The recent shooting at Virginia Tech has sparked some debate about creative writing professors and the position they are in to judge a student’s mental state.
Writers tackle disturbing subject matter all the time. NPR asks how to you tell troubled subject matter and a troubled individual?
Richard Blair in the Louisville Courier Journal furthers that line of thinking, asking “if Edgar Allan Poe would have been sent for counseling by a university for some of the works he published, had he submitted them in a college creative writing class. What is the difference that makes a man like Poe a literary genius and Cho Seung-Hui a mass murderer?”
In Cho’s case, it seems obvious that his creative writing professors, poet Nikki Giovanni and novelist Lucinda Roy, were able to separate fact (in this case, troubled behavior) from fiction.
(Petty aside: Speaking as one of the many who suffered through an MFA program and all of its competitive fallout, how the hell did this clearly crappy writer get the opportunity to study with such stellars as Giovanni and Roy???)
From the few snippets I’ve seen of Cho’s writing, I would say the prose differs immensely from Poe’s in that the latter is lucid and empathic. And, from my admittedly safe and comfortably far vantage point, I venture to say that it seems those professors recognized Cho’s instability and rang as many alarms as they dared, short of robbing Cho of his basic civil liberties.
(Not-so-petty aside #2: Where are the parents and families in these cases? I am thinking also of the Columbine shooting. Clearly, all three of the young men involved in these shootings displayed bizarre and anti-social behavior. Yet, the parents just let their sons loose in the world, with apparently little oversight and guidance.)
Could Virginia Tech’s isolated case of literal psycho-babble lead to a kind of witch hunt with creative writing students? Gordon, in his impassioned After the MFA blog post on the subject, says: “…imagine what damage can happen to socially marginalized students — who pose no danger to themselves or others — when they feel like they will no longer be able to express themselves in the so-called safe environment of the writing workshop.”
Sadly (and cynically, I suppose), I think this all will blow over with the next Anna Nicole Smith paternity hearing or some other headline-grabbing story, with little lasting effect on creative writing programs. But, two issues interest me that I haven’t seen addressed as of yet:
1. Cho clearly could barely articulate verbally and had a severe identity problem. Yet, he was studying creative writing. Was he attempting, through writing, to work out his identity issues, or was he merely using writing as a stage for (or mirror of) his own grandiose ideals? Was he always interested in writing as child? Did he write in other genres other than screenwriting? (Screenwriting suggests to me that he may have been projecting himself into Hollywood fame, more indication of histrionic/grandiose thinking, or maybe he wasn’t effective in prose because he was so inarticulate.)
2. What is the role of creative writing and self-expression in a larger sense? If channeled effectively, can it prevent an individual from expressing hostility through violence? If so, maybe the question about Edgar Allan Poe isn’t so far-fetched. But, what happens if one isn’t talented in writing — do you have to be “talented” or “recognized” for writing to be therapeutic?
No clear answers, but many intriguing questions. Any thoughts, readers?
On a lighter note, Dickens as theme park? Sounds like fun, I must say. Just think of the literary possibilities for future amusements: Bronteland, where you can run across the misty moors looking for Heathcliff or Rochester, or Dorothy PARKer, for the utmost fun in insults?