Friday, April 20, 2007

Context is everything

A well-balanced look at how creative writing teachers have to judge the stability of their students, based on their classwork. This was a tricky tightrope to walk across even before the Virginia Tech shootings:
"Traditionally, [instructors] have thought of themselves as nurturing academic or creative faculties. They don't think of themselves as counselor or being warning systems for spotting mental health problems," says Rob Jones, senior vice president and general counsel for claims management and risk research for United Educators, an insurance company for more than 1,000 educational institutions. "We'd like them to think of whether they could be gatekeepers for identifying students at risk."

The company currently is making the rounds at colleges to present and discuss this training scenario: An English professor comes across the worrisome writing of a suicidal student. What should she do? The correct answer, according to Jones, is for the instructor to contact the student affairs office or campus counseling center. "You can't expect an English professor to make those kinds of determinations based on someone's writings," he says. "But they are the ones who have a window into someone's soul."
People seem to be fascinated by the line that separates fact and fiction. Anytime a writer stands up in front of a group of people, the same questions are always asked: "Is this based on your life?" "Who were the characters inspired by?" And so on and so forth. It's true that you reveal yourself through your work -- it's inevitable. Especially if you're really good -- the best writers always seem to have pet themes, obsessions that pop up everywhere. English teachers aren't therapists, no, nor are they necessarily qualified to make an informed call about someone's mental state.

But if I'd ever brought a piece to the workshop table that in any way resembled Cho Seung-Hui's, questions would be asked immediately. Which leads me to:
While writing instructors can't ignore alarming screeds, a better barometer may be to see if a student's behavior matches. "It's one thing when [a student] hands in a disturbing story, and he's friendly and nice," explains Tamas Dobozy, a visiting scholar who teaches a fiction writing workshop at NYU. "He's just trying to create a horrific story. Then you get a student who hands in normal work, but is strange. Is there a connection between the work and student? Sometimes yes and sometimes no."

Landau, creative writing director at NYU, adds that a lot of students deal with troubling topics in their writing, from date rape to incest to mental illness. "Students are often bringing their lives to class in the form of their work," she says. Teachers should worry, she says, when students also act troubled in the classroom. If a student seems dangerous, Landau immediately reports him or her to a dean. Otherwise, her first strategy is to call students into her office, ask if they need help, and remind them of counseling services.

At her new job, Richman tries to assess the level of horror at the outset. If students bring in disturbing work, she's much quicker to tell them, "I think you put this in for shock value. There's no literary merit." She adds: "I don't want to squelch anyone's creativity. But there's a tendency for young people to say, 'I'm going to be as gross and twisted as I can be.' [The goal] isn't just to push limits. There are skills to be learned."
Good point. Context is everything. Writers are thin-skinned by nature. Writing is personal expression and it's very, very important. Put something out in front of others and you get all parental and protective: This is my child, don't hurt my child. Lots of times you'll see the intent of a writer -- they're trying to show you how funny they are, or how smart they are, or how intense they can be -- without seeing work that actually relays those intents. Workshop anything and you'll definitely get the guy who's grandstanding, trying to shock people or outrage them, and nine times out of ten it's transparent posturing.

An authentic whiff of madness shouldn't necessarily be taboo, though. Great art is very often a daredevil highwire act -- pushing the envelope is the reason that most of us crack our knuckles and get down to it. But those 99.9% of us who understand that a dramatic device like an act of violence is meaningless if it has no context. You do structure a work around its most piercing moments, so that it makes sense in the world that you've created -- it has no real impact otherwise. You don't fill up pages with bile and cruelty and hatred and get away with it clean just because it's shocking. There's shocking in the sense that a well-timed and -structured plot bomb can have, and then there's just madness spewed out onto the page.

To be perfectly honest I'm still trying to sort all this out for myself. But I do think that the signs were there. The writing was quite literally on the wall. Yeah, it's easy to see all this in hindsight. But when you come up against something like real evil, you always know it, and more -- much, much more -- should have been done about it.

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