What Does Virginia Mean to Writing in Schools?

The mass killing in Virginia this week is another stop on a too-long trail of violence in the last few decades. We always need to stop, mourn, and reflect after tragedies like this. I remember after Columbine video games and kids who dressed in black fell under a new kind of scrutiny. This time around it seems to be creative writing.

I would never advocate for not raising alarm if a particular student was writing troubling stories. But extreme reactions to what have turned out to be just stories, have happened in the past. The fired writing teacher and expelled student at an art school in San Francisco back in 2004 come to mind.

Now, I wonder how much the general population’s (mis)understanding of the writing process — and the creative process in general — will influence unnecessary red flags in light of the Virginia shooter’s creative writing. This story in a regional newspaper only underlines that question for me: “Great Falls schools watch for ‘red flags’ in creative writing“.

The Virginia Tech student is an extreme case, one where his behavior included stalking and extremely anti-social behavior. But 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.

I’m thinking out loud and online. I don’t have answers or specific ideas about what this whole thing means to creative writing in schools. I just know in tragic events of this scale, people have a tendency to react strongly, if not overreact. Maybe nothing adverse will arise. But I’ll be watching to see how this develops in the national arena.

Maud Newton has a few related links: Nikki Giovanni recalls Virgina Tech shooter

Comments 7

  1. Jessie Carty wrote:

    I have been thinking alot about this topic as well. I think any teacher or fellow student of creative writing can feel concern, but there is a line, and we hate those lines that don’t give us a clear answer.

    For me, I think what was done was as correct as possible because the person in question was not only writing inflammatory material but they were also behaving in an anti-social manner.

    In other words, I don’t think words alone can reveal who you are. I mean think of what some people would say about the script of say Pulp Fiction. Does that make the writer a killer?

    Good topic.

    Posted 18 Apr 2007 at 11:45 am
  2. Armand wrote:

    I agree with Jessie- what a thought provoking topic, Gordon. I also agree with Jessie that the real indicator of violence is a person’s actions. Although, in this case, there was little to go on.

    Almost any of us could sit down and right some god awful, sick, x-rated grindcore stuff. This stuff has been around, in one form or another, since the 70′s if not before. It wouldn’t make any of us a dangerous person. Young, middle class men (it seems to me), in particular, don’t have a very strong sense of the reality of violence and therefore like to play a version of the game ‘chicken’, trying to trump previous stories by being even bloodier, gorier, more sexist and more sadistic than their predecessors. That was me at age 16- fascinated with horror movies and pretty much unable to assign real world weight to death and physical suffering.

    In fact, a clearly remember being at a summer camp thingy at age 17 and some other boy told me this crazy horror story about a guy who could shoot monster slugs out of his eyeballs and how these slugs would go around raping and then killing people. This was two, harmless 17 year old boys talking.

    Also, I think that young writers also believe that sick / shock factor can make up for bad writing (guess what, in a commercial sense, it does- go see any of the recent bumper crop of poorly written Hollywood torture flicks).

    My guess, and a guess is all that it is, is that the shooter probably suffered from depression and maybe some kind of mild paranoia or other antisocial tendencies, and that was probably compounded by real world events- a lack of self esteem, a sense of failure, a etc. I’m convinced that you can’t see these things coming. Because, you know, for every random killer, there are 10,000 other young men with the exact same kind of depression and anti-social tendencies who will never hurt anyone in their lives. We’re used to seeing it, especially in high school- but I’ve seen my share of brooding figures in adult writing workshops too.

    IMHO, The only people who could have really done something about it might have been his parents or a close family member and that something would have been to guide him to real therapy at a younger age and that probably mind altering anti-depressants.

    It doesn’t help that our society views mind-altering anti-depressants with a hell of a lot of suspicion. As my wife, the social worker, often notes, we ( as a people) are willing to swallow all types of pills when the chemistry of our body is off, but are more likely to balk when we need pills because the chemicals in our mind are off. Each of us (self included) like to think we have more self control than we actually do.

    They could have kicked him out of the school, but you have no guarantee that he wouldn’t have gone off on a shooting rampage anyway (just not at that school).

    Got way off topic there (although thanks for giving me a chance to get this off my chest).


    Posted 18 Apr 2007 at 3:04 pm
  3. Pete wrote:

    For what it’s worth, we’re discussing the creative writing angle a bit over at Babies are Fireproof, too. You might be interested to take a look at that conversation.

    But I think you’re exactly right, Gordon. This kid’s writing was at most a symptom of his deeper problems, and what’s more, there were other, far more indicative symptoms in his actual behavior. So I see no particular reason why this should force fundamental change in the sanctum of workshop. Of course that doesn’t mean there won’t be misguided overreactions, because it is, after all, a lot easier to regulate creative writing courses than it is to address the other social, cultural and even legal factors this tragedy.

    It’s also important to remember here that his writing teachers went above and beyond in an effort to help him, and it didn’t prevent anything. I applaud their efforts–they were valiant–but I think the fact that they weren’t able to prevent this despite such efforts only highlights the potential futility of making this a creative writing problem with a creative writing solution. So one hopes that won’t happen.

    Posted 19 Apr 2007 at 9:56 am
  4. gordon wrote:

    Agree with all comments so far, thanks for the input, everyone.

    The VA shooter’s former instructors took an active involvement in trying to figure out whether his work was a sign of other problems.

    I think the writing/teaching community at large has had and will have no problems with proper judgment about the lines between creativity and social and mental problems. I just worry about people in the general community, school administration, and government.

    Maybe I’m just cynical. People tend to overreact in situations like this. It’s another unfortunate aspect of human psychology.

    Posted 19 Apr 2007 at 10:06 am
  5. LK wrote:

    This is really cranky and petty, but…as a former MFA-er, how the hell did this really crappy writer (who happened to turn out to be a psychotic killer) get to study with the likes of Nikki Giovanni and Lucinda Roy????

    Posted 19 Apr 2007 at 12:34 pm
  6. Sharon Adarlo wrote:

    Hey Gordon. I am a reporter with the Star Ledger and I am interested in writing a story on how the Virginia Tech tragedy may affect the teacing of creative writing in schools. Could you give me a call asap at 732.404.8081. Actually everybody else can give me a call with their insight as well.

    Posted 19 Apr 2007 at 6:21 pm
  7. Mita wrote:

    “This story on NPR” deals with the same issue.

    Posted 22 Apr 2007 at 10:46 am

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 2

  1. From Maud Newton: Blog on 19 Apr 2007 at 8:19 am

    [...] What does the Virginia Tech shooting mean to writing in schools? [...]

  2. From Bookninja » Blog Archive » Aftermath on 23 Apr 2007 at 9:55 am

    [...] An interesting question posed by a blog called “After the MFA“… What does the Virginia Tech massacre mean for writing in schools? It’s a good question and I suspect the answer will be darker than any of us like to think. The Virginia Tech student is an extreme case, one where his behavior included stalking and extremely anti-social behavior. But 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. [...]

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