Creative Writing, Violence and Teachers

As pretty much everybody knows by now, the shooter responsible for the deaths at Virginia Tech this week was an English major, and wrote some pretty disturbing material; in fact, because of the violent content of his creative material, he was referred to counseling.

There was a discussion today, at the university where I work, about whether or not the school and instructors handled the problem of a student’s disturbing work appropriately. According to an AP article, the chairwoman of Virginia Tech’s English department said “Cho was referred to the counseling service, but she said she did not know when, or what the outcome was.”

A friend and co-worker of mine latched onto this; she said that it was certainly the chairwoman’s responsibility to know exactly what the outcome of the counseling was, whether Cho attended counseling sessions or didn’t show up, and whether the counselor believed him to be a danger to the people around him. My friend feels that this is one of many areas in which the school fell down on the job.

I have a really, really hard time with this opinion. When I was in high school, I was playing with words in a poem one day, and tried inserting lines of my own in between the lines of the child’s prayer that begins with “Now I lay me down to sleep.” It came out looking like a suicide poem, and, absentminded as I was, I left the notebook in which I’d written it in my psychology classroom. My teacher found it, sent it to the counselor, who called me into his office, called my mother at work, and made my life generally miserable for a couple of weeks. He didn’t believe that I wasn’t suicidal, that I was only playing with words and what I could make of them. I was angry then, but I understand now. He couldn’t take chances. Of course he couldn’t take chances.

But if I had been genuinely suicidal, and resisted his efforts to help, what could he have done? I was a minor, so he might have had a few options. But Cho wasn’t a minor. And with all of the disturbing violence in movies, books and music today, how is anybody supposed to know how serious somebody is? The last time I took a creative writing class, there was quite a bit of disturbing material, but mostly, the students were just blowing off steam through there words, and, in some cases, going for shock value. I don’t know if the instructor referred anybody to a counselor. Maybe she should have. How is one supposed to know?

I think that it’s easier, that it feels safer, to lay blame somewhere. If someone were to blame, then maybe, if we were super-vigilant, we could prevent violence like this from happening on our own doorsteps.

But we can’t, and laying blame is useless. Maybe we can learn from the tragedy, lessen the possibility that it might happen elsewhere, but finger-pointing gets us nowhere.

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6 Responses to “Creative Writing, Violence and Teachers”


  1. 1 Asher Heimermann April 18, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    I think the whole thing is sad.

    Asher Heimermann
    http://blog.asherheimermann.com

  2. 2 Elisa April 18, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    Having taken creative writing courses as well as leading a creative writing circle, I can tell you with certainty that everybody comes into these groups with the assumption of a “dramatic licence” for their work. In other words, people will write about all sorts of things – death, rape, violence, and it is always as far as I’ve seen, taken as a literary exercise. Always.

    Everyone assumes that you’re in a CREATIVE writing class, for god’s sake. Especially at university where everybody is an adult.
    I’ve never heard of anyone getting in trouble for their material, and I did read some risque stuff. It’s like acting, and look at all the violence on TV. The script writers for some of those shows should get their heads examined lol.

  3. 3 writerchick April 18, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    I agree – you simply can’t know what is in a person’s mind. And you cannot force help upon them. If any change is to take place, it must come from the person themselves. The man, clearly didn’t want help. Our loss, unfortunately.
    WC

  4. 4 prospectus April 24, 2007 at 5:49 am

    I think what some people are doing is having the famous 20/20 hindsight. I could walk into any bookshop and pick out probably up to 100 novels in 5 minutes dealing with serial killers, serial rapists, murder, child abuse, ritual sacrifice, or anything else. There is a reason why it’s called ‘fiction’. Characters don’t always share the views of their author.

    So should we put all these writers in secure hospitals? If it is done by an established horror writer, then we can say ‘oh, it’s just pure fiction. She’s a writer’. But if it’s written by somebody unpublished, what then? And there are a lot more unpublished writers than published ones.

    It was a tragedy. Could it have been prevented by watching the signs? Perhaps, but very likely not.

  5. 5 prospectus April 24, 2007 at 5:55 am

    PS – there’s quite a mundane, but important, point we have to bear in mind. The creative writing lecturer was a teacher of creative writing. Not a therapist or counsellor. Teachers teach – they don’t all have the training to deal with following up on therapy or counselling.

    These matters are also confidential, and for very good reasons. It isn’t the job of the chairwoman of the English department to find out what happened in a counselling session, any more than it would be her job to run into the yard and try to wrestle him to the ground when he was shooting.

  6. 6 pyrogyne April 25, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    prospectus,

    I agree, wholeheartedly. A teacher isn’t a counselor, and shouldn’t expected to play the role of one. I think we, as a society, point fingers at the teachers because it’s easier, and less frightening, than admitting that we have no control.


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