Links from my AI and Creative Writing workshop

Towards the end of June, I gave a small workshop about writing with AI. We looked at some techniques used to generate creative work with ChatGPT. During the session, I referred to a number of resources, which are collected below:

AI Book review: Death of An Author by Aidan Marchine

Death of An Author is an ebook novella produced by Stephen Marche using AI tools, which was commissioned by Pushkin Industries. I read a couple of good interviews about the book and, while I’d found the excerpts underwhelming as prose, I was curious to read the whole thing, particularly Marche’s afterword.

The book is about 95% AI text, using three tools. The original text was generated using ChatGPT, with Sudowrite used to tidy the text, making it “more active” or “more conversational”, and finally Cohere used to generate figurative language.

Death of An Author is a sly book, one that understands its place within a larger debate, and making allusions and interventions based upon this. There are references to the act of reading, the meaning of copyright and the book’s literary context – this is very much a book produced by someone with an English PhD, and the text itself is aware of what is at stake. The pseudonymous collaborative writer (Aidan Machine) even refers to an imaginary article by Stephen Marche, the human collaborator in the text. The writing itself is brisk if superficial, but the mystery had an interesting resolution – at least it felt so to me, as someone who rarely enjoys mysteries.

An example of the book’s commentary is in the description a dream the main character has:

That night, Gus had a terrible nightmare. He was taking an oral exam in front of his mother and ex-wife. Each time he tried to answer, a different writer’s voice came out: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen.

Hemingway is the name of another AI writing tool. The dream questions the nature of imitation for human writers, as well as referring to one of ChatGPT’s finest tricks, that of imitating well-known writers.

The book also occasionally digs into specific descriptions, as in this outline of a meal.

That night, Gus made himself a meal of fried mushrooms in a cream sauce on toast. He started by heating a pan on the stove, adding butter to it. He then sliced the mushrooms and added them to the pan, cooking until they were browned. He added cream to the pan, stirring until the sauce thickened. He placed slices of toast on a plate and spooned the mushroom and cream sauce on top.

That passage is obviously AI, right? But I can’t be sure – maybe this is part of the 5% Marche wrote by hand. In a Guardian interview, M John Harrison spoke of an ambition he has: “I want to be the first human being to imitate ChatGPT perfectly. I bet you it’s already got mimickable traits”. Either way, it’s interesting that Marche chose to leave this prosaic description in the text.

Given the way in which the book’s plot takes it to such interesting places, it’s likely that Marche gave the AI some fairly clear leads about the overall story. It would be interesting to know the actual prompts used, although Marche talks about how he generated the book’s style:

What you need is to have it write something about a murder scene in the style of Chinese nature poetry, then make it active, then make it conversational, then Select All and put it in the style of Ernest Hemingway. That gets you something interesting. Raymond Chandler, after all, was not trying to write like Raymond Chandler.

The prose is often workman-like, but some flourishes and philosophical asides stick out. One sentence I particularly liked was “The policeman at the door of Gus’s office was a tall, thin, cadaverous man wearing a dove-gray suit that did not fit him well”. It is simple but has a lovely rhythm, and fits the hardboiled style. The choice of ‘dove-grey’ is interesting when we’d normally think of doves as white. And it makes me wonder how much work was done to get this just right. Marche has spoken about how the best results come from very precise prompts that are specific about substance and style. How much work was this, compared with just writing the sentence one wants?

Marche says that he did a significant amount of sifting of the produced text. This is some way from the dream of giving an AI a short prompt and having it produce perfect, entertaining prose. However, it’s notable that when Burroughs worked on his cut-ups, a great deal of time was spent exploring the results for interesting lines. Again, I’m curious about how much work was required to get the best lines (“He wondered why there was no good English word for slimy in a good way.”).

Marche talks about how good the AI is at ’heteroglossia’, with an uncanny ability to turn its hand to specific modes of speech such as “a paragraph from a Lacanian literary critic”. Marche says that he “[defies] any writer to improve on AI at that particular skill”. While the AI struggles to produce crisp narrative prose, it is an excellent mimic. In a podcast interview , Marche made the exciting suggestion that an AI might be very good at turning out a book like Dracula, which consists of different forms of documentation.

(A discussion in Wired Magazine placed Death of an Author alongside books including Moby Dick, which used extensive found text, and Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World, which sampled 50s women’s magazines)

Discussing the debate around AI, Marche writes:

So little of how we talk about AI actually comes from the experience of using it… Like the camera, the full consequences of this technology will be worked out over a great deal of time by a great number of talents responding to a great number of developments. But at the time of writing, almost all of the conversation surrounding generative AI is imaginary, not rooted in the use of the tool but in extrapolated visions.

It is important to actually play with these tools in good faith to see what they can do. The first book I bought made using ChatGPT was shardcore’s remix of John Higgs’ writing, The Future has Already Begun. Shardcore has spoken about how having the book as a physical object changes things. Reading Aidan Machine’s book makes a compelling argument better than the thousands of thinkpieces and opinion chatter. I only wish it had been made available as an actual paperback.

Marche concludes his afterword by saying that “What makes a good painting and what makes a good photograph are different. That transition required a complete reevaluation of the nature of visual creativity” The best AI art will not come from reproducing writing that humans can do better, but from finding new forms for this medium.

Is AI/ChatGPT as exciting as people say?

On this page, I’m collecting together some links about AI that I want to refer back to. Those are below; but first I wanted to discuss what I find interesting about AI right now.

I’ve been suspicious of the hype around AI for a long time, but I keep reading articles saying that AI models will revolutionise the economy, replacing millions of jobs. I’m even seeing serious articles saying that these new AIs are approaching sentience and are an existential threat to humanity.

One theory I’ve read is that the AI hype is so loud because the crypto grifters have moved onto this: there is always a profit to be made from hyping the next big thing. It was also an amazing marketing move from OpenAI to claim that their early models were too dangerous for people to have open access.

At the same time, very smart people I know, people I trust, are telling me there is something important here. And I’ve had several dreams about prompting AIs – so I should not be dismissing this too easily.

I’ve been playing a little with ChatGPT recently. Showing a friend how it could generate an email was an enlightening moment. He doesn’t like writing formal messages and having a detailed text produced from a prompt seemed revolutionary. My own experiments show that ChatGPT is good at certain types of output, but its grasp on facts is hazy. Asking it about things I know well, like hiking routes, it returns plausible information, but lacks telling details and gets significant facts wrong. This is beguiling, miraculous technology, but it (currently) has very clear limits.

Links on AI

The following are some good pieces that I have read on AI:

My current view

I find it hard to see how these huge statistical models are related to ‘true intelligence’, even as they raise questions by doing things that we once thought relied on intelligence. One notable thing is that (as with machine translation) these models are entirely reliant on human-produced work. This has led to the ethical questions around the model incorporating copyrighted works – and I note (via the Washington Post) that this blog is one of the sources for Google’s C4 data set:

I also wonder how much further these models can go. It won’t be long before the deluge of AI content begins to be absorbed into the models, which may undermine their effectiveness.

I also suspect there is a limit to the effectiveness of LLMs for problem solving. Matt Webb’s Braggoscope is the most compelling experiment I’ve seen, where ChatGPT was used to classify the thousands of In Our Time podcasts into the dewey decimal system. It’s a task where small inaccuracies will cause little harm, and Webb estimates that the automation of this was 108x faster than doing it manually.

But for tasks like programming, much of the art is not in producing the code, but figuring out what code needs to be written. It’s possible that a new paradigm of programming emerges from AI, but for any form of programming as we currently understand it, the trick is not writing the code but defining what code we want written, and making sure that we have achieved our aims.

The difficulty with AI is in producing very specific text. Producing remarkable sonnets about odd subjects is breath-taking, but getting an AI to write Allen Ginsberg’s Howl or Pierre Menard’s Selections from Quixote would be a different matter.

Book review: literally show me a healthy person

Darcie Wilder’s 2017 book, literally show me a healthy person is very much a twitter novel, consisting mostly of aphoristic sentences. It bears obvious comparisons to Patricia Lockwood’s No-one is Talking About This (2021), particularly since both juxtapose the ephemerality of twitter with the realities of grief.

Wilder’s book is both shorter and scrappier. It buries the story about trauma under glib, often funny phrases (one that particularly stood out: “saying ‘awesome’ on work calls is just another way to stay punk” – I feel slighted). The lines about nihilistic partying come to stand in reaction to the narrator’s descriptions of childhood trauma.

I think this aphoristic style works well, and captures one of the strangest feelings of the social media age – what the Content Mines podcast referred to as ‘structural dissonance’ – the way in which social media platforms blur together trivia, marketing messages and horrific news. One example that the Content Mines used was when the SweetMiniDollsHouse Instagram account interrupted its posts about dolls house miniatures to document the account owner’s pictures of the Ukraine invasion.

This is an extreme example, but social media is full of such examples. Pictures of people partying rub alongside political messages. When Wilder’s narrator fails to focus on their trauma (and any chance/attempt of healing) it reflects the way that we bury things in favour of surface entertainments.

The idea that trivia is a distraction from the world’s issues is a common criticism of capitalism but social media provides a constant distraction from our own lives (there are values to these tools, but they are easily swamped by commercial needs). The world we live in very much reflects the one described in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, which predicted the current media landscape from 1967.

David Shields’ 2010 book Reality Hunger predicted more texts like Wilder’s novel, with its aphorisms and blurring of fact with fiction (many of the narrator’s lines were originally posted on Wilder’s twitter account). literally show me a healthy person is a good example of the sort of novel Shields was talking about.

Looking for something in my blog this week, I found a link from 2010 to Russell Davies’ review of a Douglas Couplan novel. Davies wrote:

I’m sure I’ll read more of Mr Coupland’s books but I’d almost rather read his lists or his notes. It seems like he’s the perfect novelist to write the something-that’s-not-a-novel that must be just around the corner.

I’ve been waiting for this “something-that’s-not-a-novel” promised by Reality Hunger for a long time now. Wilder’s novel is a good example of the form.

Why ARGs never worked

Back in November 2022 I gave a talk to students at Leeds Trinity University about transmedia storytelling, specifically around alternate reality games and electronic folklore. Researching the talk allowed me to explore my long-held fascination with ARGs.

The first ARG I heard about was The Beast, which was beautifully dissected by 50 Years of Text Adventures. The ARG initially looked like a new art form, an Internet-native way to tell stories: “the team began to see their scheme as a Gesamtkunstwerk, an all-encompassing art form for the new century, just as opera and cinema had been for earlier eras“. The form generated fanatical audiences – one puzzle from Perplex City was solved recently after 15 years of effort.

The most exciting thing for me was how ARGs told stories in the world. They merged reality and fiction, promising to make normal life a little more magical. I loved the idea of hosting stories within the world, of walking through them; how technology allowed ARGs to reach out to people through email or even phone calls.

But ARGs never took off, and I personally never got excited enough to chase them. One issue was the actual mechanics. I liked the idea of seeing symbols in the real world that led to an ongoing story, but the actual ARGs did not have the magic I longed for. I’m not a huge fan of puzzles so that is perhaps a part of it – I like the joy of solving something, but pitching the difficulty is tricky – too easy and it’s trivial, too hard and it’s frustrating.

This led to one of the problems with ARGs, that some of them had puzzles so hard that they could only be solved once. In a 2008 talk about ARGs, Everything you know about ARGs is WRONG, Dan Hon talked about the need for ‘casual’ ARGs with “short, snappy, fun gameplay”. The sort of thing that did not require people pooling obscure knowledge. As Hon said, “What the fuck kind of “normal person”… wants to de-steg a jpeg, or write a distributed brute force attack against military grade encryption? Jesus. Whatever happened to the kind of people who like playing Singstar? Or, you know, Snake”. Puzzles based on lute tablature are great, but they are not going to bring in many people. Without active communities, these games are basically unplayable.

The other problem with the games was scaling up to massive audiences. Some of the ARGs made use of personalised e-mails to players. The Dark Knight promotion famously baked cakes containing clues. Quoting Hon again, “It’s fine sending a cake to twenty people. You just try sending a cake to twenty thousand people though. Or twenty million”. This is “by intention an experience that can never scale to become a mass-market event“. Admittedly, the cake stunt brought a lot of vicarious delight, but then we’re back to the games relying on active community.

The games also quickly developed cliches, which were being clued out as past their sell-by date in 2008. Hon was harsh on codebreaking, secret societies, intrusive puzzles and treasure hunts (“I’ll smack the next person who proposes a treasure hunt and thinks it will make people play”). Another problem was hopping between platforms just for the sake of it.

A major point of contention was the boundary between the games and real life. I was fascinated by the idea of blurring these boundaries, but many ARG designers became obsessed with the idea of pretending the games were entirely real, and hiding all the seams – a technique known as TINAG, ‘this is not a game’. Dan Hon pointed out in a talk that ‘Alternate Reality’ is just a roundabout way of saying ‘fictional’. “No more “alternate reality” bullshit. We can use the word “fiction” or “story” instead, so normal people can understand us.” Later in the same talk, he said that ”ARGs are just things that you can play and that tell stories. ARG doesn’t mean anything.” Expending so much energy into pretending these things are entirely real is a waste of time.

I think there are many lessons that can be learned from ARGs. As Andrea Phillips said in an article on Atlas Obscura, “A lot of [the ARG] energy has gone into lightly interactive web series, room escape games, narratives-in-a-box. Things that use a few of the ARG tools (tangible artifacts, in-story websites, email) but don’t use the full-fledged ARG formula.

The collaboration and investigation aspects of the games seemed to work better for explainers/investigations of TV shows like Lost where people would blog and discuss clues in the episodes – while most viewers ignored the actual ARGs that had been built around the game. People love looking for clues in serialised drama, and the ‘replayability’ of TV shows is much higher than for ARGs.

Writing and ChatGPT

As far back as 2008, Kenneth Goldsmith was saying that, through the Internet, writing had ‘met its photography’ – referring to the supposed crisis painting faced once realistic images could easily be produced. ChatGPT is another part of this long-running crisis, rather than something new.

Like most people, I find the output of tools like Midjourney, Stable Diffusion and ChatGPT miraculous. Being able to put a few words into a system and receive a picture matching that description is incredible. I keep reading claims that ChatGPT can pass the bar exam, or can think at the age of a small child, or generate computer code.

While ChatGPT can produce very good undergraduate essays on certain themes, it is not able to generate spontaneous writing about obscure texts. And while it might be able to create specific examples of code, that is not the main problem in programming. (Describing what a programme should do, and seeing whether it works are far more time-consuming). These tools are remarkable but they cannot easily synthesise new things.

I’ve had a lot of debate with a friend about whether these tools are creative. They definitely do some tasks that would be described as genuinely creative. However, this is a brute-force approach to only one type of ‘creativity’. These models are huge statistical analyses of existing content, a huge multi-dimensional data table. They are not artificially intelligent in the way we normally understand that term, rather they are reliant on a huge pool of imported data.

ChatGPT is very good at is producing styles of writing seen on the Internet. It can automatically generate the sort of text that provoke reactions, but it has trouble producing sustained and detailed texts. This tool will be able to flood the Internet with the sort of writing that already appears on the Internet. It is wickedly good at listicles, short blog posts that seem to say something, and arguments about major franchises.

This sort of language was already being crafted for the Internet. People were writing web copy to fit in with SEO. Buzzfeed was producing headlines that would be popular, and then crafting the stories to fit them. Twitter was promoting a particular style of discourse. The algorithmic ranking of text was a problem long before, because it was shaping the sorts of writing being produced.

ChatGPT arrives at an significant time. More people are reading than ever before, but they have changed what they are reading, moving on from novels and newspapers to smaller pieces of text. This is an fascinating time to be writing stories. ChatGPT is going to make certain types of content worthless (it’s a bad time to be producing small blog posts to increase engagement). It’s time to leave basic writing to the machines and move on to more interesting things.

Writing in 2022

2022 has been a good year for writing, and I’ve had several stories published:

I also published two more volumes in my South Downs Way series: Weird Tales of the South Downs Way and A Foolish Journey. I also launched an etsy shop in January to sell my work.

In April, I joined the Todmorden Wednesday Writers group and have enjoyed the fortnightly writing challenges. I’ve also made some new friends, and was published in their annual anthology.

Also in April, Dan Sumption made a video of his reading of my story A Disease of Books.

I’ve been working at submitting stories this year. I sent out 55, of which 8 were accepted, and 38 rejected. Sending out stories is hard work, since you’re part of an avalanche of slush; and it’s not just about being good, it’s about appealing to a particular editor. And, looking back on the last year, I’ve had more satisfaction from self-publishing than I’ve had from my submissions.

I don’t have a large audience. That’s OK. Of all the writers I’ve met, the one who seemed happiest with their career was a woman who spoke at Slash Night. She wrote about a minor fandom for a group of about 100 people who passed around samizdat novels. The audience was responsive and engaged, and the way she spoke about her career was more passionate than anyone else I’ve encountered.

There’s an obvious question here: do I work harder at submitting my stories, or do I focus on self-publishing?

A major factor here is that the response is better from self-publishing than submissions. It’s great to be published in markets I love, but receiving a personal response to the work means more. I had an enthusiastic review from the Zeenscene blog (“These are affecting tales, well-written and honest, and well worth setting time aside to read“) and, several months into the etsy store, I found my reviews (“all of the stories in the pamphlets are consistently well-written and simultaneously strange and comforting“). It’s not simply about validation, it’s about participation. Some of my published pieces have received little or no response, whereas I’ve loved seeing social media posts about the Mycelium Parish News as readers get their copies.

Sending work out for submission means tailoring my work. Editors provide an important filter for writing, and self-publishing runs a risk by not having this oversight. But, at the same time, not everything I want to write fits into a market. I like the weird pieces. I’m tired of giving stories with a cosy beginning, middle and end. I’d prefer to focus on my own type of strange and aggressive little pieces, and I’m producing more of these than there seem to be markets for.

A third thing: I like producing physical objects. I like putting writing into a container and sending it out into the world. There’s a magic to the postal system. The tiny A7 books of stories I produced a few years back were hard work to make, but they were fun. I’d love to produce more writing like the short story I did on an origami crane.

I don’t want to continue gambling with my happiness, working hard submitting pieces I love to receive form rejection emails. I’d rather use my energy on something that will definitely bring me joy, and that is building tiny publications. My design skills might be rudimentary, but they are tighter than some of the online magazines I’ve found myself submitting to. And, you know, if I decide to produce several thousand words of Death Stranding fanfics, self-publishing means I can find them a home.

So that’s my plan for 2023, to focus on zines and postal experiments. Most of this will be fiction (I have two more South Downs Way zines on the runway), but there may be some non-fiction work too. I’m not 100% sure what else I will focus on, and that in itself is exciting.

Some links on ARGs

At the start of November, I ran a seminar for a university transmedia course on ARGs, Alternate Reality Games. I was looking specifically at examples of three ARG-like projects had been taken as real, with disturbing effects. This post lists some of the links that I referred to. Another will follow with some thoughts on ARGs.

  • An excellent introduction to ARGs is the 50 year’s of Text Adventures series on The Beast, a 2001 ARG written to promote the Spielberg movie AI. This was the first major ARG.
  • I referred to a number of ARGs in my introduction. Majestic, from Electronic Arts, came out shortly after the Beast and was an interesting failed experiment. One of the most successful high-profile games was Why So Serious? (2007), promoting the movie The Dark Knight, which included phones hidden inside cakes.
  • Although I didn’t refer to it in the session, I loved the Wired magazine interview with Trent Reznor discussing how his band Nine Inch Nails made an album, Year Zero, based around an ARG. I also came across some fascinating references to EDOC Laundry, a clothing line that was also an ARG.
  • Perplex City was another successful ARG, run by a team including Adrian Hon. One of the puzzles form Perplex City was only solved after fifteen years. Some excellent background on Hon is in a 2013 interview, Six to Start: Foundation’s Edge.
  • It’s interesting how ARGs provoked so much interest, but have not broken through to the mainstream. Alternate Reality Games Could Still Take Over the World (And Your Life) was a good article discussing this. It quotes ARG designer Andrea Phillips: “A lot of energy has [transferred] into lightly interactive web series, room escape games, narratives-in-a-box. Things that use a few of the ARG tools (tangible artifacts, in-story websites, email) but don’t use the full-fledged ARG formula.
  • I discussed the issues around the funding of ARGs, and how difficult that has proved. I also looked at how TV shows like Westworld and Severance have used the ‘mystery box’ concept to build audiences that research and discuss the plots in a similar manner to the communities that investigated ARGs.
  • I then moved on to my three examples, the first of which was Ong’s Hat. Gizmodo produced an excellent overview, Ong’s Hat: The Early Internet Conspiracy Game That Got Too Real. The Ong’s Hat story was created by Joseph Matheny, and his story is excellently told in the two-part Information Golem podcast.
  • Also worth mentioning is Matheny’s involvement in the John Titor hoax.
  • The Slender Man was created for a photoshop challenge, and immediately inspired a number of ARG-like projects. Cat Vincent did an excellent job of summarising Slender Man for Darklore, paying particular attention to the way ARGs contributed to the development of the mythos. Cat also wrote a follow-up article in 2012. I previously used Cat’s research for my talk on ‘Brown Notes’, The Internet Will Destroy Us. Slender Man became a tragic case of ostentation, when two children who were obsessed with the character stabbed a classmate in Wisconsin.
  • I then went onto talking about conspiracy theory, using Abbie Richard’s Conspiracy Chart to discuss the movement of conspiracy theories from (what many people saw as) harmless and silly ideas to dangerous (and often anti-semitic) ones.
  • I used the ‘Birds Don’t Exist’ hoax as an example of using transmedia to promote a conspiracy theory, as discussed in a NY Times article, Birds Aren’t Real, or Are They? Inside a Gen Z Conspiracy Theory.
  • Adrian Hon wrote an insightful article, What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon. While careful to draw clear lines between QAnon and ARGs, the piece nevertheless drew interesting parallels.
  • I then concluded by talking about how ARGs often pretend to be real (‘this is not a game’), and the ways in which the lines between real and imaginary can be played with, particularly given how the media has an insatiable need for stories. I talked a little about Chris Parkinson and the film Tusk, referring a 2014 talk where he encouraged people to “Leave your stories lying around in unorthodox, unethical locations”.

The South Downs Way: A Ten Year Writing Project

I’m currently putting together the final few stories for a zine called Once Upon a Time in Brighton and Hove. It’s a collection of microfictions about the town where I lived most of my life so far. It also functions as the sixth volume in my larger series of zines about the South Downs Way.

Earlier this year, I pulled together the work I’d been doing on this series, and it looks as if it will be 20 books written across the 2020s. I’ve got about 80,000 words in notes and sketches for the remaining 14 books, so this is a very achievable aim. (I’m not sure where the idea of the South Downs Way project lasting ten years came from, but it feels right.)

Coming up to a third of the way through the project, I’m starting to realise some of the complexities of such a large project. For a start, there’s the issue of managing all the different threads that are in play. Characters who lead some stories turn up in the background of others; events play out from different points of view. I’ve mostly avoided huge errors, but I have had to quietly rename one character. I also had to change some character’s clothes, when they were wearing Slipknot T-shirts six months before anyone in the UK would have heard of the band.

The Devil, who was the focus of the second zine, has also taken over a little. There is another zine to come (probably around 2025) about his relationship with Jesus. But given how much people seem to like this character I need to make sure his arc has a satisfying conclusion, preferably tied together with some of the other major characters. Is this huge collection of short stories actually a set of short stories about the Devil’s interactions with the South Downs landscape and the people who live there?

Another challenge is working out how best to show the links between the stories. I’m releasing them initially as small A5-size zines, but they will need to be collected at some point. Are the stories easier to follow through time order, or through the location they occur on the South Downs Way? Or a more arbitrary order that makes the connections clear?

At the moment the stories are printed with their location and the name of the main character, but maybe I should have been adding a timestamp so that anyone who wants to can check what order certain events occurred in. That also makes it easier for readers to see where things happened in relation to the weirdness of 2020.

I started writing this series shortly before the pandemic. As I’ve written the first few zines, I’ve avoided mentioning covid. I’d no interest in writing about it, and all the stories I’ve written so far have taken me up to 2019. The most recent volume, A Foolish Journey, looks at one person’s story, but does not follow her into the pandemic. But as time goes on, the stories set in 2019 become further from the present day. Ignoring the pandemic seems less feasible – having all the stories ending just before it seems to beg for an explanation in the text.

I have two zines planned for 2023. The first has a working title of A Haunted (Acid) House Story and is relatively self contained, following Tony from the second summer of love into the 2020s. The other, Stories of Sussex Folklore is about Dr Sally Jones, who walked out of her life as a doctor in Volume 3’s story Dromomania. This one is going to connect to several other characters, and I will need to make some decisions about the larger structure of the series before that one is published.

My biggest surprise is that I’m so excited about seeing this project through to the end. I’ve often been flaky about writing projects in the past, and I think this demonstrates a new focus and determination.

Works of art as places

Nick Cave’s recent long interview with Seán O’Hagan, Faith, Hope and Carnage, is an amazing book. Cave talks frankly about the last few years, and his grief at losing his son, Arthur. He also talks about his working methods, particularly in relation to Ghosteen, his most recent album with the Bad Seeds, leading to this remarkable passage:

Well, I think Ghosteen, the music and the lyrics, is an invented place where the spirit of Arthur can find some kind of haven or rest. Seán, this idea is as fragile and as open to question as an idea can be, but for me, personally, I think his spirit inhabits this work. And I don’t even mean that in a metaphorical way, I mean that quite literally. This isn’t an idea I have articulated before, but I feel him roaming around the songs.

I’m fascinated by the concept of artwork as virtual place (for example, in Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace), but Cave takes this a step further, with the idea of an artwork as a place to encounter a spirit that is not accessible in the real world.