Julie McDonald: Is artificial intelligence taking over the writing world?; Toledo’s birthday social

By Julie McDonald / For The Chronicle

Last summer, in the midst of frenetic preparations for my daughter’s wedding, I learned about the passing of a precious woman, Emma Elisabet “Lisa” Blomdahl. I wanted to write a tribute to this remarkable Swedish native, but I was scrambling to find time.

My son who was home from Helsinki, Finland, suggested I use ChatGPT. 

What? I’d heard about the computerized AI (artificial intelligence) program but paid little attention. 

He fed in a command to write a tribute to Lisa, and within a minute sent me this eloquently written piece about a woman I knew but the computer had never met. 

“This doesn’t even sound like me,” I told him. Unfortunately, it sounded better than me, which I refused to admit.

Again he typed words into his laptop, asking it to pen the piece in my writing style, but I couldn’t use the prose. It felt like cheating. And Lisa deserved better. I’ll admit to stealing one phrase from ChatGPT, which mentioned Lisa’s “century-long symphony.”

But seeing the AI program operate left me feeling a bit like “Captain Dunsel,” the Star Fleet slang term applied to Captain James T. Kirk when the M-5 computer ran the Enterprise, meaning someone who serves no useful purpose.

A few weeks later, my brother called to rave about the money people can earn feeding prompts and questions into AI to develop characters. I passed on the information to my daughter, who is much younger than me and looking for a job. 

Then I received an email about a free webinar by Joseph Michael on “AI for Authors.” I figured I’d better meet this beast taking over the writing world, potentially putting people like me out of work. Michael showed how authors can use AI to break through writer’s block, research topics and edit prose. He described ChatGPT as a language prediction model to generate humanlike text. He likened it to a tool, like a Swiss Army knife for writers, or a sports car, “sleek, powerful and ready to burn rubber on the highway of creativity” — if you know how to use it.

It’s like Google on steroids.

Joseph Michael is an excellent teacher. I’ve enrolled in his Learn Scrivener Fast program to tap into a software program for writers (but I haven’t taken the time to listen to all the classes), so I signed up for his AI for Authors class too.

When I think of AI, I’m still envisioning Hal 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and other robots depicted in movies as attacking the folks who made them, but I’ll learn what I can. 

As an experiment, I asked ChatGPT to write a biography of me, giving it my name, Chapters of Life business, and a note about writing this column. In seconds it spewed out 500 eloquent words about my life (some of it factually inaccurate), my job as a personal historian, and a bunch of baloney describing my writing as “akin to a masterful painting” and me as “a guardian of memories, a maestro of metaphors, and a curator of sensory experiences.”

When I introduced myself to ChatGPT, I wrote that I wanted to add more metaphors and sensory detail to my writing. Lo and behold, 10 minutes later, I’ve mastered those skills!

The use of AI in writing raises ethical questions for educators grading students and for novelists and journalists whose work is plagiarized by an unseen mega-brain scavenging data bytes to chew up and spit out upon command. You can even ask ChatGPT to write a piece in the writing style of famous authors like John Grisham, David Baldacci and George R.R. Martin. 

In fact, those authors and 14 others have filed a lawsuit against AI Open, the makers of ChatGPT, for copyright infringement, contending the company used their copyrighted novels to improve ChatGPT. They want the company to quit using their work and pay $150,000 for each infringed piece.

It’s not just famous authors whose copyright was infringed, either. AI databases used more than 191,000 books without permission to train systems like ChatGPT. My friend Leslie Gould, who has written more than 30 novels, including Amish fiction, has eight pirated books used by programmers to train AI in human-like speech.

“It’s unconscionable that tech organizations feel so entitled to other people’s work that they would steal nearly 200,000 books,” said Gould, who lives in Portland.

Spearheading the fight to protect the rights of writers is the Authors Guild, which I joined today. The guild seeks transparency, consent and compensation for authors whose work was used without permission.

“Imagination, creativity, sensitivity and empathy all come from God,” Gould said. “We need to protect and preserve the process.”

However, the AI program isn’t entirely unethical. When I was working on a novel, I asked ChatGPT for sensory information about someone being tarred and feathered.

It responded: “I understand your request, but describing a person being tarred and feathered can involve graphic and potentially disturbing imagery. Given your interest in improving your writing by including sensory descriptions, I’d be happy to help with a different topic or provide guidance on how to effectively incorporate sensory details into your writing in a more constructive and positive way.”

While AI may take over writing (but not mine), I’m still conducting the interviews to gather information for stories and books — at least, until someone builds a Jetsons-style Rosie the Robot to do that, too.


Toledo’s birthday social

Don your historic garb depicting a decade from the past and drive to Toledo on Saturday for a party to celebrate Lewis County’s earliest settlement. Toledo was the site of a Cowlitz Indian village of 5,000 and later home to Cowlitz Landing, the start of the Cowlitz Trail leading to the Puget Sound. Simon Plamondon arrived at the village in 1818 and settled in the community near the road that bears his name. 

French-Canadian priests arrived in 1838 to establish the St. Francis Mission and serve Hudson Bay Co.’s employees at Cowlitz Farm, later called the Puget Sound Agricultural Co.

In 1881, which was 142 years ago, Capt. Oren Kellogg wanted to buy an acre along the Cowlitz River to build a warehouse and negotiated for the land with Augustus Rochon, who lived along the river and platted the community’s first three blocks. Kellogg reportedly told Rochon’s wife, Celeste, she could name the new town. Gazing out the window, her eyes landed on the riverboat Toledo, which she selected as the town’s name.

More than a decade later, on Oct. 10, 1892 — 131 years ago — leaders incorporated the town, which by then had several hotels, general stores and saloons, a blacksmith shop, drug store, doctor, millinery, tin shop, distillery, several sawmills, a sash-and-door factory, and manufacturers of cigars, soap and furniture.

With such a rich past, and a desire to preserve it, the Toledo Historical Society is hosting Toledo’s Birthday Social from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Steamboat Landing, also known as Toledo’s Event Center. People of all ages are invited to join in the fun, vote on the best costumes, and donate money as well as photographs, yearbooks, posters, clothing, bottles, tools, dolls, flags and other memorabilia to exhibit in a future museum. 

Prizes will be awarded to people wearing the most authentic and most creative costumes and the person best depicting a historical figure. The event includes appetizers, courtesy of Chris and Dan Gorten, and cheesecake donated by Rachel Phillipps. Dave Coulter is providing nonalcoholic beverages such as coffee, tea, apple cider and root beer. A silent auction will be held to raise money for the museum.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at [email protected].