Drawing a line between danger and creativity

The Baltimore Sun

At Goucher College in Towson, author Madison Smartt Bell has been teaching creative writing for nearly 20 years. That's a lot of short stories - which often are long on drama and depressing themes.

He once had a student who "got his jollies" by shocking the class with pornographic and violent writing. He was harmless, if annoying. More common are writers who reveal their own problems.

"When I get convincing suicide stories, I try to intervene," Bell said. "You want to go up to that person and say, 'What's up with this?'"

The massacre at Virginia Tech University this week perpetrated by a student whose violence-laden writing was viewed as a warning of his mental illness has raised alarms and anxiety for writing instructors elsewhere.

They have long had to make judgments about whether a student was pushing the creative boundaries with graphically violent prose or signaling a cry for help.

"It's difficult to know what is being imagined and what is autobiographical," said Stephen Dixon, a longtime creative-writing professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "Many want to write exciting stories to prompt exciting responses from other writers."

In the case of Cho Seung-Hui, reading between the lines wasn't necessary. The Virginia Tech senior's writings crossed the line with professors, who were alarmed enough to refer him repeatedly to university counseling services.

Students avoided classes with Cho, who was removed from one English course.

Violent plays

Before NBC News released Cho's "multimedia manifesto" tirade, two of Cho's plays, titled Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone, were posted on the Internet. Laced with profanity and perversion, they were violent but also juvenile in tone.

For writing professors, drawing the line between creative and dangerous fiction isn't easy given the artistic latitude allowed for the form. Suicide is a recurring theme in poetry. Mock horror remains a popular genre. Writers are encouraged to push the boundaries of their emotions and imaginations.

Students' writing, though, is often a slightly fictionalized account of their experiences and emotions.

More accomplished writers attempt to create truly imagined characters committing or contemplating truly imaginary acts. But all fiction writing, some instructors say, ultimately comes from a writer's experiences or perceptions.

Writing reflects the most basic of human emotions, and subject matter is important. President Bush, among others, said yesterday that the mass shootings in Virginia should be a reminder to be vigilant about abnormal behavior.

'I take warning'

"The minute anything violent or disturbing is projected in writing, I take warning," said Tristan Davies, who has taught creative writing for 15 years at Hopkins' writing seminars program. "If someone is writing about pain, distress and violence, they are thinking of pain, distress and violence."

In his experience, he said, students who have written stories with themes of depression were experiencing similar emotions. They also tended to keep writing stories with disturbing themes. In such cases, the students were advised to seek counseling. One student was hospitalized immediately after leaving his office, Davies said.

"If there's a silver lining from this tragedy, this reminds us that plays, poetry and fiction aren't beside the point. It shows human expression that can be dangerous," he said.

Creative writing seems to invite expressions of human nature's darker side. Under the blanket of fiction, writers feel more comfortable expressing emotions otherwise kept private.

'Frightening things'

"I've had students writing all kinds of frightening things, discouraging things," said David McAleavey, an English professor and director of creative writing at George Washington University in Washington.

"One of my students about 20 years ago went on to kill himself. He was working in a surrealist mode, very depressed, but he wrote with integrity and beauty. His work was no worse in subject matter than any other writing that's esteemed in high regard in literature.

'Not therapists'

"We're not therapists, and it's not our goal to make people feel normal and happy, but to help people express themselves as normally as they can."

McAleavey said he was asked over the winter about a student whose writing seemed alarming. McAleavey said that he consulted the dean's office and that the writer was referred to counseling at the school.

Counseling centers should be involved in such matters, but there's not much they can do if the student declines to cooperate, he said.

Colleen Webster, an English professor at Harford Community College, said she has referred students to school officials who have then guided the students toward off-campus psychological help.

"We have an introduction to creative writing class, and in that setting you have about 25 students looking around trying to figure out what to write," Webster said.

It is not a concern when students write horror stories, she said, "but if they consistently do it, and their demeanor is callous, then you are concerned."

Generally, Webster said, she pays more attention to advanced creative writers.

"Those students have more focus," she said. "You pay attention to writing that's not just violent, but if the student goes through different works that deal with depression with a threat to oneself."

Kathy Mangan, chair of the English Department at McDaniel College, said students often see creative writing as cathartic, expressing emotions about such things as relationship breakups and alcoholic parents.

During her 30 years of teaching at the Westminster school, she said, a "very, very small minority" of students have explored violent themes, although that has happened more during the past decade or so. Most of those students were male.

"Last fall in my fiction-writing class, there was one point where I had to say, 'No more scenes about serial killers, rapists and disembowelments,'" Mangan said.

Though she has never encouraged a student to seek counseling for such writings, Mangan said, the writings of one student disturbed her.

Just after the Columbine High School shooting eight years ago today in Colorado, the perpetrators of which also had composed violent fiction, Mangan's student wrote about Mangan sitting in a tree and killing students with a rifle. It ended with his naming a classmate as the final victim in the tale.

"I said to him, 'Do you know why that was so disturbing?' But it didn't seem to bother him," she said. "And the girl he mentioned in the story was laughing at it."

Years after the author of the story had left school, Mangan said, he e-mailed her an apology saying, "Thank you for paying attention.'"

New York author and creative-writing teacher Erika Dreifus edits the online newsletter The Practicing Writer. In a posting Wednesday, Dreifus recalled once alerting a writing program supervisor after reading what she considered disturbing elements in a student's writing.

The student was furious with her, but Dreifus said she was not sorry that she reported him.

Attention-getting public events can inspire creative works, and the Virginia Tech shootings might be no exception.

"In the next few weeks," said Hopkins' Dixon, "a lot of students might be writing about what went on in Virginia."

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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