Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Imagining the Other

The following piece was sent to me by Steve Heller; I hope everyone in the class will read it.

The weekend of April 20–22 marked the second annual Weekend Residency for graduates of Antioch University L.A.'s MFA in Creative Writing Program, which I chair. After acknowledging this event was both a reunion and a celebration, I asked everyone in attendance to take note of the main reason why we had gathered. What happened in the writing workshops and seminars that weekend mattered, I claimed. What happened after the residency was over and we each returned to our homes and put pen to paper or tapped a keyboard in front of a shimmering computer screen also mattered. Then I took a few minutes to illustrate why.

The day after the Virginia Tech tragedy, I received an email from a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education who said he was working on a story about the shootings. He informed me that a one-act play written by the shooter, Seung Cho (identified elsewhere as Seung-Hui Cho or Cho Seung-Hui), had become public. He provided a link to the play, and invited me to read it and respond to a series of questions, including these:

Is the writing particularly disturbing?
Or is it the sort of thing you've read before from undergraduates?
What would you do if a student handed in a piece of work like this?

I followed the link and read a short play by Seung Cho called Richard McBeef. The play is about a breakfast-time confrontation between a 13-year-old boy and his stepfather, whom the boy accuses of murdering his biological father in order to have his way with the boy's mother. The mother is also present for part of the action. The play includes a great deal of yelling, cursing, wild accusations, unlikely behavior (including some off-stage sex and a brief incident with a chainsaw), plus a considerable amount of violence—including, if I read the ending correctly, the death of the boy. All in just over seven pages.

I did not read a word of the play to our MFA alumni, but I did share my response to the questions listed above.

Is the writing particularly disturbing?

For me, yes, but only in the way that boredom is particularly disturbing, the way writing that demands rather than deserves our attention is disturbing.

Have I received this sort of work before?

At the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Antioch L.A., never, thank god. The fact that we are an internationally competitive program with a rigorous application review process has probably prevented this, at least so far. However, for 22 years I taught undergraduates at a large university in the Great Plains, which, for many of those years was pretty much open to all graduates of any high school in the same state. On rare occasions I did in fact receive writing as violent and as badly written as this. And, truth be told, I received clumsy, violent writing from female as well as male students, though not as often.

What would I do if a student handed in a piece of work like this?

I doubt I could do anything that would prevent a deeply disturbed person from performing some horrific act, though of course if I feared this would happen I would try. But in my role as a teacher, the first thing I would do would be to talk with this person about the concept of aesthetic distance, specifically what literary critic Wayne Booth calls emotional distance—in particular the emotional distances between the author and the characters, the author and the action. What makes Richard McBeef disturbing is the same factor that makes it badly written: a complete lack of distance between the implied author (the person we assume the author is) and the emotions, particularly rage, felt by the characters. The script lacks the aesthetic distance that results from contemplation, from separating oneself and one's experience from the experience rendered on the page, from separating self from other, from imagining the other, from imagining how events appear to another person and are experienced by that same person—the aesthetic distance through which a writer perceives and thereby values the experience of others.

At Antioch there is no preferred way to write or think. And the writers who teach here have different views on the nature and definition of creative writing. But for me, creative writing is the opposite of self-expression. Creative writing is the expression of otherness, the relationship between self and other, the writer and the world, the writer and experience, the writer's view of things outside—and in interaction with—the self. Without imagining the other, the writer's craft and vision cannot grow.

What Seung Cho wrote was self-expression. What he did on that awful day at Virginia Tech, all of it, was self-expression, a failure of the imagination.

In the end, the writer's rage left the page and became a national tragedy. The events in Blacksburg have left almost everyone feeling vulnerable and helpless, as if nothing we say or do about the issue really matters. But this is not true. What happens in the classroom, in the home, and on the street does matter. What people say and what they write matters. Interaction with others—face-to-face and on the page—matters. The act of imagining others, and thereby understanding them better, doesn't merely express and engage—it staves off madness. It can save lives.

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