About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is a freelance writer with a decade of experience and a passion for creating new things. As Verity Reynolds, Dani is the author of the Non-Compliant Space series. Buy her a coffee: ko-fi.com/verityreynolds

How to Find Out What the F*ck (Is Going On)

The title of this post comes from a predictive text Twitter thread I did recently that used blog post title templates. In a moment of hilarity-induced poor judgment, I offered to write any of the posts predictive text generated titles for.

This one won. For good reason! The world is full of “what the fuck?” moments. To navigate it successfully, we need skills in finding out what, indeed, the fuck.

Here is a guide to doing just that.

wtf

First: Is It F*cking Familiar?

When your reaction is “What the fuck is going on?,” start by looking for familiar elements.

Do you know who the fuck is involved? Do you recognize the setting or tools used in this fuckery? Do you have an odd sense that you’ve been in this fucking place before?

When we cannot quickly identify or categorize an event, process, person or object, our brains trip the “What the fuck?” circuit. By looking for familiar elements, you help your brain categorize what it’s perceiving more quickly – shortening the time between “What the fuck?” and “Oh, this fuckery again.”

Second: Can You F*cking Ask Someone?

When encountering fuckery, your first instinct may be to ask someone else, “What the fuck is going on here?”

This is natural! Humans are social creatures; we rely on one another for advice, perspective, and guidance all the time. Relying on others’ perspectives is one way we turn the unfamiliar (“What the fuck?”) into the familiar (“Oh, this fuckery.”)

If someone is present who might know what the fuck is going on, don’t hesitate to ask them.

Do, however, take a deep breath and consider other options for phrasing the question. While “What the fuck is going on?” might be the most emotionally honest statement in the moment, it’s not always the most effective for eliciting answers. Try “What’s going on here?” or “Can you tell me more about this?”

Third: Where to Get More F*cking Information

If it’s fucked up but not urgent, seeking information from an additional source can help you unfuck it.

Here are several common sources of fuckery and a few resources for dealing with them.

Household Repairs

For large household systems (HVAC, plumbing), look for a phone number on the unit for the manufacturer, installer or maintenance team. Household appliances like refrigerators may have a hotline you can call for advice. Some people like to invest in coverage like home warranties, which can help ensure your household stuff gets fixed quickly after a “what the fuck?” moment.

Auto Repairs

Once upon a time, having access to the Chilton manual for your vehicle was the gold standard in addressing vehicular what the fuckery. You can still access many Chilton manuals online today. Also, consider investing in a code reader if you want to find out what the fuck your car’s latest blinky light means without having to take it all the way to the fucking dealership.

Children

What happens if you mix glitter into cake batter? Would the baby look better covered in Sharpie? Can goldfish survive in hot water?

There’s nothing like young children to generate a lifetime of joyful “What the fuck?” moments. Keep a first aid kit and a fire extinguisher handy at all times. Place items you don’t want children to access out of their reach, such as on a high shelf in a hut halfway up Mount Everest. And take lots of pictures. Someday, you’ll miss this fuckery – and you’ll need the photos to remind yourself why the fuck your nostalgia is misplaced.

Politics

I know, right? What the actual fuck.

There’s actually an answer for this one, and I’ve been relying on it since the 2016 election. What the Fuck Just Happened Today? aggregates the biggest political stories daily, draws connections between events, and so on. It also aggregates links to news sources covering those stories, so if you’re convinced that only your favorite news outlet of choice can be trusted, you can find and click the link to its coverage.

The next time you need to find out what the fuck, take a deep breath and keep your head on. You got this fuckery.


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A Ten-Step Creative Process That Absolutely Works

Today in my Quora inbox:

What sort of approach or strategy do you most often use in your creative work as a writer, from the very early beginning stages and onwards?

I found this question baffling at first. Asking about “process” seems antithetical to creation itself. I don’t have a process! I channel the inspiration of the gods themselves!

Except I do, of course, have a process. All creatives do.

I can’t guarantee my process will work for anybody else. (Notice that the headline doesn’t say who “a ten-step creative process that absolutely works” works for.) I frequently disappoint aspiring creatives by regaling them with a discussion of my methods, only for them to list 5,000 ways those methods won’t work for them.

So your mileage may vary. Please consult the manual before driving. Do not feed this advice to babies or small children.

blog post image with title of post and url

Phase the Early: Ideas

Perhaps the most queried-after item in the whole “creativity” topic. Where do you get your ideas? How can I have more ideas? 

Step One: GET BORED.

Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from.

I took up running on the elliptical in order to get bored. I put a stationary bike in my basement so I can get bored. I’ll put my phone out in my car in 0F weather to force myself to get bored. I show up to dentist appointments an hour early to get bored.

It only takes a few minutes of boredom for my brain to start making up the most bizarre nonsense in order to alleviate its own boredom.

Step Two: MACBETH HATH MURDERED JUDGMENT.

All ideas at this stage are worth entertaining. No matter how truly terrible they are. In fact, the worst ideas are the most worth entertaining.

Last summer, I took several dance classes at the Music for All Summer Symposium with Vincent Thomas, who teaches at Towson University. We started every session with four agreements, the first of which was “To be full of my own value and free of judgment.”

Step Two is my “full of my own value and free of judgment” stage. If an idea comes up, I’ll play with it. The kookier the better.

Phase the Middle: Not-Terrible Ideas

The transition from the early to middle stage occurs when a single idea recurs enough times that I realize I’ve been thinking about it more than once. It doesn’t want to let go.

And since it won’t let go, it gets to move on to Step 3.

Step 3: JOT IT DOWN.

If an idea won’t go away, I write it down.

Writing it down tricks the idea into thinking I’m actually going to do something with it. The vast majority of ideas fall for this scam. They then get shoved into a closet, where I look at them once every 20 years.

The most persistent ideas, however, are too smart to fall for it. They keep coming back even after I’ve written them down. These ideas get to move on to Step 4.

Step 4: A LITTLE JUDGMENT IS OKAY.

I say “judgment,” but I mean “discernment.” This is where I start thinking about how the idea would work in practice.

What would the end result look like? What are the practical steps required for me to make it work? Is it worth the time and effort required?

Some ideas aren’t worth what I’d invest to do them. For instance, I have a long-pestering idea for some bathroom wall art made from repurposed pages of Moby-Dick (to do with my kraken shower curtain). But learning the skill to execute what’s in my head will take time and effort I’d rather spend on other things, like getting these novels out of my head.

Phase the Late: Making Art

If an idea survives steps 3 and 4, it gets one free ticket into the late stage.

Step 5: RESEARCH.

Step 4 is about whether the idea is feasible for me, personally and individually, to execute. Step 5 is about whether the idea is feasible within a broader social and economic context.

Is there a realistic marketable version of this idea, and if so, what does it look like? Is there some related topic or idea out there that is way cooler and more interesting? Are there 500 other artworks on this idea (hint: Yes! Always!), and what do they look/sound/feel like?

Step 5 is Wikipedia rabbit hole o’clock. I cram related creative works until I just can’t hold any more.

Step 6: OUTLINING/SKETCHING/NOODLING AROUND.

Now that I know WAY TOO MUCH ABOUT EVERYTHING related to this idea, what will my iteration look like for reals?

This is where I generate a bunch of really terrible proto-versions of the idea. Once again, judgment is locked out of the room. Quantity, not quality, is the goal here. 15 different marching band show ideas on the theme of “Angels”? 20 sketches of the same sleeping cat? Hell yeah, you can never have too many of those.

Step 7: REFINEMENT.

Write, draw, dance, polish, edit, repeat, repeat, repeat, whatever.

Blood is sweated, sweat is cried, tears are bled.

I become convinced that creating art in the first place was the worst idea I have ever had. Seriously, why can’t I just be a nice, boring insurance adjuster? O Muse, why dost Thou torment me so??!?!

This is the phase in which I start to question why I haven’t taken up a less self-destructive habit. Like skydiving. Or smoking opium.

Step 8. TENTATIVE PRESENTATION.

After blood, sweat, tears, and not nearly enough day drinking, a draft is born! And like someone who has just given birth, I’d be more excited if I wasn’t utterly exhausted.

I show the draft to people who love me, who love the art, and who have zero fear about telling me exactly how much the work sucks. They tell me exactly how much and in what ways the work sucks. I can’t believe I’m friends with these people.

I get spiteful: Oh yeah, well, I’ll show YOU whose book needs to explore its themes in more depth! I tear into revision with a vengeance, and I question why I ever thought I’d ever do anything else with my life except creating art.

Step 9: ABANDONMENT.

As they say: A creative work is never finished, only abandoned.

Eventually, I kick the piece out to its final destination – my publisher, a marching band director, my bathroom wall, whatever. I promptly forget it exists. Months later, when I get an email informing me that my short story was accepted or that some band director wants to give me cash moneys for making their 150-piece ensemble imitate starfish, I wonder how the heck it got addressed to me.

I’m not into short stories or starfish dancing anymore, see. I’m onto something new.

Step 10: REBOOT.

I find the most mindless activity I can (Sims, anyone?) and do it until I start to get bored. Boredom is my friend. Boredom is where the really juicy creative nonsense comes from….


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What It’s Like to Have Auditory Processing Disorder, As Illustrated By Auto-Generated YouTube Captions

Like a lot of people with ADHD, I also have central auditory processing disorder.

CAPD manifests as a problem understanding speech and other sounds. It isn’t a hearing problem per se: The structures of the ear work just fine to capture sound waves and transmit them as electrical impulses to the brain. The brain, however, struggles to interpret these electrical impulses effectively.

People with CAPD frequently have trouble understanding what’s being said to them, especially if the sound of the speaker is in any way distorted (phone lines, VoIP), interrupted (conversations in noisy restaurants), or intruding upon a preexisting focus (someone trying to talk to you while you’re concentrating).

Most folks with CAPD identify heavily with this exchange:

Them: Can you hand me the remote?
You: What?
Them: Can you hand m-
You: Oh, sure. *passes remote*

It’s not that we didn’t hear the first “can you hand me the remote?”, per se. It’s that our brains lag translate it into a comprehensible statement. We know we were asked something (hence “What?”), but it takes extra time for us to realize what the something was.

And we very often get it wrong. “Can you hand me the remote?” could just as easily be interpreted by our brains as “Canoe slappy boat,” or as sounds that don’t register as language at all. (“Canoe slappy boat” is very likely because our brains will try to make sense of the sound input we just got, and “canoe” and “boat” are related words.)

capd

When Captions Fail

Like a lot of people with CAPD, I watch television with the captions on. Captions help my brain keep up with what’s being said by giving me an insta-check on what I thought I heard.

Usually.

Auto-generated captions, created by algorithm, are increasingly popular – particularly on sites like YouTube, where captioning everything uploaded in one minute would take over 300 years if done by humans.

The accuracy of YouTube’s auto-generated caption algorithm appears to depend on many of the same factors that affect the accuracy of comprehension in CAPD. For instance, auto-generated captions over a single speaker enunciating clearly into a microphone in an otherwise silent space are generally accurate. Auto-generated captions over a musical track or with significant background noise are often not.

Sometimes, however, the speech seems clear but the auto-generated captions really fail. And in one particular instance, the failures looked almost exactly like what my brain “hears” through the filter of CAPD.

Strength of the Algorithm: Auto-Captioning Fails in BraveStarr

BraveStarr ran for one season, in 1987-88. The show was Filmation’s last animated series (He-Man and She-Ra having both been pulled the year before). It has a lot of the hallmarkes of a Filmation piece – especially the presence of nearly-incomprehensible characters and the use of the same five voice actors for nearly every character.

Here’s what it’s like to hear through CAPD. (The first two examples are from the episode “Unsung Hero.” The rest are from “An Older Hand.”)

Unsung Hero

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YouTube/My Brain: “…interested in in mining carrion no one wants to be a pot farmer imprudent….”

The Actual Line: “…interested in mining Keriam. No one wants to be a pod farmer, including [my son].”

This was the first screenshot I grabbed. At the time, I was merely amused at the “pot farmer” part of the joke.

Then things got even more inappropriate:

screenshot_20200115-215703_youtube2395065167572382185.jpg

YouTube/My Brain: “you all right I think so oh but your whoreson stolen”

The Actual Line: “You all right? I think so. Oh, but your horse was stolen!”

CAPD makes my brain translate ordinary sentences into potentially offensive ones all the time. I don’t even comment on it anymore.

(Given that the brain tries to fit sound into a pattern with which it’s already familiar, this might say more about the frequency with which I hear and use profanity than it does about CAPD.)

Typically, YouTube’s auto-caption generator doesn’t trip much on human characters’ lines. The humans characters’ voice actors tend to deliver these lines straight; they save accents, funny voices, etc. for non-human characters. The algorithms’ ability to handle non-human characters’ lines ranges from “bad” to “nonexistent.”

An Older Hand

All of these examples contain lines delivered by various Prairie People.

Normally, YouTube’s auto-generated captions don’t interpret the Prairie People’s voices as speech at all. Captions simply aren’t generated when Prairie People are speaking.

In this episode, however, the algorithm recognized when Prairie People characters were speaking most of the time. But it struggled with what they were saying – in a way very similar to my own brain’s struggles.

screenshot_20200115-213055_youtube591877493960048963.jpg

My Brain/YouTube: “bigger you might be you maybe not Maggie what’s your work being a good screen”

The Actual Line: “Whoa. Maybe not magic, but still work pretty good.” [scene change] “BraveStarr….”

Like a lot of things I hear with CAPD, this caption makes no literal sense. Those are words, but they cannot possibly be the words the speaker actually said – can they?

This caption also carries over lines from a previous character/scene into the new one, where it mashes them together with the start of a line delivered by a character in this scene. It’s not unlike having to listen to someone speak in a noisy restaurant or bar: My brain doesn’t always distinguish between “what this person is saying” and “what someone else in the room said.”

screenshot_20200115-213348_youtube968039243187263188.jpg

YouTube/My Brain: “real that really be young bad guy a riot you’ll never did stop believin”

The Actual Line: “Well, that’s where it belong, by golly wollies.” “You never did stop believing….”

I didn’t expect YouTube to get “by golly wollies” on the first try (or ever). But idiolectic details like “by golly wollies” can make the comprehension process even harder. Until I’m aware that the person will frequently do things like interject “by golly wollies” or pronounce “washing” with an “r,” my brain won’t account for them in processing – so I’ll struggle even more to understand the speaker.

screenshot_20200115-213354_youtube7713170984081040639.jpg

YouTube/My Brain: “you know you lose your hoop boys always believing you but it more potent”

The Actual Line: “No sir, Fuzz always believe in you. But it more important….”

This line almost made me wish YouTube had not started picking up on the Prairie People’s speech as speech. I’ve watched enough Fuzz episodes to understand him (on a 2-3 second delay), but the captions here actually made matters a lot worse.

This is also a good example of how non-spoken sounds will get interpreted by a CAPD brain as speech. “No sir, Fuzz” became “you know you lose your hoop boys” due to background non-speech noises in the actual scene.

It’s not that people with CAPD aren’t listening to you. It’s that what you said + all the sounds around it = “you know you lose your hoop boys.” You’d say “What?!” too.

screenshot_20200115-213146_youtube2397116761729934517.jpg

YouTube/My Brain: “karyam I’m as powerful as she wore brave stars under stick”

The Actual Line: “…Keriam. I’m as powerful as you are, BraveStarr! ThunderStick….”

YouTube’s lack of punctuation in auto-generated captions illustrates another common pitfall for those of us with CAPD: We don’t always “hear” where punctuation fits into spoken language.

For instance, this joke is typically presented in written form:

Let’s eat grandma!

Let’s eat, grandma!

Commas save lives.

When spoken, there’s typically a change in pace and pitch that indicates the relationship between “eat” and “grandma” that the comma encodes in writing. Here’s a bad attempt to draw it:

lets eat grandma

People without CAPD can hear the change in pace and pitch that indicates whether “let’s eat” is a comment made to grandma (let’s eat, grandma!) or if grandma is the object to be eaten (let’s eat grandma).

With CAPD, the brain doesn’t always process pace and pitch, either. So even if we understand the words “let’s,” “eat,” and “grandma,” we may not know whether the speaker is proposing to grandma that we eat… or proposing we eat grandma.

This auto-generated caption mistake crams together parts of three separate sentences, each of which include one name (“Keriam,” “BraveStarr,” “ThunderStick”). The combination of proper names and lack of punctuation further confuses the meaning, both in the caption and in hearing with CAPD.

What’s the Point of All This?

I started collecting auto-caption BraveStarr mishaps because they were funny. I still giggle at “no one wants to be a pot farmer.”

But they also turn out to be great examples of how my brain mishears things.

Living with CAPD can be tough, especially when you go undiagnosed for decades (as I did). With CAPD, people assuming you’re deaf or hard of hearing is the good outcome. They’re more likely to assume you’re rude or lazy, especially if they know you well enough to know you can hear.

To complicate matters, CAPD often rides along with neurodivergences that make people more sensitive to sound, like autism and ADHD. It’s not uncommon for children with CAPD to get hearing tests that report their hearing is, if anything, too good. It’s not enough to test hearing – you also need to test processing, or what happens once the sound gets from the ear into the brain.

Normally, I’m not a fan of disability simulations. These auto-generated captions, however, failed in a way so completely similar to what I hear, and for so many of the same reasons, that they offer the closest thing I’ve yet found to actually having CAPD.

So the next time someone who seems to hear perfectly well asks “What?”, just assume they heard you say “you know you lose your hoop boys” – and that they respect you enough not to write you off as really spouting gibberish.


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I Took Advice From a Unicorn for a Month and It Was Surprisingly Un-Magical

My eleven-year-old niece is obsessed with unicorns. For Christmas 2019, she gave me this:

photo of box for

(Pictured: A rainbow box with a white unicorn and the words “Advice From A Unicorn: 2020 Daily Deskpad Calendar.” The bottom text reads “You’re dope, don’t forget that.”

I appreciated the thought – especially since I suspect this is one of those “I got you a thing based on how excited I would have been to get it” gifts, and my niece would have been very excited indeed to receive this calendar.

Also, I thought, I’m down for some glitter-pooping life wisdom.

It’s been a month, and while I am still pooping, there is…less glitter than one might think. Here are the unicorn’s greatest hits (and misses) for January.

unicorn

When I first opened the calendar, my plan was to save the pages and give them to my niece. I don’t need the extra note paper, and I knew she’d get a kick out of seeing what the unicorn’s advice actually was.

That plan developed a crack on the very first day:

January 1: “How about you kick-off 2020, by getting over anything that held you back last year, you just don’t need that kind of baggage.”

Me: It’s not terrible advice. But getting over my instarage at the THREE punctuation errors in this sentence might be detrimental to my job. You know, because knowing how to use a comma isn’t exactly “baggage” for a writer.

Did I want to give my niece a calendar that nobody actually edited? I didn’t have enough data yet. I’d have to wait and see.

January 2: “Choose a mantra. Repeat it, daily, duh. My mantra is [fill in the blank].”

Me: Is this cultural appropriation? Wait, is this one of those magical entrapment type things? Is “Is this cultural appropriation?” my mantra now? Wait, should “Is this cultural appropriation?” be my mantra? Or is that too 2017?

I knew I didn’t want to have to explain to my niece what a mantra is. Maybe this plan wasn’t such a good one.

January 3: “Tribe, crew, squad, doesn’t matter what you call them, just make sure you have them.”

Me: “Is this cultural appropriation?” is definitely my mantra for 2020.

Also, yikes on handing this thing wholesale to my niece.

January 7: “Create practical steps to achieving your goals.”

Me: *rubs forehead* Look, if blogging has taught me anything over the past ten years, it’s that literally everyone know this is how you achieve a goal. What people don’t know is how to create those steps. 

New Idea, thanks to a brief run of not completely terrible advice: Make a collage out of the not-completely-terrible advice pages and give that to my niece next Christmas.

January 10: “Tell the devil not today, bruh.”

Me: Does he listen if you call him “bruh”?

Also, am I going to get enough not-terrible advice out of this thing to fill a 16×20 canvas?

January 15: “Real recognizes real.”

Me: This isn’t advice.

I can’t make a collage out of the unicorn advice if the unicorn advice isn’t even advice, unicorn.

January 20: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ – Martin Luther King Jr.”

Me: This one is actually not terrible. I would have chosen a different quote, though. Like “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.”

This one goes in the “save for niece” pile, though.

January 23: “You fine AF boo, own it.”

Me: This calendar feels like it was compiled by white Boomers attempting to sound relevant to Millennials because the people they think are Millennials are actually Gen Z, which isn’t even the generation that is Into unicorns right now.

Also, if this calendar keeps calling me “boo,” we’re going to have a problem.

January 27: “Cake may actually be a cure-all. Get you some, boo.”

Me: Did…did the unicorn just Marie Antoinette me?

January 28: “If it doesn’t come out in the wash, it comes out in the rinse.”

Me: WHAT DOES THIS EVEN MEAN. THIS IS JUST ADVICE FOR CHEAP HAIR DYE.

A month ago I was wondering how to explain the concept of a mantra to my niece. Seems like small potatoes compared to explaining…gaaah WHAT DOES IT EVEN MEAN

January 31: “One month down, how are those resolutions looking?”

Me: I haven’t actually murdered any unicorns for using comma splices yet, so that’s something.

I’ll also be getting my niece a Bundt cake.


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Creativity by Markov Chain, or Why Predictive Text Isn’t the Novel-Writing Shortcut You’re Looking For

Over the past year, I’ve played with Botnik‘s predictive text generator to create everything from alternative histories of popular holidays to terrible Christmas carol lyrics to the median New Year’s resolutions. It’s fun, it’s silly, and it is far more labor-intensive than most people imagine computer-generated texts would be.

Most of the conversations I see around AI and text generation assume that writers are going to be put out of business shortly. They assume that AI can not only generate text but generate it well, without human intervention.

These assumptions are…a bit overdone.

Here’s why predictive-text novels won’t be the next big trend in literature.

social media image with title of blog post

What’s a Markov Chain?

Predictive text is typically powered by a Markov chain, an algorithm that tracks a set of defined “states” and determines the probability of jumping to the next state from a current position in any one state.

For instance, if you wanted to create a super-simple Markov chain model of a writer’s behavior, “writing” might be one state and “not-writing” might be another. (This list of possible states is called a “state space.”) At any given time, the writer is either “writing” or “not-writing.”

There are four possible transitions between “writing” and “not-writing”:

  1. writing to writing (“must finish paragraph!”),
  2. writing to not-writing (“what’s on Netflix?”),
  3. not-writing to writing (“once…upon…a…time”), and
  4. not-writing to not-writing (“why yes, I WILL binge all of The Witcher, thanks”).

Thus, the probability of making a transition from any state to any other state is 0.5 (here’s a visual representation). At least at the beginning.

Markov chains also have a limited ability to learn from data inputs. For instance, one could program a two-state Markov chain to predict whether you will write or not-write on any given day, based on last year’s calendar. (If you’re like me, your Markov chain will be more likely to predict that you’ll write tomorrow if you wrote today, and more likely to predict not-writing tomorrow if you didn’t write today.)

What Does This Have to Do With Predictive Text?

Predictive text algorithms are Markov chains. They analyze words you have input in the past (or in the case of Botnik, how often words appear in proximity to other words) in order to predict the probability of you jumping to a particular word from the state “the word you just wrote.”

Why Writing With Predictive Text is Hard

You don’t need to understand the nuances of Markov chains to grasp that a book written by one would be tough to produce – but that understanding does make it easier to explain why.

Markov Has a Short Memory

As mentioned above, Markov chains have a limited ability to adjust their predictions based on factors like how frequently a state appears or how often it appears relative to (as in, before or after) other states.

The key word in that sentence is limited.

Markov chains don’t have any memory of the past. They can tell you which word is most likely to appear after this word, but they can’t tell you whether that prediction has already appeared 500 times or not at all.

In online predictive-text memes, this means that some results get stuck in an endless loop. For instance:

Predictive text meme Tweet

Predictive text meme Tweet that reads “Trans people are going to be a good time to get a chance to look at the time to get a chance to look at the time to get a chance to look at the time….” A response reads “Ok but did you get a chance to look at the time?”

This was a response to a predictive-text meme on Twitter that challenged people to type “Trans people are” into their phones and then hit the predictive-text suggestion to generate a result. This Twitterer’s predictive text got caught in a loop pretty quickly – it doesn’t recognize that it said “time to get a chance to look at the” already. It takes another human to save the joke here: “Ok but did you get a chance to look at the time?”

What Does This Mean for a Predictive-Text Novel?

A Markov chain’s predictive limitations pose two problems for long-form creative text generation:

  1. The Markov chain can get stuck. The more common a word is, the more likely it is to get stuck. “A,” “and,” “the,” “of,” and similar function words can easily trap the chain.
  2. Novels depend on memory. Story development requires attention to what came before. Predictive text, however, can only predict what word is most likely to come next. They can’t do that in the context of prior theme, character or plot development.

The results, therefore, are more likely to be incomprehensible than anything else – at least without careful editing. (I’ll get to that below.) For some examples of absurdist Markov chain results, see r/SubredditSimulator, which consists entirely of Reddit posts by Markov chains.

The Raw Material Blues

While generating last year’s various holiday posts on Botnik, I quickly discovered that the raw material fed to the predictive text generator makes a huge difference in the quality of the output.

If you’ve read the post series, you may have noticed a trend: In each one, I note that I fed “the first page of Google search results” or “the first twenty” Google search results” to Botnik (those are the same number, by the way). Why so specific?

It appears that the minimum size of the text bank Botnik requires to produce text that is funny but not incomprehensible is 20:1. In other words, if I wanted a blog-post-sized text, I needed to put in at least 20 texts of equal or greater length.

Twenty to one might even be undershooting it. Most of my predictive-text posts are around 500 words, while the top Google results from which they were generated tended to be 1,500 to 2,000 words.

What Does This Mean for a Predictive-Text Novel?

I haven’t tested this ratio on anything longer than a blog post. I do not, however, have any reason to believe that the ratio would be smaller for a novel. In fact, I predict the ratio would be larger for a coherent novel that looked sufficiently unlike its predecessor to survive a copyright challenge.

In every holiday blog post I generated via predictive text, the generator got “stuck” in a sentence of source text at least once. In other words, the Markov chain decided that the most likely word to follow the one on screen was the next word that already existed in a sentence somewhere in my source text.

When generating text from Google’s top twenty blog posts on the history of Thanksgiving, for instance, it was pretty easy to pick up on these sticking points. I didn’t have the entire source text memorized, but I knew my Thanksgiving history well enough to recognize when Botnik was being unfunnily accurate.

For a predictive-text novel of 70,000 words, one would need:

  1. Approximately 1.4 million words of source text (minimum), or about twenty 70,000-word novels, and
  2. A sufficient knowledge of that source text to recognize when the predictive text generator had gotten stuck on a single sentence or paragraph.

Point 2 has some creative opportunities. A predictive-text novella based on Moby-Dick, for instance, might benefit from repeating a large chunk of Moby-Dick verbatim (said novella would need to stay under 10,455 words to fit within the source text limitations, if you’re wondering). But the writer would still have to know Moby-Dick well enough to recognize when predictive text was simply reciting the book versus when it wasn’t:

 We, so artful and bold, hold the universe? No! When in one’s midst, that version of Narcissus who for now held somewhat aloof, looking up as pretty rainbows in which stood Moby-Dick. What name Dick? or five of Hobbes’ king? Why it is that all Merchant-seamen, and also all Pirates and Man-of-War’s men, and Slave-ship sailors, cherish such a scornful feeling towards Whale-ships; this is a question it
would be hard to answer. Because, in the case of pirates, say, I should
like to know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory
about it. Blackstone, soon to attack of Moby-Dick; for these extracts of whale answered; we compare with such. That famous old craft’s story of skrimshander storms upon this grand hooded phantom of honor!

A Future for Creative Writing?

I learned with the first predictive-text holiday post that I couldn’t accept the predictive-text generator’s first suggestion every time, nor could I click suggestions at random. I was still writing; it’s just that I was choosing the next word in each sentence from a predictive-text generator’s suggestions, not from my own much larger vocabulary.

Many conversations about predictive-text creative writing suggest or assume that predictive-text will eventually take over our own creative processes – that it will supplant writing rather than support it. Not in its current form, it won’t.

For me, some aspects of writing via predictive text are actually harder than writing on my own. The Markov chain frequently backs into function-word corners and has to be saved with the judicious application of new content words. Punctuation is typically absent. Because the algorithm has no idea what it wrote previously, it doesn’t know how to stay on topic, nor does it know how to build coherent ideas over time.

Everything it couldn’t do, I had to do – and I had to do it with my next word choice perpetually limited to one of eighteen options.

That said, I love the idea that predictive-text authoring could arise as an art form within writing itself. Predictive text generators challenge us to engage with the art and craft of writing in new ways. They set new limitations, but they also suggest new possibilities. In so doing, they create an opportunity to engage with writing in new – and often hilarious – ways.

Anyway, here’s Wonderwall:

So maybe
Ya go to sadness baby
Cause when you tried
I have wasted dreams


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Why Is Writing Hard?

I write for a living. For several years, I taught writing for a living, as both a college professor and a developmental editor. And the question I hear more often than any other is “Why is writing hard?”

Why is writing hard? Why do people struggle with writing? Can writing be taught?

The question “why is writing hard?” presumes, first, that writing is hard. This assumption lurks in related questions as well.

It even appears in the question “Can writing be taught?” – a question I heard asked more often, and answered in the negative, in university writing departments than anywhere else. The assumption was that generally speaking, writing cannot be taught. Those of us who find writing easy were born this way. We have something the vast majority of people don’t – something that can be winnowed out and honed by other good writers, but that cannot be taught by them.

I think that’s nonsense.

At the same time, however, I’m often at a loss to explain how it is I learned to write well. My own experience with writing is innate and organic. I don’t know where or how I learned to do this; I just know I can.

So I started looking into the research.

social media image with post title "why is writing hard?"

Thought With an Audience

Every time I asked this question in a freshman composition class, the consensus was the same: “To express yourself.” “To get your thoughts down on paper.” Each class also agreed, though less strongly, that “expressing yourself” was the easy part of writing.

But if the goal of writing is to “express yourself,” which is “easy,” then why is writing hard?

Expressing yourself in writing may be the beginning of the process, but it isn’t the end. In a 1979 article in College English, Linda Flower asserts that “expressing what you think” in writing fails to account for the public nature of writing. Our own thoughts tend to be full of shortcuts comprehensible only to us. We know what we mean, so there’s no need to define or explain key images, words or phrases.

When we transcribe those thoughts into writing, however, we’re placing them into a context that allows them to be accessed by other people. Other people, however, have no access to the contents of our brains except what we give them.

To write effectively, then, the writer must be able to take the perspective of the reader. By “stepping into the reader’s shoes,” the writer can determine which ideas need to be defined or explained for the written expression of their thoughts to make sense.

Failing to factor in the audience’s perspective “is the source of some of the most common and pervasive problems in academic and professional writing,” says Flower.

Why is writing hard? Writing isn’t merely thought; it’s thought with an audience.

Teaching Students to Fear Writing

The process of taking a student from “putting their thoughts on paper” to “creating a work that accounts for an audience” is, in essence, the process of teaching students how to write. That process, as taught, is a complex one.

In a 1979 article in Language Arts titled “Andrea Learns to Make Writing Hard,” Donald H. Graves details the process by which an eight year old named Andrea learns to write.

“Three months ago writing was effortless for Andrea,” says Graves. “It was as if there were no decisions to be made…. The subject predetermined the words. All she had to do was put them down.” Once written, Andrea’s words didn’t change. The first draft was also the final draft.

Over the course of three months, however, Andrea learned to revise, to think through word and sentence choices, to experiment with the ordering of ideas. To do so, says Graves, Andrea had first to let go of her attachment to “neatness,” or to thinking of the single written draft as something she couldn’t change or mar with revision notes. She also had to accept and implement directions from her teacher, including directions to insert changes into her written draft, to prewrite (here, by drawing the story before writing it), and to draft multiple versions of key sentences or paragraphs.

By the end of the three-month period, Andrea has adopted all of these activities into her own writing process. The result has morphed from a single draft to several pages of notes, alternate versions of topic sentences, and similar flotsam generated in the writing process.

Andrea’s process is similar to the process I’ve seen emerge from other student writers over the years. It suggests to me that the very process of teaching revision is one of the things that makes writing seem “difficult.” Beginning writers see writing as a one-step process: Write down the words in your head. As they advance, however, they begin to see writing as a more complex process.

You’re Doing It Wrong

The more complexities are required of a writer, the more difficult the task can seem. As educational therapist Regina G. Richards notes, “Many students feel writing takes too long. For some, writing is a very laborious task because there are so many subcomponents which need to be pulled together.”

Yet a complex process is not inherently a difficult one. Many complex tasks are time-consuming without being difficult (a point my own fourth-grade teacher was fond of stressing when we complained about tasks like copying out definitions from the dictionary). And many students master complex processes in other subjects, such as long division, without developing a lifelong antagonism with their “difficulty.” So what makes writing different?

In a 2009 article, Heidi Andrade et al. articulate an attempt to create clear, useful assessment tools for middle schoolers’ writing. Among the criteria included were measures that allowed teachers to mark down errors that “make the writing hard to understand.”

Yet, as Flower notes, the first step in most students’ – indeed, in most people’s! – writing process is to get their own thoughts on paper, irrespective of an audience. “Express your own thoughts” is, in a sense, the default state of writing. It is also, by its very nature, the most difficult for an audience to understand, because every point of reference is still the sole property of the writer.

In other words, when children find this sort of default writing marked down as “hard to understand,” the message they receive is “your natural instinct or approach to writing is itself an error.” 

These students are no longer starting from a “natural” or “default” state; rather, they are set back into the realm of actual error and the emotional unpleasantness that results from that.

“Accusations of laziness, poor motivation, and a reprehensible attitude are often directed toward deficit writers. The results can be a serious loss of incentive, a generalized academic disenchantment and demoralization,” says Melvin D. Levine (qtd. in Richards).

Yet often, these writers are not being “lazy.” They are operating from the default writing expectation or state because they lack the tools to do anything else  – and because they’re told that when they try, they’re “doing it wrong.”

What’s the Answer?

The answer, I think, cannot be to stop teaching writing as a process of reaching an audience. With the sole exception of the private diary or journal, all writing exists to be read by others.

Rather, I believe writing can be made easier by first acknowledging that “expressing yourself on paper” or “getting the ideas down” is not an error, but a natural starting point. After all, a writer who does not clearly understand their own ideas won’t communicate them effectively to others. Writers who write in terms only they understand are doing the natural first step in the writing process.

Once ideas are clear to the writer, then, perhaps teaching revision ought to be done in terms of the audience. Many of my own students reached college with the idea that “creating multiple versions of a thesis statement” or “coming up with an attention-grabbing first sentence” were writing steps that ought to be done, but with no clear idea why. When I explained to them that the entire purpose of these steps was to make sure your audience stayed with you, the lightbulb went on – and their papers improved.

Finally, perhaps it’s time for writers and writing teachers to step away from the page altogether. Taking the perspective of others is a skill. Like other skills, it improves with practice. Role-playing and similar tools may help writers bridge the gap from “my own ideas” to “ideas I share” without making the process feel like a total slog.


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Writer’s Block: What It Is and How to Beat It

I write several thousand words a day, both for a living and for my own amusement. And so I get asked about writer’s block more than anything.

“How do you get over writer’s block?” “What’s your secret for never having writer’s block?” “What is writer’s block, anyway?”

I often hesitate to answer these questions because I haven’t had the answers. Writer’s block has never been a longstanding problem for me. In fact, I usually suffer from the opposite problem – I want to stop writing and go do other things, but I’m driven to continue.

Fortunately, other people have done research on writer’s block. Here’s what they know.

writers block

Writer’s Block: What Is It?

When people ask about beating “writer’s block,” they’re typically talking about an inability to write that is separate from the desire to write. They want to write, but when they sit down to do it, nothing comes out.

Often, writer’s block occurs independently of the knowledge or ability to write. People with writer’s block know how to start a project; they may, in fact, have started many writing projects in the past and finished them successfully.

Writer’s block can also occur independently of having a topic or idea in mind. A person with writer’s block may know exactly what they want to write about. They may have both the internal motivation (“this is important!”) and the external motivation (“I’m on a deadline!”) to write.

And yet…they’re stuck.

Tips for Beating Writer’s Block

The logical first step in any case of “writer’s block” is to make sure that writer’s block is what you have.

In other words:

  • Do you have the desire/motivation to write a particular thing?
  • Do you have the tools, time and space to write the thing?
  • Do you know what you want to write the thing about?
  • Do you know how to start this kind of written thing?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” fix that first and see if it resolves the problem. If the answer to all four is “yes,” the problem is likely one of writer’s block.

What Kind of Writer’s Block Do You Have?

Not all writer’s block is created equal. In a 1998 article in Canadian Family Physician, Patricia Huston sorts writer’s block into three levels of severity: mild, moderate and recalcitrant.

Huston suggests different treatment strategies for each level of blockage:

  • Mild writer’s block may be resolved by evaluating and revising expectations, conducting a task analysis, and encouraging oneself to continue.
  • Moderate writer’s block may be resolved by engaging in creative exercises, like brainstorming and role-playing.
  • Recalcitrant writer’s block may require therapy.

Huston also suggests a number of strategies for preventing writer’s block, such as writing at the beginning of projects (often called prewriting or freewriting), working with a supportive writer’s group, and “cultivating an ongoing interest in writing.”

Revise Your Expectations

If you know what you want to write and how to do it, the problem isn’t a lack of rules or guidelines. But do you have too many rules and guidelines?

In a 1980 article in College Composition and Communication, Mike Rose discusses several writing students who struggled with writer’s block, comparing them to similarly-skilled classmates who had no such struggles.

Rose found that the blocked writers were often derailed by their adherence to overly-strict writing rules. Their writing “had to” look a certain way, or they couldn’t continue. In some cases, they couldn’t even start.

The strict rules these writers struggled with included:

  • The first sentence has to grab your audience’s attention. If you can’t write an attention-grabbing first sentence, you can’t continue.
  • An essay has to have three or more points. If you can’t make at least three points about your topic, the essay isn’t finished or doesn’t “count.”
  • You must have a clear plan and outline before you begin. You cannot start writing just to see where a topic leads; you have to know where the end is before you start.
  • An essay must be full of “scintillating insights,” so you have to collect cool facts, quips, quotes, etc. before you start. Then you must work them into the paper, even if some of them don’t seem to fit.
  • “Always try to ‘psych out’ the professor” by writing a piece that brilliantly subverts expectations while also meeting those expectations. If you can’t do that, your paper can’t possibly be good enough.
  • All the rules of good essay writing have to be used at once. For instance, you must use transitions for flow and evidence for weight, and you must balance these perfectly as you write.

When used as guidelines, rules like these can help an essay stay recognizable as an essay while also effectively conveying the writer’s knowledge of a given subject area. “Always” and “never,” however, are rarely useful rules in writing.

For instance, one of my high school English teachers insisted on the “attention-grabbing first sentence” rule. While I was willing to play along for the sake of my grade, I didn’t force myself to write that first sentence before I went on.

Instead, I’d start my first draft with a thesis statement, then move on to the points I wanted to make, then the conclusion. Once the conclusion was finished, I’d use its summary of the points made in the essay to inspire an attention-grabbing first sentence.

I used this method throughout my academic career. I still use it today. And I still get compliments for how well my articles are “tied together.”

Resources

ReadWriteThink: Essay Map – a user-friendly way to organize ideas.

EndNote – organize sources and references.

Hemingway App – helps you analyze the readability of a draft. You don’t have to make perfect sentences; you just need to write down any sentences, then put them through this app.

InstaGrok – put in any topic, get an interactive mind map linking it to other topics. Great for when you “want to write about ___,” but don’t know where to go from there.

Get Creative

Rose notes that over-planning can trip up writers of non-fiction essays and articles. The desire to plan perfectly may lead to paralysis.

The same thing can happen to fiction writers, whether or not they see themselves as the planning type.

Author Mercedes Lackey notes that “writer’s block” may actually be the writer’s subconscious recognizing that, for some reason, the story cannot continue in the direction it’s going. Sensing that the story won’t work, the subconscious puts on the brakes.

This kind of writer’s block “can happen whether you are a meticulous outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer. You are about to make a big mistake, and your subconscious is stopping you,” says Lackey.

This type of block may be best resolved with Huston’s strategies for “moderate” writer’s block: Get creative. Ask, “what else could happen here?”, and generate ideas before evaluating or criticizing them. Try role-playing one of your characters to see what other reactions they might have.

For me, the “two for one” method works well to generate new plot ideas and potential character arcs. It follows one rule: Every solution to a problem must generate two new problems. 

Typically, I’ll run 30 to 50 iterations of this as an idea-generation method. In the finished story or novel, of course, it won’t go on forever; eventually the characters find a way to wrap up enough loose ends to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. As a means to figuring out the story and the characters’ responses to conflict, however, it can be powerful – and a lot of fun.

Resources

Seventh Sanctum – plot, character and setting generators

The John Fox – story idea generator

Reedsy Plot Generator – over 1 million components. Click various components to lock or unlock them, then generate again to fine-tune ideas.

When Writer’s Block Isn’t

Writers spend a great deal of time not writing. Writer procrastination and delay is a running joke in writing communities. It’s the reason so many writing-related hashtags on Twitter are full of people making fun of themselves for tweeting instead of writing.

This type of “writer’s block,” however, isn’t a hurdle. Rather, it’s what Donald M. Murray calls “essential delay” – the soil from which writing sprouts and blossoms. Writer’s block is a state of being stuck; essential delay is a state of preparation. If essential delay is wintertime, writer’s block is Narnia’s “always winter and never Christmas.”

The good news? It’s possible to turn a case of writer’s block into a state of essential delay, using the same strategies recommended by Huston, Rose and Lackey. Murray finds several different processes occur during essential delay:

  • Information-gathering. Professional writers “collect warehouses full of information, far more than they need, so much information that its sheer abundance makes the need for meaning and order insistent,” says Murray. When the need for meaning and order reaches critical mass, essential delay turns into writing.
  •  Insight. When various ideas start to coalesce into “a single vision or dominant insight,” writing may commence as a way to test that vision or insight. For instance, finding a problem that can be solved by writing may help a writer overcome the delay imposed by having a lot of ideas with no common theme.
  • Need. Writers often experience two needs: The need to write, and the need for the audience to listen. Until these needs coincide, however, the writer may stay in the planning or musing phase.

Planning and organization also play a role in the essential delay phase. In some cases, they’re necessary to move a writer forward – as long as they don’t absorb all of your attention.

When All Else Fails

When all else fails, use writer’s block itself as the source of creativity.

My favorite example of this by far is Dennis Upper‘s paper in the Fall 1974 issue of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis. Titled “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block,'” Upper’s paper is a masterwork on the effects of writer’s block on otherwise trained and productive professionals. (I suggest you read the entire paper for yourself; it’s quite short.)

My own best piece of writer’s block advice is this:

Don’t let yourself think that writing the piece itself is the only thing that counts as writing.

Brainstorming, freewriting, outlining, doodling mind maps, reading the thesaurus entry for a particular word in order to see how that concept is connected to other concepts, falling down the Wikipedia hole – all of these are part of writing. Your “writing time” is just as productive if you spend it freewriting about a character’s motivations than if you spent it actually writing the story in which that character appears.

The trick is to find the balance between these activities and actually writing the piece you intend to show an audience. That’s what separates those who write from those who merely aspire to do so.


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