After VaTech, violent creative writing raises concerns on campuses


After VaTech, violent creative writing raises concerns on campuses


By: Sean Moroney
Posted: 5/17/07

Other than being two of the most-read playwrights in history, Sophocles and Shakespeare share another common thread-a knack for writing gruesome but also unforgettable scenes.

Likewise, Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter who was a senior majoring in English, graphically described murder and violence in two plays he wrote for a class in the fall of his senior year.

One difference between the well-known playwrights and Cho, however, was that their words stayed on the stage and Cho's played out in real life.

Since the Virginia Tech massacre April 16, critics have questioned whether university administrators and professors could have taken further steps to prevent the shooting. Specifically, they have focused on Cho's two plays-"Mr. Brownstone" and "Richard McBeef," in which a 13-year-old threatens to kill his stepfather.

"There is that understood latitude in creative writing," Duke English Professor Deborah Pope wrote in an e-mail. "There has to be that room to reach deeply. Not least of all because some of the greatest writers we know have written about quite disturbing events and characters. Many of the Greek plays and Shakespeare, as just two examples, are full of gore."

In the English department at Duke, students can take a number of courses that either integrate creative writing into the curriculum or focus solely on it. Pope, who teaches creative writing, said she is not aware of an official policy on regulating a student's creative writing.

"I don't know how there could be," Pope said. "It must rest with a teacher's individual judgment."

Creative writing in college is a delicate issue because professors oftentimes encourage students to express themselves freely in their writing but at the same time must recognize when highly imaginative writing signals problems in the personal lives of the student.

"I read both of [Cho's] short plays. I was pretty horrified and disgusted because I hate violence," said senior and English major Stephen Lee. "I haven't written anything equally violent or disturbing."

Lee said he sometimes feels self-conscious about sharing his writing that is particularly grotesque due to fear of how other students might react. He added, however, that his creative writing professors have never censored a student's work just because it was violent or disturbing.

"At Duke, I have read some disturbing stories written by fellow students, but I've never felt remotely endangered because the author has always been able to explain and defend his or her creative choices," Lee wrote in an e-mail.

A senior in Cho's playwrighting class, Steven Davis, told The New York Times that after reading Cho's play "Richard McBeef" one night, he turned to his roommate and said, "This is the kind of guy who is going to walk into a classroom and start shooting people."

After noticing a pattern of odd behavior from Cho-which included taking pictures of women with his cell phone camera in a poetry class in his junior year and a taciturn personality, Lucinda Roy, chair of the English department and co-director of the creative writing program at Virginia Tech, began to tutor Cho privately.

Roy and other professors took further steps to ensure that counseling was sought for Cho, who was ordered to attend a psychiatric facility in late 2005. But their actions were not enough to prevent the shooting.

"Fortunately, I have never had to deal with writing that struck me as truly psychotic or sadistic," Pope said. "When I heard that the Virginia Tech's writing teacher, of all people, had raised red flags, my first reaction was, 'My god, it must have been something really, really, unsettling-it must have just been completely over the edge.'"

English major Melanie Garcia, Trinity '07, said the way she approaches writing is to write about things that mean a lot to her.

"By writing things down that are personal, I make them permanent-they become something outside of me," she said. "If it were a painful memory, it would not be as painful."


Original Source: <a href=> Duke Chronicle - May 17, 2007</a>


Sean Moroney


Duke Chronicle




Sara Hood


David Graham <>




Sean Moroney, “After VaTech, violent creative writing raises concerns on campuses,” The April 16 Archive, accessed May 23, 2024,