When Creative Writing Provides a Clue

Va. Tech killer's assignments set off alarm bells -- and illustrate the quandary faced by many a professor.
April 18, 2007

Cho Seung-Hui, the senior Virginia Tech English major who apparently killed 32 people on campus Monday before turning the gun on himself , seems to have fancied himself a writer. Albeit one with grotesque tastes: AOL’s blog published two of his short plays Tuesday, one of which, “Mr. Brownstone,” features characters who fantasize about killing a teacher and "watch[ing] him bleed." The second, “Richard McBeef” discusses pedophilia and concludes with a stepfather killing a 13-year-old boy soon after the boy’s attempt to forcibly stuff a banana cereal bar down the stepfather’s throat.

The tenor of Cho’s writings apparently did not go unnoticed. Ian MacFarlane, a former classmate who provided the plays to AOL, told the publication that Cho’s plays were “like something out of a nightmare. The plays had really twisted, macabre violence that used weapons I wouldn't have even thought of.”

“[W]e students were talking to each other with serious worry about whether he could be a school shooter. I was even thinking of scenarios of what I would do in case he did come in with a gun, I was that freaked out about him,” McFarlane told AOL.

Nor did the creative writing faculty at Virginia Tech apparently fail to read between’s Cho’s typed lines. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Lucinda Roy, co-director of Virginia Tech’s creative writing program, had warned university police and officials about Cho. While Virginia Tech officials were sympathetic, the Post reported, they said there was little they could do in absence of a direct threat. "I don't want to be accusatory, or blaming other people," the Post reported Roy as saying. "I do just want to say, though, it's such a shame if people don't listen very carefully, and if the law constricts them so that they can't do what is best for the student."

The new developments raise uncomfortable questions for creative writing faculty everywhere who, by nature of the craft they teach, almost inevitably end up with periodic glimpses into the destructive – or, as is more often the case, self-destructive -- attitudes that their students may hold. How to walk the fine line, to encourage expression and, in one creative writing instructor's words, “grant” students the privilege of writing, well, fiction, while of course looking out for the student, and his or her peers’, best interests?

“This is just a grotesque and terrible tragedy, but it’s a liability in teaching the arts that students in arts programs don’t always have the same boundaries that many other people have in their personal lives and in their imagined lives,” says David Fenza, executive director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. “It’s not an uncommon occurrence to have someone who’s got a little bit of psychiatric trouble. Oftentimes, people that need to work something out for themselves gravitate toward the arts; they need a medium in which they can recognize and work out their own problems.”

“Most teachers don’t see it as their jobs to try to cure people with psychiatric problems,” Fenza continues. “But I’d say just about anyone who has been teaching for very long knows it’s very important to refer those students to someone who is a professional in that arena.” Referrals to the psychological health center on campus, Fenza says, are standard protocol in such a case.

“It has come up a number of times for me, as a fiction writer and a teacher of fiction workshops. It’s really tricky,” says Sharon Oard Warner, director of creative writing at the University of New Mexico. “You don’t know exactly whether there’s a basis in fact in what they’re writing about. But if they’re writing something that’s excessively violent, excessively sexual, excessively morbid, I usually do speak with them individually about it.” In a couple of cases over the years, she subsequently suggested counseling to students.

Warner points out however that violent writing can often be the mark of a novice writer seeking clean endings -- the violence a signal of lack of skill more so than a dangerous intent toward the self or others. In fact, she once wrote an article about her finding that about a third of beginning fiction students will kill off their main character at the end of the story, very often by suicide. "I thought, 'Good grief, what a violent group of students,'" Warner says. "They weren't really."

Beginning writing students, Warner says, typically need boundaries – and so she offers undergraduates a number of ground rules. Among them: “Don’t kill off more than one character per semester.” She justifies the limitations by telling students that they are writing for a captive audience of their peers, not just themselves, and that a young woman in the class, for instance, “may not want to read about a serial murderer who is hacking up a group of women.” Warner does note, however, that imposing such limitations can be tricky, recalling how a middle school teacher she knew received angry calls from parents charging censorship after telling students they couldn’t write about stabbings and murders anymore. That happened, Warner says, during the O.J. Simpson trial.

Which brings up another reality: “We live in such a violent culture,” Fenza says. “If you write about inner city life today, if you write about global politics today in a comprehensive or meaningful way, violence is going to enter into it.... How do you discern between a violent world as it’s portrayed realistically in a work of fiction or poetry for that matter and the expression of someone who may be imbalanced and gravitating toward a violent act?”

“It’s such a hard thing to do.”

Kate Gadbow, director of the creative writing program at the University of Montana, says that, for her, the answer lies in the distance students maintain between themselves and their subject matters. “In a writing classroom, we grant our students fiction. We don’t say, ‘Because they write about a sociopathic murder they have had these fantasies or that they are intending to do something like that themselves.'”

However, she says, if students can’t clearly delineate between their artistic work and their own lives in a workshop or classroom discussion, that’s cause to worry. “If you realize as a teacher that there isn’t any artistic distance, that they are not open to criticism, they’re not open to discussion, they’re not open to changing for artistic purposes, you realize you’ve touched a sensitive area,” Gadbow says.

“It is very difficult,” she adds. "What you're trying to create in a creative writing class is a safe place for imagination and for the playing out of fantasy as well as reality."

“Exploration of the human psyche is what we’re doing."


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