Cho Writings Highlight a Writing Class Quandary
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Like college counselors, creative writing instructors are grappling with the case of Seung-hui Cho, whose work so disturbed students and teachers. Now writers tackle disturbing subjects all the time. The issue is how do you tell the difference between troubling subject matter and a troubled individual? Here's NPR's Margot Adler.
MARGOT ADLER: For Nancy Aronie, who has led the Chilmark writers' workshop in Chilmark, Massachusetts for 18 years, the difference is clear.
Ms. NANCY ARONIE (Leader, Chilmark Writing Workshop): We have lots of writers out there who write really scary stuff, and they're not violent people. You really have to trust your intuition. And if you meet with somebody and they're solid and they're laughing and they have friends and they say no, I really have always wanted to write this stuff, and it was fun to just go to the edge, I think in a conversation and a couple of meetings you could tell if the person was disturbed or if they wrote disturbing stuff. There's a difference.
ADLER: But she remembers teaching a class in San Diego long ago, where a brilliant student made crazy comments and scared other students, and she did nothing.
Ms. ARONIE: He did up by - taking a rifle, scaring the school.
ADLER: She thought, he's just a frightened kid who needs a little love. I've grown up since then, she says. Luckily, the incident ended peacefully.
Ms. ARONIE: What would I do now? I would definitely go to the school psychiatrist/psychologist and ask for help.
ADLER: The line isn't always so simple. Most writing teachers in colleges say they teach the craft of writing, the art, and not simply self-expression. But David Fenza, the executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, says if you write about our culture, you will invariably come across violent topics and subject matter. What's more, he says:
Mr. DAVID FENZA (Executive Director, Association of Writers and Writing Programs): Writers often adopt masks, and they write in the voice of somebody who may be very disturbed, just like actors adopt the persona of a deranged person, like Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver."
Professor BRET ANTHONY JOHNSTON (Director, Creative Writing Program, Harvard University): Writing comes down to empathy and conflict. Those are the two cornerstones of the writing life.
ADLER: Bret Anthony Johnston directs the creative writing program at Harvard University.
Prof. JOHNSTON: We're trying to see the world through someone else's eyes, and very often the most revealing moment is going to be some kind of moment of violence, whether it's emotional or physical or spiritual violence. To see these characters suffer on the page is what makes us feel closer to them.
ADLER: But Johnston tells his students that while the subject matter is up to them, there are things that will draw him to pay special attention.
Prof. JOHNSTON: I will consider it a cry for help if your stories end with some kind of suicide.
ADLER: Or, he says, if your character's level of violence is totally out of proportion to the character you have created. The trick, say many teachers, is creating a safe place for the imagination while distinguishing between a disturbing piece of art and a scream for help. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
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