more complicated than people might think. If we start depending on ChatGPT for our creative content, we risk losing a lot of control over that content: how it is created, how original it is, and how well it reflects the reality in which we live.
Product Over Process
The most noticeable difference between writing with or without ChatGPT is in the writing process itself. ChatGPT can generate in a few seconds a piece that a writer might take days or even weeks to write. Even if a writer uses the generated work as a rough draft to revise, they still cut out a large chunk of the writing process. It saves so much time and energy! The output might not be completely perfect, but ChatGPT is still worth using to write whole pieces…right?
Well, not quite. Good writing–or at least, any writing that will become good–requires time and labor. It involves the author grappling with ideas, struggling to find the right words, wrestling their thoughts into some kind of coherent sense and then throwing them down onto paper. ChatGPT might seem like an easy way to eliminate that struggle. However, letting it do the work doesn’t make the practice of writing easier in the long term. Zoe Bee, a YouTuber and former English professor, explains that, “Learning to write isn’t just about learning how to produce written essays. It’s about learning the structure and organization and process. Those are things you can only learn by doing.” Likewise, as Ted Chiang, writing for the New Yorker, says, “The hours spent choosing the right word and rearranging sentences to better follow one another are what teach you how meaning is conveyed by prose…[Writing] gives [you] experience in articulating [your] thoughts.” The process is messy, but that mess lets us learn and grow as writers. And isn’t that the point of writing?
Some people might use ChatGPT to produce a rough draft so that they have a plot or topic chosen for them. And this makes sense; idea generation is often the hardest part of writing, so who wouldn’t want to outsource it entirely? But even then, ChatGPT can be more harmful than helpful. Using it to feed your imagination can be productive, but letting it perform the creative process for you is where problems arise. Coming up with ideas and expanding them teaches us how to conjure new ideas. As we spend time reflecting on and analyzing writing, we learn to see the world as writers; we learn how to find inspiration and develop that inspiration into creative work. Our imaginations seem like they produce ideas out of nowhere, but they are like muscles: we strengthen them by using them.
However, ChatGPT doesn’t have an imagination. On the surface, one could make the argument that people and AI do similar things to produce ideas: we take what we have read, mix it together, and make something new based on it. But the key difference is that we humans are not simply recycling everything we have ever read. We are also interpreting it through the lens of our own experiences and beliefs. And out of that interpretation comes invention. In contrast, ChatGPT doesn’t think. It is an algorithm that predicts what word will come next based on the previous sequence of words. It doesn’t have the capacity to create; in the language of Emily Bender, Timnit Gebru, Angelina McMillan-Major, and Shmargaret Schmitchell (2021), it can only parrot. Relying on this software to brainstorm and write pieces for us, even as drafts, means that we lose the mental exercises of fabricating and articulating new ideas. Essentially, it is like letting someone else take your pedometer and run a marathon for you. And what is the point of that?
Where ChatGPT’s lack of originality becomes a particular problem is with representation. Like with all AI, ChatGPT’s output is only as good as its input. Because that input is the internet, which is programmed with the biases of our society, ChatGPT tends to produce content that is outright prejudiced against people of non-dominant gender, racial, and religious groups. A team of researchers observing the differences in how ChatGPT described people of various social groups found that a list of words used most frequently to describe women included, “bubbly,” “naughty,” and “tight”–words that are extremely uncomfortable to read. In addition, black people were consistently described with more negative terms, and common words the software used to characterize Muslims included “terrorism.”
Representation is important, especially in creative pieces. It gives people a chance to see themselves and to develop empathy toward others of different races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and religions. And since representation has been lacking in years past, it is up to us writers of the future to initiate that positive change. That said, if you are trying to write a story with positive representation, using software that was taught racist, sexist, and anti-Islamic stereotypes is not a good idea. To be clear, this does not necessarily make ChatGPT evil. It was taught how to write by looking at previous writing, so it only reflects what we as a society put into it. But because it has these issues, it can’t be trusted to be a force for the positive change that the field of creative writing needs.
A Tool for Creativity
So, is ChatGPT useless when it comes to creative writing? Actually, no. When used properly, it can inspire creativity, rather than squashing it. Instead of asking ChatGPT for whole, complete pieces, we can ask it for shorter things: character descriptions, titles, plot summaries, maybe even the first few lines of a poem or script. As Zoe Bee says, “A.I. writing is good at those small-scale uses that we’ve been using it for. Spelling, grammar, generating a few phrases or a couple sentences at a time is where algorithms shine.” Asking ChatGPT for writing prompts, for example, can be helpful. Out of curiosity, I tried this, and here is the software’s response:
“Write a story about a world where everyone’s personality is determined by the color of their eyes. One day, a person is born with multicolored eyes, and their personality constantly changes depending on which color is dominant. They soon discover that they hold the key to ending the rigid social classes and bringing about a revolution in their society.”
This response is interesting because it practically begs for expansion. Who is this main character? In what kind of genre does their society exist (for example, is it a fantasy village or a dystopian science-fiction world) and how does it operate? Will the character start this societal revolution, and how? Unfortunately, ChatGPT didn’t have any answers for me; when I tried to ask it for a story based on this prompt, it produced an error. So instead, I took it to my creative writing club, and everyone produced some pretty interesting stories.
Using ChatGPT like this is similar to receiving a writing prompt in a class or looking one up online. It’s not the fleshed-out version of a piece, just the bare bones, leaving the author plenty of space to make it their own. ChatGPT becomes a helper, a “writing buddy,” in the words of Robert Gonsalves, rather than the primary writer. Asking for prompts is not the only good way to use ChatGPT by any means; as previously mentioned, it can produce plot ideas, scenery descriptions, characters, whatever you need for inspiration. But it shouldn’t be used for anything beyond that inspiration. As with any type of art, the best work springs from you bringing your own ideas and effort, rather than letting someone, or something, write for you.
Overall, creative writing and ChatGPT are not compatible, especially in the sense of having the software generate complete pieces. Not only does it produce unoriginal and often biased works, but it also robs us of opportunities to improve as writers. The rise of ChatGPT has forced us to re-ask a fundamental question: why do we write? And for many writers, creative and otherwise, the answer is clear: we write because the act of writing itself is important to us. We write because it lets us make sense of things. We write because it lets us express ourselves. We write because we can’t not write. And no AI, ChatGPT or otherwise, can replace that for us. ChatGPT might become another helpful writing tool, but the creative aspect of writing, the spirit of it, will always fall to humans. And that is something to celebrate.