Refuge of the outcast?

May 18, 2007

The recent massacre at Virginia Tech has sparked some speculation that creative-writing courses may attract unhinged individuals. Matt Baker dismantles this notion

Of all the discussion points started by the Virginia Tech massacre, surely the strangest rattling round the web was the view that Cho Seung-hui, the mass murderer, had inspired a crisis in the humanities and liberal arts. Once it emerged that Seung-hui had majored in English and that his "grotesque" creative writing had so terrified his tutor that she referred him to counselling sessions, he came to represent something else in the blogosphere: the miserable failure of liberal arts to humanise the troubled souls who study them.

But is this viewpoint so peculiar? And could being a creative-writing student actually have contributed to Seung-hui's problems? Certainly it could be argued that the discipline encourages the expression of extreme human behaviour. And if creative-writing classes are not the perfect refuge for the outcast, where is? Even the writer Blake Morrison admitted as much in a national newspaper when he said: "If creative-writing programmes excluded students with personality disorders, they would all have to close down."

Jon Cook, director of the Centre for Creative and Performing Arts at the University of East Anglia, has spent 20 years supervising creative-writing students and is better placed than most to assess whether the liberal arts can do more harm than good. He gives short shrift to the notion that creative writing is an indulgent activity that allows disturbed minds to run riot. "I'm afraid that when these terrible events happen the media always rush to try to discover sub-plots, which become futile efforts of explanation," he says. "I don't think Seung-hui's actions have anything to do with his being on a creative-writing course. We're talking about someone who was clearly very disturbed, and this manifested itself in far more troubling ways. He was known to be stalking women, not just writing lurid fantasy.

"I also feel it is naive to just see writing as self-exploration. It's a tough discipline and ruthlessly controlled. It does not follow that writing about life on the edge makes you go out and live that way yourself. Look at Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho, for example. He employs a deliberate and calculated writing style to manifest the sickness of a culture, not his own psychosis."

A glance across the shelves of any university library will reveal mountains of disturbing writing. But writers such as Ellis, Thomas Pynchon and Chuck Palahniuk are far removed from their creations, Cook says.

"I can admire writing that has a shocking, visceral quality, such as Thomas Pynchon describing a nose job or the work of Ian McEwan or Kurt Vonnegut.

But these are not deeply disturbed people. They're sane, composed individuals. No one thinks Shakespeare was unhinged, and yet he's responsible for some of the most vividly disturbing literary imagery. Think of Gloucester having his eyes plucked out in King Lear , for example."

But if his argument is that the discipline, skill and craft required to write well means that creative writing is not a soft option for cranks or budding psychos, is Cook suggesting that fewer outsiders are attracted to creative writing nowadays? "I would agree that good writers are often outsiders, but we're living in a pretty moderate, calm and restrained period of literary culture," he admits. "A lot of the best writing explores extremes of human experience, but I rarely see this from my students. I can't remember the last time I read something that shocked me."

This does not mean that the odd brush with disturbing individuals no longer occurs, however, as one creative writing tutor testifies.

"I had a student come to a reading of mine once, and she began to harass and stalk me afterwards," explains Paul Magrs, a senior lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. "It was a bit frightening and it did make you realise how vulnerable you are. It started off as fan mail but then took a nasty turn. She was very mixed up and had this obsession with Roland Barthes' Death of the Author essay. Essentially her interpretation of this was that I should be killed. I stopped staying late at work, and it was a worrying time."

If episodes such as this are a reminder that creative writing classes are bound to - and rightly should - attract a diverse range of individuals, Magrs still maintains that you have to be outside the mainstream to be a good writer. "If you're slightly uncomfortable with the world for whatever reason, that tension provokes original thought," he says.

This view is supported by Andrew Biswell, winner of the Portico prize for his biography of Anthony Burgess and director of Manchester Met's writing school. "W. H. Auden said that 'happiness writes white', meaning it conveys blankness. He had the view that to be a poet you had to have a neurosis or some sort of tension. However, most writers live quite dull lives on the surface. It's a job.

"I'm very suspicious of this equation that mental illness equals creativity because generally it doesn't. We do see examples of conspicuous madness, but this is usually among amateurs who think that pretending to be crazy will help their writing. From my point of view, the writing process is a way of resolving all sorts of nasty tensions, and if it's done in the right way that can be a good thing and a way of humanising people," Biswell says.

Writing may have failed to help Seung-hui resolve his tensions, but it is undeniable that many troubled individuals have found stability and purpose through this process.

"Fiction is a good place to do the unspeakable," Magrs argues. "It's like a circus tent where you can have tigers running about if you want, once you've got the framework in place. Take that away and it's just chaos. Many people don't realise how much craft is required. People don't come into a class and cough up their guts on the page. The idea of an uninterrupted flow of genius is an adolescent concept, really. We try to teach discipline and craft, and that's what can neutralise the nasty tensions; the process makes it manageable."

Although both Magrs and Biswell argue that they should not be expected to take on the role of unpaid psychologists, they do agree that they have a duty of care and recognise that Seung-hui's tutor acted in good faith.

"The role of gatekeeping is important, as we have to be careful about who we let on to the course," Magrs says. "When you can't engage with candidates on a sensible level, you know there will be trouble ahead."

Both tutors see their subject as a virtuous discipline that frequently falls victim to a backlash of "repressive liberal paranoia" from its associations with dilettantes.

Yet while they are united in the belief that the writing process can be a humanising experience, the end product brings a different set of problems that can also test a writer's balance of mind, as Biswell reveals in the case of Burgess.

"He didn't like Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Clockwork Orange at all," he explains. "When the copycat crimes started after the film, he was saddened at what his work had done. You can't say the book would provoke these acts because the rich, experimental, language keeps getting in the way. But film is different."

Burgess managed the last laugh, however. In his stage version of the book, a man appears in the final scene looking uncannily like Kubrick. Entering the stage playing Singin' in the Rain on a trumpet, he's unceremoniously booted off stage by the other actors. "It was Burgess's way of saying 'this is mine'," Biswell says.

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