There’s an apocryphal anecdote from my undergraduate college that I’ve been thinking of a lot lately. I went to Oberlin College, and to me, at least, it was the embodiment of everything you hope your undergraduate experience will be–it’s small, it’s nerdy and geeky and very earnest about what it does, and it’s full of people who feel very passionately about, well, almost everything. It has a strong arts program, including a separate major just in creative writing (*waves*), and so there was a large minority of…oh, I’ll say “arty” students in the population.
Anyway, so a professor who shall remain unnamed supposedly once started off a meeting of the English and creative writing faculty with a request that “For fuck’s sake, could we please stop letting in crazy people?”
Since I’ve heard that story (and retold it numerous times, journalistic accuracy be damned), I’ve thought of it as something amusing, in that “telling embarrassing stories about your relatives” kind of way. I’ve had my own struggles with depression, and I’ve known enough fellow writers who carry around their own weird personal demons–yes, yes, the tortured-artist stereotype is just that, but there’s a comforting black humor to it (one of us! one of us!) that I think many writers find oddly accepting.
And then, the last week. I won’t patronize anyone by summing up the events at Virginia Tech; this early on, I’m afraid words fail me. In the discussion about Cho Seung-Hui, people keep mentioning his creepy, violent submissions to his creative writing classes as a warning sign–as something that should have gotten more attention than it did. And it probably should have. Nikki Giovanni was disturbed enough by him to ask him to leave her class, and Giovanni (she’s the extremely talented poet who also has a tattoo reading “THUG LIFE,” if you didn’t know) is not someone I would imagine as easily spooked.
But then again…who hasn’t written something truly regrettable out of anger, or frustration, or just a desire to shock? Everyone has stories about this. The student who brought in a short story that cribbed liberally from her roommate’s current, and very painful, break-up–the roommate, I should mention, who was also in the creative writing class. The guy who tried to start off his new poetry workshop with a bang with an unfortunate use of the phrase “meat curtains.” Hell, even I (who am typically the source of all things poetic genius) went through a particularly pissed-off phase in seventh grade where I got my frustrations out writing hideous, melodramatic stories of revenge on the bitchy eighth-graders in my P.E. class. Granted, I never showed them to another soul (unlike my stories of torrid nineteenth-century romance via Newsies, which thanks to a vengeful god are probably hiding in some florid corner of the internet), but…I can’t help but think, what will happen now to the good-but-weird kids, the ones who might end up someplace like Oberlin, now that the writers are the Trenchcoat Mafia of this new age?
Salon has an interesting article on this, Deadly Prose, should you feel like reading more. I’m not sure I have a pat summing-up of my thoughts. The line between bad writing and dangerous writing seems like the line between art and pornography–I know it when I see it. What troubles me now, I guess, is just how many people are looking, and how badly we all want a better answer than that.