BOULDER, Colo. – Writing teachers are being tested themselves these days in trying to discern whether a student is another Stephen King, a Seung-Hui Cho, Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold.
"It's a subjective phenomenon, being able to identify the difference between art and pathology," Sidney Goldfarb, a University of Colorado professor told the Camera.
Goldfarb, who has taught creative writing for four decades, once assigned 21 students to write short stories. Two wrote of suicide; the other 19 murder.
Last month an Illinois high school student was arrested after writing an essay describing his dreams of shooting people and having sex with dead bodies.
Columbine gunmen Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris portrayed hit men in a video they made for a high school government and economics class. The English Department at Virginia Tech referred Cho to the school's counseling service because of his violent writing.
Jeffrey DeShell, chairman of the CU English department, said he couldn't recall a student in the creative-writing program ever being referred to counseling for homicidal writing or odd classroom behavior. Some students have been referred to mental-health professionals when their writing reveals that they could be suicidal.
"We live in a violent society," said Matt Burriesci, associate director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs of Fairfax, Va., which represents creative programs at 400 colleges and universities.
"There is a very thin line between monitoring someone with psychological problems and someone who is just writing about violence. Pick up a Stephen King novel or a John Grisham novel."
King, in an essay posted on EW.com, said after all the school violence his own college writing would have raised red flags, "For most creative people, the imagination serves as an excretory channel for violence. We visualize what we never actually do."
He added, "On the whole, I don't think you can pick these guys out based on their work, unless you look for violence unenlivened by any real talent."
DeShell said murder is a common way for novice writers to kill off their fictional characters. In one of Shakespeare's earlier plays, Titus Andronicus, nearly everyone dies. Students also may be trying to shock professors.
"A lot of students are trying their imaginations out," he said. "We should be a place that is somewhat safe for that."
Lorna Dee Cervantes, a faculty member who teaches poetry workshops, said teachers should not encourage students to write about violence.