The National Endowment for the Arts has a track record of identifying talented writers, including those who go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and other honors.
If that past is any indication, much more may be in store for two members of the University of Chicago’s Program in Creative Writing.
Ling Ma and Ben Hoffman recently received prestigious NEA Creative Writing Fellowships for prose, each attached with $25,000 in prize money. They were among the 36 writers chosen this year out of 1,700 applicants. Previous NEA fellows include best-selling authors Anthony Doerr, Jennifer Egan and Louise Erdrich.
Ma won the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction for her post-apocalyptic debut novel Severance. In 2014, the Chicago Tribune awarded Hoffman the 2014 Nelson Algren Award for his short story “This Will All Be Over Soon.”
An assistant professor of practice in the arts, Ma hopes the NEA fellowship will allow her more time to write. She is currently exploring shorter fiction for her next project.
“This fellowship will be an investment back into my work,” she said. “But it is also like performing a magic trick: How do I convert money into time?”
As an undergraduate English major at UChicago, Ma, AB’05, participated in workshops on poetry, fiction and performance arts, and also took many film courses. Her understanding of interdisciplinary creativity came to life in Severance, which permeates the familiar world with surreal and apocalyptic features. Kirkus Reviews called the book “smart, funny, humane and superbly well-written.”
Ma said she is ofen surprised and inspired by the outstanding work of UChicago students. Teaching them helps her examine elements of her craft more critically.
“When I dive into my students’ writing, it forces me to be more analytical,” Ma said. “When I’m out of touch with my work, I’m not as effective as a creative writing teacher. The trick is to balance being constantly in touch with my creative work and teaching students. It has to happen side by side.”
As a lecturer, Hoffman finds that working with UChicago students nurtures his own enthusiasm for literature: “After teaching, I’m more excited to return to writing my own work.”
Hoffman also acknowledged the sense of validation that came with the NEA fellowship. “I felt a burst of energy when I received it,” he said. “I want to justify why I received this NEA Fellowship, when so many wonderful writers have applied.”
Many of Hoffman’s stories have been published in such magazines as the American Short Fiction, Granta, The Missouri Review and Zoetrope. Currently, he is finishing a collection of his longer stories that have appeared in the literary journals and is beginning to write a novel. Set in 1979, the novel centers on the Three Mile Island nuclear accident near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Hoffman grew up.
—A version of this article was first published on the Division of the Humanities website.