truancy writing | kate davis jones

"the unsayable"

In 1967 writer Italo Calvino delivered a lecture called Cybernetics and Ghosts in which he raised many of the same questions writers are grappling with now. Can literature be automated? What qualities define literature? What purpose does it serve (not just to culture, but to individual readers)?

Certain aspects of writing can be automated and imitated by machines as we've all seen with the success of ChatGPT. Sentences can be broken down into patterns and stories into beats. Narrative becomes a modular puzzle, with familiar pieces that click together in intended and sometimes unexpected ways. Machine-produced text is generally understandable if not completely coherent.

Calvino says:

A thing cannot be known when the words and concepts used to say it and think it have not yet been used in that position, not yet arranged in that order, with that meaning. The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.


The unconscious is the ocean of the unsayable, of what has been expelled from the land of language, removed as a result of ancient prohibitions. The unconscious speaks--in dreams, in verbal slips, in sudden associations--with borrowed words, stolen symbols, linguistic contraband, until literature redeems these territories and annexes them to the language of the waking world.

I'm susceptible to the Jungian nature, it's how I was raised. The idea of literature as discovery disempowers ChatGPT and all its ilk. Machine-generated text is rearrangement of what already exists.

Calvino's annexing occurs in my own work. I know the broad strokes of the story, but the emotional core reveals itself within the writing. It's the same with collaborative writing, but the process is dicier; there's two of us excavating, likely with shovels of different sizes, but both digging. What's uncovered is sometimes shocking and disturbing and therapeutic in turn. The pivotal emotional beats in a story are often tied to something true and unique to the author's experience, but often the author resists sharing them. Often the author has written around them. Often they are hesitant to discuss these moments in depth at all, even in the context of the narrative. The ghost has to coax these beats to the forefront.

Collaborative writing is a series of controlled explosions. The systems I use with clients are attempts to organize something inherently disorderly. Idea becomes communication becomes expression becomes excavation becomes discovery becomes writing. Idea to communication can be automated - machine - but the rest cannot - ghost.

I don't have much opportunity to write about my work, since author privacy is key to collaboration. In the machine will be a casual space for me to discuss my work, my own projects, whatever I'm reading or chewing on, etc. Thanks for joining me!