Kevin Haworth is not from Pittsburgh, but the city is happy to claim him as its own. Last week, Haworth, director of the MFA program at Carlow University, became one of 37 writers to win an individual creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The honor comes with $25,000.
“It’s just an extremely prestigious writing award; it’s one that people wait their whole careers for, so I feel very fortunate about that,” said Haworth.
A panel of 23 judges selected Haworth and other winners from among 1,763 applicants. According to the NEA: “Fellows are selected through an anonymous review process in which the sole criterion is artistic excellence; and the judging panel varies year to year and is always diverse with regard to geography, ethnicity, gender, age and life experience.”
The process was completely anonymous, said Haworth.
“You submit 20 pages and assemble a writing sample that you hope represents your best work, and that the judges respond to it.”
Initially, Haworth was reluctant to apply.
“I frankly had been a little intimidated to apply for something you have to imagine yourself capable of winning,” he said.
But during a panel given by the NEA at a writers’ conference two years ago, Haworth listened to representatives of the NEA describe the application process.
“The folks from the NEA demystified the process,’ he said. “I thought, hey, maybe I could do this.”
And he did.
Haworth compiled a 20-page writing sample, which included pieces from his most recent book, “Famous Drownings in Literary History” (2012), as well as newer writings that have yet to be published.
After winning, Haworth found his selection validating because the judges both enjoyed his compositional talents as well as subject choices.
“It’s a confidence builder, it tells me that I’m on the right path with my work,” he said. “The writing that I submitted is part of a body of work that I’ve been working on for the last few years. It has a lot to do with Jewish culture, with Israeli culture, with parenting. It’s just affirming that these are things that I am able to write about in a way that’s really compelling.”
Prior to receiving an NEA Fellowship, Haworth, the Jewish writer, was winner of the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Outstanding Debut Fiction and first runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. While he may not have imagined an NEA Fellowship then, Haworth’s penchant for writing began as a child.
“I wanted to be a writer since I was young, I was a very early reader,” he said. “I read comic books, mystery books, spy novels. I always liked imagining the stories in them. As I got older, I got interested in other literary topics. [Writing is] something that I’ve always wanted to do.”
He added that his mother taught English at a community college and that she was very supportive of his decision to become a writer.
Coupling her support with that of the NEA, Haworth is going to keep on writing. He said that the $25,000 prize will enable him to continue working on essays dedicated to parenting, literature and Israeli and Palestinian culture. It will also allow him to finish writing a book for University Press of Mississippi on Rutu Modan, a Tel Aviv-based graphic novelist.
And while he is not a Pittsburgh native, Haworth has made the city home. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and after stops in Israel, Arizona and Ohio, Haworth moved to Pittsburgh last summer to become director of Carlow’s M.F.A. program. When asked about Carlow, Haworth replied, “It’s a terrific program, a great school. I’m really enjoying it.”
And on writing, whether to an enrolled student or budding wordsmith, Haworth has advice to give: “Find a subject that is meaningful to you and practice, practice, practice.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.