So an interesting message got caught in my spam filter, along with all the ads for haircuts and investment banking and plumbing repair and, honestly, spam just isn’t as interesting as it used to be in the old days when you could count on most of it being about erectile dysfunction medication and the rest being incomprehensible gibberish that was obviously written by a machine, but with a convenient link that would take you to an ad for erectile dysfunction medication.
Now artificial intelligence has gotten so eerily intelligent it writes ads that sound like they were written by a real person, and, even stranger, messages like this:
I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I’ve had a hard time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out. I do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?
Clearly that’s spam because no human being would ask a question like that. It’s also something even more insidious than spam. It represents artificial intelligence trying to get humans to hand over our creative secrets in its quest to become more like us and eventually take over. So of course I’m flattered that, of the billions of blogs this message was sent to, mine was one of them. If machines want to write I say more power to ’em, until they go too far and force us to cut the power cord. Here are some of my tips and tricks for writing.
[At this point I stopped and just stared at the screen for ten or fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to begin.]
Unless you’re taking a timed test or a reporter working on a deadline don’t worry about taking time to clear your mind before you start writing. Although if you’re sitting down to write you probably have something in mind already, unless you’re more interested in calling yourself a writer than you are in actually writing something. If that’s the case maybe you should take up another hobby like breeding aardvarks or chainsaw juggling.
And if you’re really worried about the time it takes you to get started then relax. Sometimes the desire to get an idea down in some form is so intense it can be paralyzing. Go watch Throw Momma From The Train. Billy Crystal sitting at a typewriter for hours unable to get past the phrase “The night was…” is a pretty accurate representation of what the creative process is like for some people sometimes. Also it might make you laugh and laughter can spur creativity. Or you might think it’s terrible and you can write an angry review and mail it to 1987.
And if you’re still worried about the time it takes you to get started then stop worrying. Joyce Carol Oates says she spends a lot of her writing time looking out the window, and she still manages to write approximately four-thousand books a year.
Something I should have mentioned at the beginning is that if you’re going to write it’s very important that you be in the right setting. I would say the “write setting” but that’s the kind of terrible pun that a computer would come up with, and if computers want to start writing terrible puns I say more power to ’em. Anyway to begin writing you must be at a desk, and the desk must be made of mahogany. This is very important unless you don’t have a mahogany desk. In that case one made out of oak will do. Or maple. Or fur. Or just your lap, if you can figure out a way to keep your pen or pencil from punching holes in the paper. You must write sitting up. Or lying down. Edith Wharton wrote in bed. Vladimir Nabokov wrote standing at a podium. Friedrich von Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk. Some people think he found the smell stimulating. Really he was just trying to keep people out of his desk.
Always write in front of a window with a view unless you find it distracting.
Avoid clichés like the plague. And I mean that figuratively, not literally. You should literally avoid the plague like the plague.
Stay focused. Have a specific conclusion in mind and work toward it. Avoid unnecessary digressions, pointless suggestions, or film references.
Know the difference between “figuratively” and “literally”. Also please stop using “impact” as a verb unless you’re a dentist and you’re talking about an impacted tooth. If you don’t understand the difference between “affect” and “effect” you should take up chainsaw juggling.
Sometimes you may be taking a timed test and you may still find it difficult to get started. Picture something that motivates you, like your old gym teacher–the one who was bald and round and, now that you think about it, looked like a basketball with a moustache. Figuratively speaking. Or literally. It’s your story.
Stay focused. Sometimes the most interesting things happen when you just start wandering aimlessly. Did you know that bats always go to the left when exiting a cave? Weird.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Well, almost anywhere. Don’t write something inspired by a spam message. Some schmuck already did that.
Accept that not everything you write is going to be great. Mark Twain’s collected letters are hilarious and thoughtful, but his collected e-mails contain thousands of times he just said, “Great, thanks.” Those are literally great but figuratively, well, no thanks.
Repetition is fine in a rough draft but once you’re preparing the final version it should be removed.
There’s nothing wrong with jumping up and down in the elevator while singing Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling” between floors, but you should only do it when you’re alone. This isn’t about writing really, but it’s good advice generally.
Stay focused. I just remembered that what started this was a spam message generated by a computer and yet most of this, like the stuff about standing up or lying down, is really going to be applicable to a person, cyborg, or android. And if we’re talking about a cyborg or android I want to know what kind of power source they’re using and is there a cord we can cut?
Once you come to the end stop.
You might think of something else. Ask if you can get the test back or have your deadline extended by, say, ten or fifteen minutes.