Creative Writing and the Virginia Tech Massacre

Author: Arts and Letters

One of the more disturbing themes to emerge from the shootings last month at Virginia Tech was the potential connection between Seung-Hui Cho’s murderous state of mind and the violent writings he produced in creative-writing classes. Were his plays — two of which, Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone, are on the Web — a warning sign of what was to come? What are the responsibilities of creative-writing instructors when faced with troubled students? In the wake of the shootings, numerous writers and creative-writing professors have sounded off on blogs and in submissions to The Chronicle. We publish a sampling of their views here.

Edward Falco, Virginia Tech: There was violence in Cho’s writing — but there is a huge difference between writing about violence and behaving violently. We could not have known what he would do. We treated him like a fellow student, which is what he was. I believe the English department behaved responsibly in response to him. And please hear me when I say this: It was our responsibility, not yours. All you could have done was come to me, or some other administration or faculty member, with your concerns — and you would have been told that we were aware of Seung-Hui Cho, we were concerned about him, and we were doing what we believed was appropriate. Look, all our hearts are broken. There’s no need to add to the pain with guilt. (An e-mail message sent to 22 students in Falco’s playwriting class, which Cho took; quoted on

Stephen King, novelist: Certainly in this sensitized day and age, my own college writing — including a short story called "Cain Rose Up’’ and the novel RAGE — would have raised red flags, and I’m certain someone would have tabbed me as mentally ill because of them, even though I interacted in class, never took pictures of girls’ legs with my cellphone (in 1970, WHAT cellphones?), and never signed my work with a ?.

As a teacher, I had one student — I will call him George — who raised red flags galore in my own mind: stories about flaying women alive, dismemberment, and, the capper, "getting back at THEM.‘’ George was very quiet, and verbally inarticulate. It was only in his written work that he spewed these relentless scenes of gore and torture. His job was in the university bookstore, and when I inquired about him once, I was told he was a good worker, but "quiet.’’ I thought, "Whoa, if some kid is ever gonna blow, it’ll be this one.‘’ He never did. But that was in the days before a gun-totin’ serial killer could get top billing on the Nightly News and possibly the covers of national magazines.

For most creative people, the imagination serves as an excretory channel for violence: We visualize what we will never actually do. … Cho doesn’t strike me as in the least creative, however. Dude was crazy. Dude was, in the memorable phrasing of Nikki Giovanni, just "mean.’’ …

On the whole, I don’t think you can pick these guys out based on their work, unless you look for violence unenlivened by any real talent. (Entertainment Weekly’s

Tyler Dilts, California State University at Long Beach: The question we need to ask ourselves and each other is whether writing about issues and experiences that illuminate the darker parts of human experience is a worthwhile endeavor. I think if we are honest in our answers, we must say that it is. How can we suggest that we should limit our students’ freedom to write about the stuff of life, which we claim informs great literature?

If we’re not careful, this double standard between what we consider “real” writing and “student” writing runs the risk of not only curtailing creative expression, but, even more significantly, of isolating and censoring those writers who most need to express themselves. We are doing ourselves significant harm if we engage in the categorizing of student creative writing as appropriate and acceptable. We must admit that the writing that is of the most value to ourselves and to our culture is that which challenges our perceptions of comfort and complacency and shows the complexity of human experience. To engage with any real truth is almost always a difficult matter.

Many might suggest that a narrative that depicts an infant spitted and roasted is one of the most problematic and distressing stories imaginable. And they’d be right. A novel that does exactly that is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. That book has recently been greeted with dual honors of being selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club and winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Josh Corey, Cornell University: I was dismayed to learn that Cho was an English major, as though that somehow tarnished the discipline, further tugging on my perhaps overdeveloped sense of responsibility. One of The New York Times’s articles on the shootings today includes this sentence: “Carolyn D. Rude, chairwoman of the English department, said faculty members were proactive, even attending seminars on helping students in distress, a skill particularly applicable in an English department, where creative-writing teachers had intimate glimpses into their students’ troubles and temperaments.” This intersection of the academic discipline of creative writing with mental health and crisis prevention frankly takes me aback. In what sense has my scholarly and literary training prepared me for “helping students in distress”? If I am supposed to be a mental-health counselor for my students, give me the appropriate resources and training! It surely doesn’t hurt to attend “seminars on helping students in distress,” but is it really a creative-writing teacher’s job to counsel disturbed students and to search their work for evidence of pathology? And should we accept the culture’s further demand to view “creative writing” as thinly veiled narratives of the pathological, as opposed to the difficult art of possibility that it is? (Cahiers de Corey)

*Kerryn Goldsworthy, freelance writer and former academic:

  • (1) Classes in creative writing do, in fact, bring nutters out of the woodwork. There has been at least one person in every writing class I have ever taught who was either in need of, or already getting, professional help. Those are inevitably the students who are most resistant, recalcitrant, and disruptive.

(2) The handing up of profoundly disturbing work (I never got anything as bad as the Cho stuff, but I did have in one class a Vietnam vet and gun nut who either thought he was an ex-CIA assassin or really was one, and wrote about it endlessly) puts the teacher in a position where s/he has to take action of some kind.

(3) Such work has to be given a grade, and since disturbed work is inevitably bad writing, the grade is usually bad, which makes everything much worse.

(4) Lately the status of students as “clients” has radically changed the classroom dynamic. Students are coming to regard themselves as customers paying for a commodity. What many creative-writing students are paying for is validation, high marks, and doing exactly what they like in class. The bit from the Cho story that really froze my blood was the moment when one of his teachers asked him to do something or stop doing something in class, and he replied, “You can’t make me” — one of the few things anyone ever heard him say, apparently. (Larvatus Prodeo)

William O’Rourke, University of Notre Dame: Creative writing is unlike other courses universities offer. It isn’t just the writing, but the writer, who is judged. What I tell my undergraduates on the first day of class is that, counter to what they are often told, most people write badly on purpose. Because writing is revealing — of who they are. I ask for a writing sample that they have already written, because as soon as I read it, I will know something about them. In fact, quite a bit. Out in the world, away from the island culture of a university, a lot of people decide they don’t want to reveal themselves that way, and bad writing is often the mask they choose.

Most students, like Cho, want to reveal who they are. Yet it is difficult for a teacher to think a young person is a monster, but it wasn’t so much Cho’s writing that has been exposed that showed that, but his lack of contact, his absence of speech, his signing his name as a question mark, his aloneness.

It would have been difficult for Cho to make himself any clearer to one and all, but it is the nature of an institution of higher learning to think that the job of a university is to educate the young, make them better, improved.

The 32 people who died will haunt the consciences of all university teachers — perhaps, most of all, creative-writing professors. It is a hard blow for all of us to be taught in this terrible way just how serious what we do is.

Stephen Rachman, Michigan State University: Equipped with the knowledge that he committed mass murder, many have been convinced that the stories and plays Seung-Hui Cho wrote for creative-writing classes were indications of his deranged mental state, and had they been recognized for what they supposedly were — symptoms of a mass murderer about to explode — the tragedy might have been averted by some medical or police intervention. However popular this line of reasoning may be, it is, of course, false and misleading, reflecting an all too human wish to imagine some way of averting tragedy, rather than sound forensic principles.

There is one piece of Cho’s writing, however, that we should be obliged to read symptomatically: his suicide note that he sent to NBC. In that he explains, “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience,” and “You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today. But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.”

This has been interpreted as proof of his delusional state, and so it is. The paranoid accusation is undeniable. Indeed, if in paranoia the self often construes its own actions to be those of another, then we need only change the second person for first person in this to read it more for what it is — a paranoid confession. “I had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today. But I decided to spill your blood. I forced you into a corner and gave you only one option. The decision was mine. Now I have blood on my hands that will never wash off.” This language, not the language of his plays, is more reasonably a reflection of his state of mind closest to the acts committed. It is this text that we should be analyzing forensically.

Originally published by Chronicle Writer (in The Chronicle of Higher Education) at on May 11, 2007.