“AI” generated writing

Neil Clarke, editor of a respected science fiction magazine, reports on his blog that numbers of spammy short fiction submissions are way up for his publication. He says that spammy submissions first started increasing during the pandemic, and “were almost entirely cases of  plagiarism, first by replacing the author’s name and then later by use of programs designed to ‘make it your own.'”

Helpfully, he gives an example of what you get with one of the programs to “make it your own.” First he gives a paragraph from the spam submission, which sounds a little…odd. Then he provides the paragraph from the original short story on which the spam submission was based. However, Clarke says: “These cases were often easy to spot and infrequent enough that they were only a minor nuisance.”

Then in January and February, spammy submissions have skyrocketed. Clarke says: “Towards the end of 2022, there was another spike in plagiarism and then ‘AI’ chatbots started gaining some attention, putting a new tool in their arsenal…. It quickly got out of hand.” It’s gotten so bad that now 38% of his short fiction submissions are spammy, either “AI” generated,* or generated with one of those programs to “make it your own.”

38%. Wow.

Clarke concludes: “”It’s not just going to go away on its own and I don’t have a solution. … If [editors] can’t find a way to address this situation, things will begin to break….”

This trend is sure to come to a sermon near you. As commenters on the post point out, writers are already using chatbots to deal with the “blank page struggle,” just trying to get words on the paper. (To which Neil Clarke responds that his magazine has a policy that writers should not use AI at any stage in the process of writing a story for submission.) No doubt, some minister or lay preacher who is under stress and time pressure will do (or has done) the same thing — used ChatGPT or some other bot to generate an initial idea, then cleaned it up and made it their own.

And then “AI” generated writing tools will improve, so that soon some preachers will use “AI” generated sermons. For UU ministers, it may take longer. There are so few of us, and it may take a while for the “AI” tools to catch on to Unitarian Universalism. But I fully expect to hear within the next decade that some UU minister has gotten fired for passing off an “AI” generated sermon as their own.

My opinion? If you’re stressed out or desperate and don’t have time to write a fresh sermon, here’s what you do. You re-use an old sermon, and tell the congregation that you’re doing it, and why — I’ve done this once or twice, ministers I have high regard for have done this, and it’s OK, and people understand when you’re stressed and desperate. Or, if you don’t have a big reservoir of old sermons that you wrote, find someone else’s sermon online, get their permission to use it, and again, tell the congregation that you’re doing it, and why. Over the years, I’ve had a few lay preachers ask to use one of my sermons (the same is true of every minister I know who puts their sermons online), and it’s OK, and people understand what’s it like when you’re stressed and desperate and just don’t have time to finish writing your own sermon.

But using “AI” to write your sermons? Nope. No way. Using “AI” at any stage of writing a sermon is not OK. Not even to overcome the “blank page struggle.” Not even if you acknowledge that you’ve done it. It’s spiritually dishonest, and it disrespects the congregation.

* Note: I’m putting the abbreviation “AI” in quotes because “artificial intelligence” is considered by many to be a misnomer — “machine learning” is a more accurate term.

A book that changed your life

The monthly memoir writing group at our church follows a standard format: people in the group can read something they have written since the last meeting (usually based on last month’s writing assignment); then I read a passage from a published memoir, and give an assignment based on that example; then the last hour is devoted to writing.

We can’t meet this month. I was going to send out the assignment via email, but it seems to me it’s important to hear the example read out loud. So I made a video of this month’s writing assignment… Video removed — the full text of the video is below:

Welcome to the September online writing group.

Since we can’t meet in person this month, I decided to do a video of this month’s assignment — I was inspired by Mike’s video version of one of the memoirs he wrote. And I’m going to suggest that if you know how to make a video, you might do your own video of yourself reading last month’s assignment, and share it with the rest of us via email.

Now onto this month’s reading….

Frederick Douglass needs little introduction to any American. He was born into slavery, escaped to freedom in the north via the Underground Railroad, and become one of the most compelling speakers against slavery. He wrote three autobiographies, each of which describes his life in slavery and his escape to freedom; the later autobiographies tell something more of his life as a free man.

Douglass taught himself to read when he was twelve years old, and still a slave. He had to learn in secret for his master expressly forbade him to learn how to read, saying it would make him discontented and ruin him as a slave. When he finally did learn how to read, there was one book that changed his life, and set him on the path to becoming one of the most famous and effective abolitionists. Here’s how Douglass describes the book that changed his life:

When I was about thirteen years old, and had succeeded in learning to read, every increase of knowledge, especially respecting the FREE STATES, added something to the almost intolerable burden of the thought — I AM A SLAVE FOR LIFE. To my bondage I saw no end. It was a terrible reality, and I shall never be able to tell how sadly that thought chafed my young spirit.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, about this time in my life, I had made enough money to buy what was then a very popular school book, viz: the Columbian Orator. I bought this addition to my library, of Mr. Knight, on Thames street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and paid him fifty cents for it. I was first led to buy this book, by hearing some little boys say they were going to learn some little pieces out of it for the Exhibition. This volume was, indeed, a rich treasure, and every opportunity afforded me, for a time, was spent in diligently perusing it.

Among much other interesting matter, that which I had perused and re-perused with unflagging satisfaction, was a short dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave is represented as having been recaptured, in a second attempt to run away; and the master opens the dialogue with an upbraiding speech, charging the slave with ingratitude, and demanding to know what he has to say in his own defense. Thus upbraided, and thus called upon to reply, the slave rejoins, that he knows how little anything that he can say will avail, seeing that he is completely in the hands of his owner; and with noble resolution, calmly says, “I submit to my fate.” Touched by the slave’s answer, the master insists upon his further speaking, and recapitulates the many acts of kindness which he has performed toward the slave, and tells him he is permitted to speak for himself. Thus invited to the debate, the quondam slave made a spirited defense of himself, and thereafter the whole argument, for and against slavery, was brought out. The master was vanquished at every turn in the argument; and seeing himself to be thus vanquished, he generously and meekly emancipates the slave, with his best wishes for his prosperity.

It is scarcely necessary to say, that a dialogue, with such an origin, and such an ending — read when the fact of my being a slave was a constant burden of grief — powerfully affected me; and I could not help feeling that the day might come, when the well-directed answers made by the slave to the master, in this instance, would find their counterpart in myself.

This, however, was not all the fanaticism which I found in this Columbian Orator. I met there one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches, on the subject of Catholic Emancipation, Lord Chatham’s speech on the American war, and speeches by the great William Pitt and by Fox. These were all choice documents to me, and I read them, over and over again, with an interest that was ever increasing, because it was ever gaining in intelligence; for the more I read them, the better I understood them. The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts, which had frequently flashed through my soul, and died away for want of utterance. The mighty power and heart-searching directness of truth, penetrating even the heart of a slaveholder, compelling him to yield up his earthly interests to the claims of eternal justice, were finely illustrated in the dialogue, just referred to; and from the speeches of Sheridan, I got a bold and powerful denunciation of oppression, and a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man. Here was, indeed, a noble acquisition. If I ever wavered under the consideration, that the Almighty, in some way, ordained slavery, and willed my enslavement for his own glory, I wavered no longer. I had now penetrated the secret of all slavery and oppression, and had ascertained their true foundation to be in the pride, the power and the avarice of man. The dialogue and the speeches were all redolent of the principles of liberty, and poured floods of light on the nature and character of slavery.

With a book of this kind in my hand, my own human nature, and the facts of my experience, to help me, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether among the whites or among the colored people, for blindness, in this matter, is not confined to the former. I have met many religious colored people, at the south, who are under the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery, and to wear their chains with meekness and humility. I could entertain no such nonsense as this; and I almost lost my patience when I found any colored man weak enough to believe such stuff. Nevertheless, the increase of knowledge was attended with bitter, as well as sweet results. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest slavery, and my enslavers. “Slaveholders,” thought I, “are only a band of successful robbers, who left their homes and went into Africa for the purpose of stealing and reducing my people to slavery.” I loathed them as the meanest and the most wicked of men.

As I read, behold! the very discontent so graphically predicted by Master Hugh, had already come upon me. I was no longer the light-hearted, gleesome boy, full of mirth and play, as when I landed first at Baltimore. Knowledge had come; light had penetrated the moral dungeon where I dwelt; and, behold! there lay the bloody whip, for my back, and here was the iron chain; and my good, kind master, he was the author of my situation. The revelation haunted me, stung me, and made me gloomy and miserable. As I writhed under the sting and torment of this knowledge, I almost envied my fellow slaves their stupid contentment. This knowledge opened my eyes to the horrible pit, and revealed the teeth of the frightful dragon that was ready to pounce upon me, but it opened no way for my escape. I have often wished myself a beast, or a bird — anything, rather than a slave. I was wretched and gloomy, beyond my ability to describe. I was too thoughtful to be happy. It was this everlasting thinking which distressed and tormented me; and yet there was no getting rid of the subject of my thoughts. All nature was redolent of it. Once awakened by the silver trump of knowledge, my spirit was roused to eternal wakefulness. Liberty! the inestimable birthright of every man, had, for me, converted every object into an asserter of this great right. It was heard in every sound, and beheld in every object. It was ever present, to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. The more beautiful and charming were the smiles of nature, the more horrible and desolate was my condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, and I heard nothing without hearing it. I do not exaggerate, when I say, that it looked from every star, smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.

From My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass, Library of America edition of his three autobiographies, pages 225-227.

Of course, this is a particularly dramatic example of how one book can change someone’s life. Your life may be less dramatic than Douglass’s (and if so, you are probably glad of that), but you still probably have had a book change your life in some deep way. Or perhaps it was a poem that stuck in your memory and changed how you saw the world; or a short story, or a speech, or a sermon. Books, poems, stories are all part of a grand conversation that can include our entire culture, and that we can take part in.

Your assignment, then, is to write about words that changed your life. How old were you? How did you find this book? Where were you when you read it? And what was the immediate effect of this book on you?

You know the rest: write two pages, or about 500 up to a thousand words, and bring it to the next class.


I’ve been leading a monthly memoir writing at church. I do the exercises, too, and recently I wrote about something that happened almost exactly thirty years ago this week. So here are my memories of that day. I’ve changed the names, because there’s no reason to give those names to intrusive search engines.

August —, 1982

During the summer, the lumberyard always hired someone extra to help out in the in the yard, and to help out stocking shelves in the store. Summers were busy, and there was always at least a truck driver, or one of the yardmen, or the stock clerk, on vacation. One summer they hired Bud, whose father worked in the building trades, and who lived in one of the streets back in behind the lumberyard. He was a few years younger than I, which means he must have been seventeen or eighteen. If you saw him, you’d describe him immediately as a good guy: he was always smiling and cheerful, he always worked hard and he was in great shape.

Continue reading “Memoir”

An item of concern

For the past decade or so, I’ve been most concerned with the institutional health of liberal religion: there are human values which are carried best by human institutions, and without a strong institutional structure those values seem likely to wither like a plant without water and adequate soil.

But recently I have become increasingly concerned about the spiritual health of liberal religion in general, and Unitarian Universalism in particular. We religious liberals spend so much time on social justice — and there is indeed an overwhelming amount of social justice work to be done — and we spend so much time on the health of our institutions — and again, there is indeed an overwhelming amount of institutional work to be done — that it has come to seem to me that we are slighting our spiritual well-being.

Along with that, we have come to understand “spiritual well-being” in such individualistic terms that the phrase has almost no meaning within the context of institutional Unitarian Universalism. In the past month or so, I have heard the following mentioned, and even glorified, as activities that foster spiritual well-being: yoga; Zen retreats; shamanic training; dream work; walking the labyrinth; meditation that is rooted in non-Western practices. These are either highly individualistic practices, or practices rooted in another spiritual community; or both.

Yet I rarely hear religious liberals speak lovingly of the core practices that lie at the center of our own liberal religious tradition. Those core liberal religious practices include the following: Continue reading “An item of concern”

“The day that changed the world”

With the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, coming up, it made sense that the exercise for our monthly writing group at church would be on some related topic. But of course not everyone was affected by the September 11 attacks in the same way, and for some people other events had a bigger impact on their lives than did the September 11th attacks. So the writing exercise for the month was to write something about the day that changed the world — as in, the day that changed the world for you, the day that changed your world.

To start us off, I read a passage about Pearl Harbor day from Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family by Yoshiko Uchida (Seattle: University of Washington, 1982, 2000):

It was one of those rare Sunday when we had no guests for dinner. My parents, sister, and I had just come home from church and were having a quiet lunch when we heard a frenzied voice on the radio break in on the program. The Japanese had attacked Pearl harbor.

“Oh no,” Mama cried out. “It can’t be true.”

“Of course not,” Papa reassured her. “And if it is, it’s only the work of a fanatic.”

We all agreed with him. Of course it could only be an aberrant act of some crazy irresponsible fool. It never for a moment occurred to any of us that this meant war. As a matter of fact I was more concerned with my approaching finals at the university [of California at Berkeley] than I was with this bizarre news and went to the library to study. When I got there, I found clusters of Nisei students anxiously discussing the shocking event. But we all agreed it was only a freak incident and turned our attention to our books. I stayed at the library until 5:00 p.m. giving no further thought to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

When I got home, the house was filled with an uneasy quiet. A strange man sat in our living room and my father was gone. The FBI had come to pick him up, as they had dozens of other Japanese men. Executives of Japanese business firms, shipping lines, and banks, men active in local Japanese associations, teachers of Japanese language schools, virtually every leader of the Japanese American community along the West Coast had been seized almost immediately.

Actually the FBI had come to our house twice, once in the absence of my parents and sister who, still not realizing the serious nature of the attack, had gone out to visit friends. Their absence, I suppose, had been cause for suspicion and the FBI or police had broken in to search our house without a warrant. On returning, my father, believing that we had been burglarized, immediately called the police. Two policemen appeared promptly with three FBI men and suggested that my father check to see if his valuables were missing. They were, of course, undisturbed, but their location was thereby revealed. Two of the FBI men requested that my father accompany them “for a short while” to be questioned, and my father went willingly. The other FBI man remained with my mother and sister to intercept all phone calls and to inform anyone who called that they were indisposed.

One policeman stationed himself at the front door and the other at the rear. When two of our white friends came to see how we were, they were not permitted to enter or speak to my mother and sister, who, for all practical purposes, were prisoners in our home.

By the time I came home, only one FBI man remained but I was alarmed at the startling turn of events during my absence. In spite of her own anxiety, Mama in her usual thoughtful way was serving tea to the FBI agent. He tried to be friendly and courteous, reassuring me that my father would return safely in due time. But I couldn’t share my mother’s gracious attitude toward him. Papa was gone, and his abrupt custody into the hands of the FBI seemed an ominous portent of worse things to come I had no inclination to have tea with one of its agents, and went abruptly to my room, slamming the door shut. [pp. 46-47]

Then each of us talked about the day that changed our worlds. I and one or two others spoke about our experiences on September 11, 2001; someone else spoke about Pearl Harbor Day; another about the Kennedy assassination; still another about a personal experience that was life-changing, even life-shattering. For each of us, it was the intersection of an exterior and catastrophic event, combined with a life-altering personal experience, that led to a “day the changed the world.” And then we spent an hour writing about our “day that changed the world.”

The varied experiences of our writing group made me curious about how other people define the “day that changed the world. So here’s a question for you, the reader of this blog: What was your “day that changed the world”? Was it 9/11, or Pearl Harbor Day, or JFK’s assassination, or MLK’s assassination — or something else? What happened on that day — both the world events, and your own personal events?