Defend Truth


Books Column: I asked chatGPT for advice on how to keep my New Year’s writing and reading resolutions


Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

I also asked it to pretend that it was Prince Harry. The results? Illuminating.

Like every columnist on Earth, I’ve been using generative AI to toy around with column ideas. 

Here’s how we do it. We login to chatGPT. We ask it a question, like: “What is the best advice on how to keep one’s New Year’s writing and reading resolutions?” We watch, speechless, as it provides really quite solid guidance in less time than it takes to warm up a cup of tea in the microwave. We take the tea out to the stoep and sip it slowly, staring at nothing in particular, questioning our life choices.

Some weeks before this exercise, knowing that the AI storm was coming, I decided to adopt, as a safety measure, a symbol to indicate when writing was free from the input of our new robot sages. I chose the Japanese kanji 碗, pronounced “won”, and meaning “porcelain bowl” or “teacup”. The symbol gestures toward artistic endeavour on a human scale: bowls are integral to the art of kintsugi, “golden joinery”, which is an apt description of how writing works; and teacups are linked to the wabi-sabi aesthetic, which calls for an appreciation of the beauty found in imperfection.

I’ve published a few imperfect items since then with 碗 pasted at the bottom, to reassure readers that AI had no part in their creation. There’s a strange satisfaction in making this doubtless futile last stand against the onslaught of the machines.  

I won’t be using the 碗 symbol for this column, however, because, as I mentioned, the advice that chatGPT spat out like so much tobacco juice is worth sharing in full.

Before getting to it, however, I thought I should share that I also asked chatGPT to pretend that it was “Prince Harry of the Windsor family of the UK”, and that it should “write the opening paragraph of your memoir, which you have entitled ‘Spare’”. 

Now, bear in mind that AI has very little knowledge of the world after 2021 – that is, long before the real Prince Harry’s now-bestselling bombshell of a memoir was announced. Here is, nevertheless, what SussexGPT produced:

“Growing up as the spare heir to the British throne, I never could have imagined the weight of expectation and responsibility that would come with my birthright. From a young age, I was aware of my role within the royal family and the impact that it would have on my life. But as I grew older and began to forge my own path, I found myself struggling to reconcile my duty to my family and country with my own desires and sense of self. In this memoir, I will share my journey of self-discovery and the lessons I have learned along the way.”

“Spare” a thought for those of us at the mercy of this thing.

By the way, if you’re seeking to escape the deluge of machine-generated language that is now sloshing around us at knee height, and climbing ever higher, I should mention three havens in Cape Town for good, old-fashioned human conversation that have appeared on the radar recently.

First, the new Simon’s Town Literary Festival, aka Books on the Bay, is playing in February and March, and features a veritable firmament of outstanding African writers, including Nobel Literature Laureate JM Coetzee, Booker Prize winner Damon Galgut, Angolan luminary José Agualusa, feted poets Antjie Krog, Ingrid de Kok, Gabeba Baderoon and Karen Press, and many more besides. It will absolutely be worth the trek south.

Second, it’s terrific to hear that the Jewish Literary Festival will make a return this March, featuring headliner Simon Sebag Montefiore and an appearance by Saffer memoirist Denis Hirson, down from his adoptive home of France, among several dozen others. The fest takes place at the Gardens Community Centre; tickets are at Quicket.

Then, there’s something interesting brewing at Noordhoek Art Point, in the shape of Salon Hecate, a space where writing and the visual arts meet. The brainchild of author Helen Moffett, the salon serves up poetry readings and other book events on the regular. How divine. Sign up with Art Point to learn more.

Finally, despair not, denizens of Joburg, for the first Johannesburg Festival of Women Writers is coming on the 12th of February at the Johannesburg Business School, Auckland Park. It’s organised by literary and cultural powerhouses Barbara Masekela, Elinor Sisulu and Lorraine Sithole, and admission is free. Register here.

And now, without further ado, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Here follow the teachings of a non-sentient expecterator of agglomerated words on a problem we all struggle with. Disregard chatGPT’s advice for keeping your New Year’s writing and reading resolutions at your peril:

  1. Set specific, measurable goals: Instead of resolving to “write more” or “read more”, set specific goals for how many words you want to write each day or week, or how many books you want to read each month;
  2. Create a schedule: Make writing or reading a regular part of your daily or weekly routine. Set aside specific times for writing or reading each day, and make sure to stick to them;
  3. Find accountability: Share your writing or reading goals with a friend or family member and ask them to hold you accountable. Or join a writing or reading group where you can share your progress and get feedback;
  4. Make it fun: Find ways to make writing or reading more enjoyable. Try different genres of books, experiment with different writing styles, or try writing in a new location;
  5. Be kind to yourself: Remember that it’s okay to miss a day of writing or reading. Don’t beat yourself up if you slip up, just get back on track as soon as you can;
  6. Reward yourself when you achieve your goals;
  7. Keep track of your progress, either by writing it down or using an app. This will help you see how far you’ve come and give you motivation to keep going;
  8. Don’t give up: Keep going, even if you hit a rough patch. Remember why you set your resolutions in the first place, and keep working towards them.

Also, number 9, stop putzing around on chatGPT so much. DM/ ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted