Saturday, November 25, 2023

From A to B

Do you remember how you learned how to read? Actual details, like how old you were, where you were, what you read and who you were with? I can't. By all accounts, I should have never ended up calling "writing" my profession because reading and me had a difficult start. We weren't pals.

My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Hampton or Mrs. Washington, my memory fails, was a strict graying woman outta the '50s who wore stern-looking muted dresses to our classroom and had seating charts. This would have been around 1973. If my memory serves, I wasn't one of her favorites. I do recall a sweet little girl who sat by me, named Jackie, who was a pixie and wore the most enviable shiny white knee-high boots with heels. I was more interested in those boots than the alphabet. She wore them in our class photo.

One afternoon, the teacher pulled me into the hallway (this wouldn't be the last time) and sat me down with flashcards of the alphabet. Maybe terrified, I did my best to give her the answers she wanted though my responses had to have missed the mark a few times. I knew the basics, A, B, C, those early letters were a breeze, but the farther down in the alphabet, my familiarity dropped off like a sugar cube in black coffee. Plop. The U, W, Y, all looked the same to me. Can't you see a resemblance?

Not too long after our hallway visit, my mom started quizzing me in the car about billboards. What can you read there, honey? while pointing out the window. And I'd do my best to answer. Again, I have no idea what I said or if my interpretation of the Sinclair gasoline or the tires at Sears ads were right. If my mom had a heart-to-heart with me about my shortcomings, I can't recall that either. I just wasn't really interested in reading or writing. I was interested in my friend Jackie, her boots and playing at recess.

Feet on hopscotch box
Mrs. Hampton/Washington kept me back from recess once. It was an ordinary day and didn't have anything to do with reading lessons or the alphabet. We were assigned an in-class exercise, and instead of following directions, I recruited another friend, Monica, to play a game. It could have been Candyland or Operation. We had just gotten out the game, and pulled our seats together, when the teacher stormed over and leered down at me, calling us out for failing to follow instructions. I got a paddling in the hall. I hope Monica did not but I was so humiliated, that part of the story is lost. It was extremely painful, and I still have a bad word or two for my kindergarten teacher floating in my head today about her choice of discipline. 

My efforts at reading probably, most likely, almost certainly didn't improve after that point. I caught up somewhere along the way. Though to this day, I couldn't tell you the title of the first book I ever read. It would have been along the lines of Flat Stanley or Judy Blume or somesuch. Reading never gave me the joy my teacher promised. It wasn't Mrs. Hampton/Washington's fault. I just got behind, and it took me decades to catch up. I'm still catching up. 

The fact that this didn't hold me back from learning how to write is a miracle. How is it possible that a half-hearted kindergartener with little interest in letters and books became a writer later? Other teachers, a poem or two, some speeches I wrote, helped. At one point, the letters started to click together easily. It all comes so easily now. It is a gift not taken for granted. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Doing the Work

Montana sunset by JFulford June 2023

If you wanna be a fiction writer, you gotta do the work. It doesn't really matter where you work, like from a gorgeous spot out in the Montana wilderness, but you gotta dedicate the time and the headspace. You'll need uninterrupted stretches to: 

--Think about your story, AKA plotting

--Write, write, write

--Re-read and check your inner critic. Revisions come after the draft. (Are you editing while you're drafting? Ahhh, I see, you're one of those.)

--Capture thoughts about changes (I do this in a spiral notebook.)

--Think some more, AKA plotting

--Wonder what the hell you're doing

--Keep writing

--Resist, resist, resist major editing (Unless you're one of those.)

--Finish a draft

A draft is the newborn phase of your story's life. You don't have anything without a draft – a complete draft with a beginning, middle, and end.

All the other stuff, pacing, voice, character development, world building, proper spelling/grammar, dreams of fame, those can be tackled in the editing phase. Don't get me wrong, editing is essential. But getting the draft down comes first. Everything else can be fixed.

Whatcha waiting for?

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Wait, What? AI and Writing

Since my last post in 2022, lots of life has happened. I traveled to Iceland, Canada, Spain and several U.S. locations; I've moved (same city); I've switched jobs then decided to basically take a sabbatical from full-time work. Here we go, sliding into 2023 with a little determination to relax.

How was all that activity on my literary output? A big fat rotten goose egg. But doesn't the saying go, If you can't write something worth reading, then do something worth writing about? I've been thinking about finishing the draft of my new novella, but the old butt-in-seat-hands-on-keyboard method has failed me of late. Part of it has to do with the relaxing part. My job had me spending so much time in front of a computer, the last thing I wanted (or want) to do was (is) spend even more time in front of a screen, even if it was (is) doing something I enjoyed. It's okay. In fact, it might be good timing now that technology has sped up. My next novel includes artificial intelligence (AI) in the storyline, and so much has happened on that front lately.

ChatGPT has become a thing. If you haven't given it a spin, stop reading this and try it. It is an online web portal to pose questions to a computer that is trained to answer like a human. Ask it anything, and it'll give you an intelligible answer. It can even write a book. People are using AI to write just about everything now, including marketing copy. I'm waffling between thinking this is incredibly cool and also thinking of my career as dust. (Ha! Even the notion that I have a career is a little comical.)

Here's the answer ChatGPT gives when I ask it: What kind of voice do you use when asked to write a novel?

As an AI language model, I don't have a personal voice, but rather can adopt to different styles and tones...

And for another five paragraphs, it gives an explanation of how that can happen. Weird? Yes, and a little wonderful. 

Will it replace you and me, the writers of the world? No, I don't think a computer will ever fully capture the human experience. Google's tried to crack the code of our behavior for years (to sell us stuff), and the one underlying bump is that humans are just too fickle. We change our minds a lot, we do things uncharacteristically, veer from our habits. That and the fact that we actually LIVE isn't something that a computer can duplicate. It won't know what it feels like to sit on a beach, watch the sunrise, drink coffee with a friend, be cramped in a stale airplane, witness war, fall in love. Or at least, not yet.

Two cups of hot drinks in white coffee cups