Craft vs. art: De Haven teaches undergrads to write| December 19, 2008
Tom De Haven, the artist-in-residence at the College of William and Mary, is teaching the “craft” of writing in English-department workshops this year. “Artistry,” he knows, happens—or not.
“You can’t teach creativity, but I focus on craft and process,” he said. By understanding principles of narrative and storytelling, he is helping to make William and Mary authors more adept. He tells them, “Don’t call yourself an artist. Let other people call you an artist. Call yourself a writer.”
In the workshops, students submit content that is reviewed by both the professor and their peers. Together, they help each other evolve basic scenes into multilayered plots. De Haven often finds himself calling for more detail in their writing. Beginning writers, he observes, often “gallop through scenes” and “summarize” what needs to be “dramatized.”
There have been times in class where De Haven senses the emergence of artistry. “This semester I’ve been startled by a certain reversal where I think one of my student’s stories is going somewhere and it suddenly pulls the rug out from under me in a way that good literature can and makes me see something completely differently. … I would say that’s an ah-ha moment.”
De Haven arrived on campus in the glow of positive reaction to the publication of his latest work of fiction “It’s Superman.” That novel traces the development of Clark Kent through his formative years, a time of intense growing pains for the young man with extraordinary powers. Along the way, Kent rides the rails with an on-the-run would-be photographer, runs afoul of New York City political boss Lex Luther, who is creating an army of controllable robots, and becomes infatuated with the worldly young reporter Lois Lane, who will have nothing to do with him. Through it all, he assesses his own place in the universe, struggling in the end with the fact that while he is able to save many human beings from disasters there are many more whom he is unable to help.
“It’s an adventure novel and it does have science-fiction elements. It’s about a guy from another planet … ,” De Haven said. “I just assumed it was a serious novel … by someone who just liked this character and tried to write an adult novel about [him].