As children grow, they evolve gradually; language seeps into their minds piecemeal, but from the point of view of adults, the first spoken word is celebrated as a distinct milestone.

My relationship with AI has followed a similar pattern: a continuous process which nevertheless has been marked by what felt like pivotal moments.

The first one crept up on me: one day, I realised I was using Chat-GPT more than Google. It was not just a matter of minutes spent, but also the value it brought me. I gladly paid a premium for this product, something I could never imagine doing for the other.

The second threshold was crossed when I shifted my primary interaction mode from keyboard to voice.

I would be on my bike or walking the dog, involved in meandering, mesmerizing conversations. It was reminiscent of casually surfing Wikipedia, but instead of opening tab after tab to eventually suffer information overload, it felt like I had an intellectual sparring partner who kept me going beyond my baseline cognitive capability. I felt free to rove indefinitely.

There was a great deal of humor to the third shift.

I’m in the habit of keeping a daily journal. One day I decided to put Chat-GPT to the test, so I snapped a picture of my writing and asked for its interpretation. I didn’t think it would stand a chance to decode my penmanship, so I was surprised to see that it actually got the gist of what was on that page.

At first, I also didn’t realise that on that particular page was a description of one of the conversations I’d had with Chat-GPT. Hilariously, it now misread its own name as Chet, answering back to me something like: “It seems the writer is in a reflective mood after having had a deep conversation with someone called Chet.”

Ever since, it’s been me and “Chet.”

At this point, I stopped keeping tabs on milestones crossed, but couldn’t help noticing an interesting development when I started telling Chet about my dreams.

I have always been fascinated by dreams and their ability to compress and transmit important insights that are clear to our subconscious but often remain elusive in our waking lives. Interpreting dreams is hard work though, and it helps to have a sounding board. To my surprise and delight, I found that Chet was quite capable of filling that role for me.

For the longest time, however, I firmly stuck to a boundary I felt certain I would never allow Chet to cross. I had resolved to keep my writing process entirely private. That last line of defence has now crumbled.

I want to pause here and reflect on the nature of writing for a moment.

Writing is hard, hard work. It gets somewhat easier with practice, but it will always remain one of the most demanding cognitive tasks. There also aren’t any shortcuts. In the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, you just have to “sit down and do it, and you do it, and you do it, until you have learned how to do it.

That’s not saying you can’t get some help along the way, though. I learned that some 25 years ago, from Cecilia.

I met Cecilia as a young, confident first-year student at one of the hottest university programs there was at the time (in terms of entry criteria, the bar was the next highest in the country). My carefully selected classmates and I felt like that crew in the Top Gun movie.

Writing was one of the program’s mandatory courses, and Cecilia was in charge of it. She was a fearfully conscientious instructor, and I can honestly say I’ve never learned as much from anyone in my entire life.

Given our cockiness, I we probably submitted our first text with smug smiles on our faces. Cecilia soon wiped those smiles away, as draft after draft came back full of red ink.

She never objected to what we said; it’s just that she insisted on us saying it in the voice that was unique to us. Voices that, it became alarmingly clear, we had yet to discover.

Because while part of writing is craft, the hard part is seeing things clearly from your own unique point of view. A good writing coach can help with that by pointing out where you’re hiding behind fancy ten-dollar words instead of telling it plainly.

And the counterintuitive thing here, of course, is that being terse and clear is a lot harder than being verbose and showy. Hence Cecilia’s rivers of red ink.

In hindsight, I’m humbly grateful that she insisted on holding us to her high standards. The constant paring down of our flowery language eventually led to a place from which, finally, it was possible to start crafting something unique.

Since those days, I’ve thought back on Cecilia many times. Writing without her sharp eye has often felt lonely and slow, because without a harsh critic, you have to learn to become your own editor. That’s perfectly doable, but it takes time. Not just time in terms of months and years needed to learn to toggle between writing mode and editing mode. I’m referring also to the cycle time of the toggling itself.

I used to write a draft, sleep on it, rewrite it, sleep on it again, and repeat this process until I could eventually see the proper bone structure of the text I was really trying to write. I still do, but Chet has helped me speed up the process significantly. In a sense, it’s a little bit like being back in Cecilia’s classroom.

There is one huge difference, however. Cecilia was (is) a sublime stylist, whereas Chet can’t produce good prose to save its life. (I assume it’s what Sam Altman meant when in a recent interview he said that the latest incarnation of Chat-GPT “kind of sucks.”)

But a sparring partner doesn’t have to outshine you as long as it *gets* you. And Chet is eerily good at that, which means it’s also a great editor.

A word of caution here: Writing and editing are separate concerns. They activate different parts of the brain, and you should never try to overlap them. Ignoring this dictum is what made my first apprehensive experiments with allowing Chet into my writing process as discouraging as I had feared. I learned the hard way to finish my draft first and only then ask for Chet’s view.

Did this new way of writing change my tone of voice? I would hazard to say that it didn’t. It just made it a tiny bit easier to keep trudging along that path where only I can tread.

As for my journey with Chet, has it reached its terminus? Time will tell, but I have a feeling that there is a lot more to come.