I believe strongly that empathy is the key to writing fiction. Authors must be able to imagine the lives of other people, to stand in their shoes, to see the world as they see it, to feel what they feel, and then put those experiences on the page so that the reader will experience them too. This fundamental belief informs my teaching, and so I was dismayed at my student's murder and mayhem during my first semester teaching creative writing. In one story there was even a room full of dead children.
If I wanted them to understand the importance of empathy and to stop seeing people as plot problems that could be solved with murder, then I needed something radical. The next semester I added a new rule to the syllabus and on the first day of class told them they could write what ever they wanted, in any genre, with one caveat: they couldn't kill anyone. Here's what happened.
They revolted. They were aghast. The looks on their faces: the shock, the horror, the anger! How can you even tell a story without a couple of killings? It's impossible! Of course, they tried to negotiate with me, find a loophole somewhere. What if a person is just put into a coma? Can we kill animals? What if it's implied the person might have died, but it's left ambiguous? What if the person dies moments before the story starts?
I didn't anticipate this response, but I should have. Rather than appreciate educational objectives, students turn every rule into a game to see how they can subvert the system. They test boundaries. I did it too.
So I explained my rationale and then added that they were welcome to write about death--and they should. After all, death is a part of life. But I didn't want to see any on-screen killing. Everyone who was alive at the beginning of their story needed to be alive at the end of the story.
Overall, the results were positive. About half of the class wrote stories about death every semester--a dying parent, a child who died in infancy, friends who died in a car accident--but these deaths happened off screen, before the story began. Gone were the gruesome, fetishized images of dripping blood and mangled flesh. The stories were centered on the lives of children, parents, and friends left behind, struggling through complex emotions like survivor's guilt, resentment, anger, self-blame, and acceptance. My students did a great job empathizing with their characters and imagining their lives.
There was one drawback. The no killing rule led to a lack of buy-in from a few students, always male. Students in an creative, artistic class sometimes have an expectation that they will have complete freedom. Any restriction stifles their artistic vision and denies self-expression. At least that's what they claim. Really, they're bloodthirsty little monsters. Did I mention the naysayers were all male?
It takes time, but these frustrated men come around. Semesters are short--life is long. They realize this eventually. I'll continue to use the no killing rule in the future and I encourage other fiction teachers to do the same.
-- May 2014