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Chat TYS (To Your Self)

I’ve been tickled by the sudden arrival of Chat GPT, the sleek, artificial intelligence algorithm that can take our jumbled brainstorms and transform them into pristine sentences. I’ve had more than one person send me an example and ask if I was worried, given that I’m a professional writer and teacher of writing. Surprisingly, I’m not terribly concerned. In fact, I find that Chat GPT and I have something in common: the “chat” element. 

During my coaching sessions with students, a lot of writing happens through conversation. Often a student shares a fascinating story, a vivid detail, a sudden insight, and I’m frantically typing it into our shared Google Doc. I want to show students who think they aren’t writers that, in fact, they very much are, with stories that they’re still discovering. There’s magic in that moment when students stumble upon unexpected realizations, or memories that they hadn’t considered important, or a link between two events that had seemed disconnected. I write down their words as they say them. 

In these instances, writers aren’t yet writing, but discovering – a process of personal growth that Hillside’s Founder, Allan Reeder, writes about eloquently here. There are synapses firing in a writer’s mind that an algorithm can’t replicate. An idea springs roots. A memory comes into clearer focus. The process is a lot messier than what an algorithm offers. It requires digressions and rewriting and doubt, and I understand that can be daunting. The blank page can invite anxiety, a glowing expanse expecting you to fill it. The words look small floating on this surface. I know this fear and feel it often. I also know that persevering through the uncertainty is what leads to stories that are truly mine.

A lot of writing happens through conversation. When we speak, our language is natural, without the stiffness and formality that can creep into high-stakes writing, such as for admission applications.

My suggestion to a lot of students is to lean into chatting – if not with another human, out loud to yourself with the help of another type of AI: voice-to-text software. The “voice typing” feature of a Google Doc may seem downright analog next to Chat GPT in that it simply translates speech into written words, similar to what happens during a coaching session when I write down the details a student tells me. And yet, I think this technology is far more useful than the GPT chatbot: instead of filling that yawning expanse of a page with an AI’s guess at your polished style and voice – a style you may not even yet know is yours – voice-to-text software captures the flow of your own words as you speak them, showing you what it feels like to access surprising memories, insights, and connections. The process can reveal the rhythm of your storytelling by allowing you to read your words back to yourself in print. When we speak, our language is natural, without the stiffness and formality that can creep into high-stakes writing, such as for admission applications. It’s easy to dive into a memory when you’re just talking about it. Not to the software, but to yourself.  

Some students may need to speak paragraphs, maybe even an entire early draft. I know professional writers who use voice memos to speak dozens of pages before revising the words on a computer. What they capture with this method isn’t yet logical and clear and to the point the way AI-generated texts can be. However, it’s also not bland or generic, which, quite frankly, AI-generated texts can’t help but be. The messiness of the writing process is often what yields the spark and surprise that moves readers. 

Let me add that speaking to a computer doesn’t work for everyone. I’m one who needs to write and type to think and create. The quirk in my process is that I can’t sit still for long. I recently bought a rocking yoga chair, which I love, and even in it, I become restless. My writing process needs movement. I need to take a run before I write. Or write in 25-minute blocks before I take a walk. Or change locations. I ask my students to find the process that works for them, not only to get words on the page, but to stay with a memory, to draw out another detail, to rewrite a paragraph from another perspective. It’s this layered work that makes the process of writing a process of self-discovery, an achievement that lasts far beyond the final draft.

Reena coached at Hillside from 2022-2024.

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