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Monday, October 30, 2023

Of Wrong and Write

The sandstone courthouse stood high above the street, its doorway a yawning mouth framed by towering columns. Inside, steam heat blasted, radiators clanked and high heels clattered over worn black linoleum. As prospective jurors, we were herded into the courtroom where we gazed at the brown-tinged windows filtering light high overhead. Looking out we could only see sky. Bailiffs hollered names and numbers. We sat as directed on wooden benches while two opposing attorneys selected the jury.

It was a murder trial, I was elected a juror and without going into grisly details, it was the time I first learned the meaning of the word nuance.

For five days we listened to testimony while the suspect sat across from us, his face an expressionless profile, arms folded across his chest, legs shackled in silver chains. I couldn’t help thinking that a long time ago, this man was a baby who likely cooed and laughed. Now he stood accused of murder. Later, the prosecuting attorney provoked a similar sentiment when he circulated the high school picture of the seventeen-year-old victim. That photo replaced the horror pictures we had already seen with the vision of a lovely high school student, turning her into the girl next door, you know, the one your brother had a crush on.

After the closing statements, the jury sat around a dark stained table. A stocky white haired man slammed his hand down, convinced of guilt at the offset while the rest of us were determined to use all manner of fairness before reaching any conclusion. If we were to convict, there were three statutes under which the suspect could be found guilty. Two were obvious, one, more obscure and as we analyzed evidence we needed clarification on the third statute. Tearing a sheet of paper from a yellow legal pad, our foreman jotted, “Can we get a copy of the statute for Felony Murder?” and handed it to the bailiff to deliver to the judge. Shortly, the bailiff knocked on our door and instructed us to return to the courtroom.

Winding our way single file down a dimly lit hallway, we entered the courtroom, slid into squeaking wooden seats and gazed toward the bench. 

The judge spoke. “The jury has requested a copy of the statute of Felony Murder. This building has no copy machine therefore I cannot fulfill the request. The jury may return to the deliberation room.”

Nuance. Twelve members of the jury sat back at the rectangular table, flabbergasted that the antiquated courtroom didn’t house a copy machine, and due to the meticulous requirement of our legal system, that meant the judge could do nothing more than respond to our request the way it was written. As a group, we were irritated. We'd used the wrong word and we couldn’t move forward.

That experience, which occurred many years ago, reminds me of writing. The law leaves no room for leeway, and yes, perhaps writing offers more. But in the end, it’s in the details, the fine distinction, the exactness in which you form a sentence that leads the reader on, convinces them, and tantalizes. The wrong words shut a reader down just as one wrong word stopped the jury cold. “He walked down the hallway” provokes a yawn of boredom, whereas a sentence like, “Scuffing his feet, he ran his ruler across the beadboard paneling. We could hear him getting closer with each click,” makes the reader ask who “he” is and where is he going.

As a jury, we spent several more careful hours discussing the case. When that word copy derailed us, we moved to another part piece of testimony. We knew that the one word was an issue, but rather than waste time on it, we worked together to draw a clearer picture of other details related to the case, the same way when stuck, a writer moves on to a different part of the story.

When we were close to a verdict we returned to the word copy, sending a second note back to the judge: “Could you please read us the statute on Felony Murder?" Once again the bailiff knocked on the door and escorted us down the hallway. Again we took our assigned seats and waited expectantly for the judge. After reading our question out loud, the judge opened a thick, leather bound book and read the statute. The jury returned to the deliberation room. Within an hour, we had a verdict.

The right words will bring you home. When has a single word or scene stumped you?

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

My Inner Debate - IWSG October 2023


Welcome to IWSG Day. The goal of this blog hop is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a haven for insecure writers of all kinds. IWSG is the brainchild of Alex Cavanaugh. Thank you to the October co-hosts, Natalie Aguirre, Kim Lajevardi, Debs Carey, Gwen Gardner, Patricia Josephine, and Rebecca DouglassTo read posts from other contributors, click here. 

October question: The topic of AI writing has been heavily debated across the world. According to various sources, generative AI will assist writers, not replace them. What are your thoughts?

This month’s question reminds me of a conversation I had with a college professor last spring. He expressed profound disappointment that students use AI thinking they can bluff their way to good grades on their papers. He said he could usually tell when he read the final product. We talked about how, as AI takes a stronger hold in education and business, it will become harder and harder to discern the truth. 

Honestly, since then I haven’t delved deep enough into the topic but here is my naive and uneducated take. Imagine a piece of highway hotel room art. It fills a blank wall and brings color to a room. Maybe it hides a stain. It’s utilitarian. That said, it’s more than likely mass produced, whether by a machine or by someone creating the same piece over and over. The piece may be technically proficient. Some people may even like it. But it lacks depth and passion. It lacks emotion. It’s missing finesse.

Recently an author I follow used AI to create a sample story before critiquing it. The story was like the wall art. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. It even had an arc. But it was plodding and definitely without nuance. In my mind, a computer can't take the place of the intangibles inspired by our humanity (so far). Still, the exercise begs the question. Could a writer take a story originally created via AI and flesh it out, tweak it, give it subtlety and turn it into something that touches a reader? Could they use it as a jumping off point to create a masterful novel?

I don’t know enough to know, and it feels like cheating to me. That said, I'm talking about fiction here, which is all about entertainment. Maybe we're simply encountering the newest way to do a thing. It doesn't feel right to me, but I have to ask myself. If the end product triggers emotions and the reader feels fulfilled by the experience of reading, does it matter how the story is produced?

I confess. Writing this month's essay kind of felt like bluffing my way through a college paper without having done the reading (no AI involved). I am aware there are deeper issues related to the recently resolved writer's strike, labor questions, and the threat of AI eliminating jobs. I'm simply not well-read enough on the topic to address them. Keep that in mind and don't be too hard on me in your comments.