Something From Everything  

The benefits of public acknowledgement

Writing off AI's creations

The ad stares up at me, accusingly.

I don’t remember pulling the phone out of my pocket, or clicking on the app. But I know what I was doing the moment before. I had just stepped away from the desk, away from the computer and away from (yet another) half-written, half-baked, soon to be abandoned post.

Writer’s block had reared its hideous head. It looked less like a blank screen and more like a thousand false starts. Like a loss of conviction.

I turned toward my favourite distraction, an online marketplace, mindlessly mining the dopamine-rich combination of shopping and unpredictable rewards, avoiding advertisements which seemed to occupy more and more of my screen.

But this ad was effective, stopping my thumb mid-swipe:

“Hate writing blog posts?” it asked.

No!... I just...it’s just... it’s been a while”. The defensive response in my mind trailed off.

I read on.

The advertisement was for automated blog posts, generated by artificial intelligence. If I wish, an exchange could be arranged. I part with some money, some key words, general direction and desired tone, and the AI chat bot will make a post that is intelligible, the exact length I desire and even laden with my favourite phrases.

If the program is intelligent enough, and I give it enough raw data to work with, it may even sound... just like me.

Anxiety over content creation could be a thing of the past. No more half-written posts, no more writer’s block. Pure productivity. Or so the advertisers promised my soul.

There is truth to that promise of productivity. The number of AI-created, or assisted, projects in this world are increasing drastically and set to explode exponentially.

You are no doubt familiar with the widespread breakthroughs of artificial intelligence programs in recent months. Images created on programs such as DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion are widely shared on Discord, Facebook and Instagram.

Open AI chat programs, such as Chat GPT and Bard AI, are answering questions and completing requested tasks in natural sounding language. Already these most complex AI programs are remarkably accessible, but soon they will be even more so, integrated fully into the world’s largest search engines.

There is a lot of discussion, sound reasoning and wild conjecture about the near future that is being shaped by AI right now. But one thing is undeniably true—the toothpaste is well and truly out of the tube. We’re not going back. We can’t.

In addition to the widespread AI-created images on social media, AI art is being used in film, architecture, and fashion. As I’m writing this, Chat GPT is credited as co-author to more than 200 books listed on Kindle. AI narration is being promoted by Apple Books, set to create instant audiobook equivalents for each written work uploaded.

Soon, it will be impossible for high school teachers and university professors alike to discern what papers are written “the old fashioned way” rather than AI-assisted (or even wholly composed).

This is perhaps where AI programs are poised to be most utilized, those banal and everyday projects we'd rather not labour at. The program that transcribes workplace meetings and then turns that transcription into meeting minutes and lists actionable items. The school essay on the merits and drawbacks of such and such. An AI-narrated audiobook in a distinct vocal tone rather than hours spent in front of a microphone. Even an easily compiled blog post, for when you hate writing blog posts.

But do I? Do I hate the reality of writers’ block? The hours spent trying to write something meaningful without success? Deleting pages of previous written material when you come to the unsettling conclusion that it’s just not good enough? Yeah, I hate that.

Does the student hate the hours researching and note-taking, the hard work of understanding themes and synthesizing data? I know I have.

Does the author hate all the hours spent reading aloud material they’ve already picked over and edited a hundred times, only to find a new turn of phrase that sounds forced or awkward? I’m certain they must.

But I’m not ready to automate these tasks, either.

It’s important to note I’m not a technophobe. I am writing this post on a computer after all, not typing on a typewriter or scribbling the letter forms by hand. And I appreciate that if I wanted to record by dictation and transcription, it would make me no less an author.

Advances in technology and automation always disrupts, always displaces and also creates new, unforeseen possibilities. I can hardly imagine how many brilliant creations will come forth from people who have never felt talented enough to write a song, paint a picture or craft a story.

I am as entertained as anyone at the bizarre and beautiful visual creations being created and shared. I am both fascinated and unnerved by how human sounding AI created essays can be. Along with the (very real) fear of job losses and downsizing, is a potential increase in workplace productivity I don’t think even the most forward-thinking of us can adequately get our head around.

If these tools are enabling and amplifying the work we want to do, then we should all raise a glass in celebration. The world needs more imagination, more stories, more art. But if these tools are used primarily for outsourcing and automating our lives, we should consider what the true personal cost might be.

As Henry David Thoreau so accurately perceived, “the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run”. The “long run” is the caveat here. The immediate exchange is incredibly appealing—decreased effort for increased efficiency and productivity. The longer exchange is much more hidden.

There is so much life buried in the mundane, monotonous or (even) despised elements of our work and play. Consider the way that seemingly unrelated and independent pieces of information can give way to larger themes when studying. When listening to recorded audio, we can hear the difference between words that are merely read aloud, and the almost tangible sense that the orator is creating and safeguarding a sacred, shared space for the listener. Our greatest artists’ illustrations always reveal something of themselves, not only the scene they are trying to produce.

What’s being undervalued in these discussions is process. An outsourced, automated, quicker process may be the aim of companies and their advertisers, but the individual may want to consider the value of process.

I know that each time I sit down to create a thing, it never reveals itself all at once. I don’t know how an AI program would help me with this, as much as it irritates and perplexes me. I know the way a good question stays with me, gnaws at my awareness. Like I’m trying to complete a second hand jigsaw puzzle that I’m not even sure I have all the pieces to.

But I also know that frustration and curiosity are strange bedfellows, and I pay more attention when I can feel that I’m missing something. I also know the pure joy of discovery, that moment of clarity when you uncover what has been hiding in plain sight the whole time.

So, no. I appreciate the offer, but I won’t be outsourcing even the most infuriating aspects of my writing, or my life.

I recognize I could have created hundreds of generated essays in the span of writing this one. I don’t doubt that those essays would have been entirely readable, maybe even humorous, intelligent and wise or that my productivity could be so much greater.

But it wouldn’t be worth the cost. Not in the long run.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

It can be a lot of things

We loaded the family into the car on the coldest night in nearly a year.

Despite having started the engine prior, we slid onto still frozen leather seats, listened to the car hinges creak in objection as we closed the doors, and shivered in place as we watched our breath form and then dissipate before us.

Considering the cold, there were remarkably few objections from the back seat. This was one of our favourite Christmas pleasures, even if it was a simple one: the annual hunt for the best and brightest lighting displays in our city.

We started the holiday playlist as the car began to lurch forward, wheels crunching into the squeaking packed snow beneath. Soon we would be singing along to “You’re a Mean One Mister Grinch”, arguing whether “Last Christmas” was so bad it was good (or just plain bad), and musing over how the most popular version of “Sleigh Ride” could be both tacky, and a classic.

We ignored the price of gas as our hunt took us from one end of the city to the other. We turned indiscriminately down promising looking side streets, where luminescent bulbs beckoned us closer. We marveled at lights wound tightly around branches of towering maple trees. We admired restrained displays of outlined awnings, windows and door frames.

And then we observed the spectacle.

We drove wide eyed past whole communities illuminated in blinding lights. Past icicles that fell in cascades, past houses bathed eerily in a crimson red glow, past strobing lights spelling out Christmas greetings. Past inflatables and animatronics. Past snow capped and illuminated Nativity scenes, Santas, Frostys, Minions and one adventurous Grinch dangling from a line of lights strung up between two unified neighbours.

But all of the illumination of that neighbourhood, the pomp and the pageantry, was positively subdued compared to what came next. A single house dazzlingly lit with over 18,000 RGB pixels, casting Christmas music by FM radio to any and all passers by. Each new song was accompanied by coordinated lighting, scrolling lyrics, pixelated graphics displayed on the main living room window, and a snowman whose digital face mouthed each and every word.

We stared into this stranger’s front yard and windows for a long while, while upbeat, bass pounding songs about angels and stars and saviours and snowmen washed over us. To my kids, it seemed pure magic. And I sat there, marveling at the work, the cost and commitment, the extravagant production of it all.

It would have been a fitting end to the evening. But we had one more sight to experience.

We had all seen the Tree of Hope before, of course. A great glowing tree of nearly 50 meters is hard to miss, and easy to spot from any number of surrounding communities and side streets. It is easily my favourite holiday decoration in our city. A sight both grand, and restrained. Gigantic, yet simple in form. Over 25,000 LED bulbs, but all a simple white. Luminous, but also transparent. I have admired this landmark for as many winters as I have been in Kelowna, but until recently, I had never come right up to it.

You really should though. Things can look very different up close.

We were able to park just feet from the attraction, and stepped out of the car into the bristling cold. Our kids reluctantly posed between chattering teeth in front of the tree, and then immediately ran back to the warmth of the still running car, shortly followed by their mother. I stayed a while longer.

Up close, the ‘tree’ didn’t resemble a tree at all. Staring up into its latticed, crane-like centre column and surrounding metal rings, it looked much more like a construction project than a living thing. The countless strands of vertical lights quivered and knocked against their anchors in the winter wind, as if they were also shivering in the cold. There was no warmth from those lights, and despite their great number they seemed feeble in contrast to the endless black sky above them.

How strange that drawing close to something would reduce it. I turned towards the car, towards warmth, and towards home when something flickered in my periphery. It was another illuminated Christmas tree, this one lacking no radiance. This one seemingly alive, shimmering and dancing, shifting with my every step. It was an illusion, of course. The windows of the surrounding office buildings had reflected the original tree, but the oppressive darkness and imperfect reflections restored both its tree-like shape and glistening brilliance.

I returned to my family, to the heat of the car, and to the next shuffled song on our holiday playlist. But in the days that followed, I thought a lot about those shimmering trees. About how the same thing can both disappoint and surprise us. About how something can be both less and more than it appears.

Christmas is a complicated season. A season filled to the brim with story, meaning and expectations, but also filled with contrasts and contradictions that can be hard to get our heads around.

Christmas is sing-alongs in the car, but it’s also being annoyed by that same music in the mall. It’s thoughtful presents for those you love and cherish, and it’s fretting over bills and inflation. It’s loud, boisterous gatherings with friends and family and it’s craving a quiet moment alone. It’s dazzling displays, but during the darkest days of the year.

The tree is luminous, and it’s just a piece of construction. It’s pure magic, and it is simple illusion. All of these things can be true at the same time.

If this time of the year leaves you conflicted, both entranced and skeptical, both excited and exhausted, then there is nothing wrong with you. You are allowed to feel it all. Christmas can be all of that.

This season can be a lot of things. I hope that it is merry and bright for you.

But I don’t imagine for a moment it’s only one thing.


Thank you for reading! I wish you and yours a very merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Time alone does not heal all wounds—it takes work

The time it takes

The fall was entirely my fault.

It was July, and our decision to camp near Lake Chilliwack was centered around the surrounding mountains and extensive hiking options. The day’s excursion was to the top of nearby Elk Mountain. It was only 3.5 kilometres from the parking lot to the summit, but hidden in that very pedestrian sounding distance was a demanding 800 meter elevation gain.

At the start of the trailhead I selflessly offered to take the leash for our excited pup, and selfishly attached said leash to the waist strap of my hiking backpack. 60 pounds of furry, slobbering, whining, barely constrained excitement became my own personal beast of burden, continuously pulling me forward up the mountain, my arms once again free, hiking poles stabbing rhythmically beside me.

Even with the (considerable) assistance, I was panting and breathless by the time we reached the summit.

By the time we had refuelled and rehydrated, I was no longer breathless. But I was exhausted. The heat and elevation had spent me, leaving me weary even before beginning our return. We began our slow, cautious, thigh-burning descent, and the worst guide dog in existence remained foolishly tethered to my waist strap.

I hardly remember the fall. A ledge of no more than 3 feet appeared in front of me, and I turned suddenly to the left to side step it, at the exact moment that my beloved dog leapt over the ledge, pulling me unexpectedly forward and downward with such momentum that I fell hard on my right chest and was dragged along the ground for several feet.

For the longest moment there was only the panic of being unable to breathe. Bent over on all fours, head low, flirting with losing consciousness. My mind screamed at my body to take a breath, and also calmly reminded myself that it would be a few seconds until I would be able to do so. When I could finally breathe, I heard the gasping, agonizing cry as if it were coming from someone else.

Breath returning, I sat up and stared at my left hand. The pain to my chest was so all consuming, that I saw my disfigured digit before I felt it. My thumb had become tangled in the wrist strap of my hiking pole, and was now turned unnaturally sideways. I took a deep breath and returned it to (more or less) proper alignment. All while the adrenaline was still surging through my body. All before any member of my family had reached me.

It was a long, painful hour until we reached the car. Another hour until we had reached the hospital, and many hours before an emergency department physician wrapped my thumb in a splint and tensor and tell me I had fractured the distal tip of my thumb, but it was (more or less) in proper alignment.

What he did not say— what he did not see behind the swelling, high patient demand and short staffing was I had also severed my ulnar collateral ligament, requiring imminent surgical repair. It would be two whole weeks until this information was discovered at a follow up appointment.

I was squeezed into surgery the next day. The plastic surgeon reconnected my already receding tendon, and placed my hand in a (new) immobilization splint. After the two weeks in the initial splint, I would be in the second splint for six weeks. Then a month in the third, and the beginning of hand therapy.

I suddenly had the summer off. A difficult feat in most professions, nearly impossible in nursing. I would not be able to return to my regular work in the emergency department for another two months, until my ligament had the strength to handle the strain of regular work, and the stability to remain attached if my hand was unexpectedly grabbed, hit, or overextended during an emergency (all distinct possibilities).

I lost track of the number of times coworkers joked that I had fallen on purpose and made the calculated decision to throw myself down the cliffside for an extended vacation A thousand variations on “anything for a few days off, hey?”.

I admit, it was not horrible. My days were early morning walks before the rest of the house had awoken (with my partner holding the dog’s leash), extended afternoons reading in the backyard or on the beach, sitting out on the deck with my family playing cards and picking up my love from work in the sunny afternoons to explore each and every new microbrew that recently sprung up.

But neither was it ideal. I was frequently frustrated with my new limitations. Future camping trips were cancelled. Biking and swimming (two of our most frequent summer activities) were impossible, and pain was a constant for the first few months. Previously routine activities were unexpectedly difficult. I couldn’t grip socks with two hands, shirt buttons were nearly impossible, turning a pepper mill was a challenge. Each and every day I would discover a new mundane activity that was now challenging or impossible.

More than anything though, I began to wonder if my hand would ever return to its former state. Progress felt agonizingly slow. Exchanging one splint for another hardly felt like forward movement. It was two months before I was even allowed to move my thumb, and when I finally could, I spent hours flexing and extending it, watching as it moved unevenly by a meagre few degrees despite considerable pain and effort.

Every few weeks I checked in with my hand therapist and received a new regimen of exercises and stretches. Each time she inquired about my pain and daily activities, and would measure my grip strength and angles. Each time she was happy with my progress, but I always wanted more. I worried that my sensation felt abnormal, or that my thumb would become fatigued after only a few exercises, or that my flexibility or strength wasn’t where it should be.

My therapist, with decades in this particular, specialized field, with a wealth of knowledge and experience, placed a hand over my splint and held my gaze.

“It’s fine, Matt. Really. You’ve done what you can. It just takes time,”said the therapist.

I wonder how many of us need to hear those words.

I know we’re just talking about a thumb. My thumb, and my specific accident and surgery and recovery. But I can’t help but wonder, how many of us are staring at that thing that is wounded, that thing that is in recovery, willing it and wishing it to heal, to advance, even to return to what we enjoyed before.

Maybe it’s your own injury, maybe it’s a wound from the past that won't stay past. Maybe it’s a relationship, your community or even all of society. How many of us are impatient, frustrated at the seemingly glacial pace of progress—if we even believe that progress is occurring at all?

I’m not naive enough to think that time heals all wounds. Left untreated, time will only cause some untended wounds to fester. Had my tendon not been reattached properly, had I not been splinted,and resplinted (and reslpinted again) properly, had I not received and practiced helpful stretches and exercises, time would not have been kind to this wound. We (and others) have a considerable role in our healing.

But sometimes everything that can be done, has been done. You have done all you can, and all that remains is time and patience. The average recovery time for my injury and surgery is three to four months before grip strength returns, but up to a year before “full recovery”. I needed time and patience. Now, nearly five months after my injury I can see and feel the progress, but I still get impatient.

It will take the time it takes.

There is no established timeline for some recoveries, of course. But with certainty we can say that it will not come as quickly as we would like it to. We want to see our growth and healing and progress over minutes, hours and days, not months or years or lifetimes.

But it will take the time it takes.

It takes incredible courage to take the long view, to do all the work and exercises we know how to do and trust our wounds will continue to heal in their own time. We might not have the vision to see it ourselves. We might not have that level of trust in time.

But we do not wait alone. Perhaps someone can lend us their perspective, someone who has gone before us, who cares for our healing and wholeness.

When you need them, may you hear the words of someone much wiser, much more experienced than yourself. May they place their hand upon yours, and look you straight in the eye, and say: “It’s okay. Really. You’ve done what you can. It just takes time”.

And may they be right.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

The work ascribed to spirits: Untangling desires in the creative life

Creative writing struggles

“I just feel like if I stop pushing this boulder uphill for a second, it’s going to start rolling back downhill again. Maybe even run me over.”

There is a delicate balance to sharing with strangers on the Internet. This comment was entirely too honest for comfort.

The addressed group was an online writing community, and a good one. Some online creative groups are merely thinly veiled self-promotion machines. This group celebrated each other’s accomplishments, gave feedback (when invited to), and twice a week wrote together (separately) over video in silence—except for the occasional rustle of paper or laptop keys tapping in the background. Occasionally we aired our (uncomfortably honest) frustrations and disappointments with our creative endeavours, and the success (or lack thereof) we found in them.

“I just wrote a great piece for a local magazine”, the man who uttered the above comment continued. “For a few days, I had a big increase in traffic to my website, even a few signups to my newsletter. But a week later, those same traffic numbers were down, the lowest they’ve been in over a year”.

“I mean, does any of this have any momentum if I stop pushing, if I’m not constantly selling myself?”

There were a lot of murmurs of agreement. That one hit close to home.

It would be one thing if our entire collection of writers were simply novices, lacking the necessary experience, skill and discipline to create something worth reading. But this was a talented group, littered with notable accomplishments.

Many of them have written articles regularly picked up by well-known websites and print magazines. A few wrote novels distributed and produced by respected publishers. A handful were creators of top ranked podcasts. At least one quit their day job to pursue writing and creating full-time (and though they might be hungry or even malnourished, insisted they were not starving). Many received various awards that all said, in essence: “It’s good. Keep going”.

By many metrics, many of them were successful writers. But these “success” stories didn’t feel very successful at that particular moment.

A week later, another “successful” artist posted online about a recent windfall.

“I just hosted a book signing and meet-and-greet at the largest bookstore in downtown Vancouver, on a Saturday. My publisher was so excited. I was so excited I was there for four hours. I sold three books. What am I doing wrong?”

Even the greatest writers of our time don’t seem immune to this disappointment. In her seminal book on writing Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott reveals that after her first book was published, she disappointedly realized that “it seemed that I was not in fact going to be taking early retirement”.

She explains similar expectations for fame and fortune would be repeated and dashed with the publishing of many of her subsequent books.

That disappointment is hardly the sole possession of writers. Some form of “what am I doing wrong?” has likely been asked by every single person in all fields of creative work, especially after some encouraging success. We all look for the momentum to build. We all check our website traffic or total downloads too often. We all hope for that viral post, that golden opportunity, that windfall. We all prepare for the fanfare and fame. We all secretly dream of early retirement.

We all want to be successful artists, but with each new and fleeting success, our frustration and disillusionment grows. Maybe we’ve been measuring our success all wrong. Maybe we need a new vision for what the work even is.

One of my favourite written works, Poem of the Woodcarver (a Taoist tale, usually attributed to Chuang Zu) addresses the complex relationship between creativity and creation, pride and prosperity, work and wonder.

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand of precious wood.

When it was finished, all who saw it were astounded.

They said, it must be the work of spirits.

The prince of Lu said to the master carver:

“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: I am only a workman: I have no secret.

There is only this:

When I began to think about the work you commanded I guarded my spirit, did not expend it on trifles, that were not to the point.

I fasted in order to set my heart at rest.

After three days of fasting, I had forgotten gain or success.

After five days, I had forgotten praise or criticism.

After seven days, I had forgotten my body with all its limbs.

By this time all thought of your Highness and of the court had faded away.

All that might distract me from the work had vanished.

I was collected in the single thought of the bell stand.

Then I went to the forest to see the trees in their own natural state.

When the right tree appeared before my eyes the bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.

All I had to do was put forth my hand and begin.

If I had not met this particular tree, there would have been no bell stand at all.

What happened?

My own collected thought encountered the hidden potential in the wood;

From this live encounter came the work which you ascribe to the spirits.

The Poem of the Woodcarver does not fix or address any of the (legitimate) disappointments of my writing group, or my own. Understanding the concepts in this poem will not increase readership, will not procure book deals, will not increase website traffic or newsletter sign ups. It will not sell more books at book signings.

All of those concerns and hopes are understandable, but they are also secondary, illusionary or even distracting. The Poem of the Woodcarver is a tale of singular focus. That is what both infuriates and intrigues me. I want to know how to see the bell stand within the tree and be paid and praised for it! I want to write the work that is true and transcendent and increase my web traffic and downloads.

I want to write the novel, and get the publishing deal. These things are deeply entangled, but are not at all the same. The master carver needed to forget about success, esteem and even his own self for a time.

There is a reason he fasts and does not enter the forest for seven days. It takes a long time to let go of the wrong metrics.

Fortunately, the poem offers us some much better metrics as well, even if they are more exacting. It reminds us that there is some deep work of infinite value that has nothing to do with the summons of royalty or the court (success), nothing to do with praise or criticism (self worth) or even our own self (ego).

It reminds us that there are some works of art so sublime that they are both timely and timeless, natural and otherworldly.

If we have to choose only one singular focus, it’s clear that the work is ultimately its own reward, and that of incomparable value.

Just after Anne Lamott warns the reader of the pitfalls of publishing, she says “publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises”.

This is the work we get to be about. The live encounter at the intersection of our preparedness and life’s wild, hidden potential. A chance to reveal the staggering beauty hidden in plain sight. Something ascribed to the work of spirits.

Now that’s something worth striving for.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author


Matthew Rigby is a grateful husband to one, and father to three. He works as a registered nurse in emergency care, and has spent more than 15 years in healthcare. 

Matt, an avid reader and podcast enthusiast, is committed to great questions and honest discovery.

You can find his podcast "Something From Everything" wherever you listen, and find all his writing at www.somethingfromeverything.com.

You can contact Matthew at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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