Writing in a community

Penn Current
March 26th, 2009

According to Kelly Writers House Director Jessica Lowenthal, the art of writing happens best in a community.

"People write well when they're writing in concert," Lowenthal says. "There's a sense that there's an immediate audience, but also a sense that there's feedback from people you trust before you put the work out there."

At Penn, writers can get this valuable feedback from Writers House-sponsored non-credit reading and writing groups—writing clubs that allow aspiring writers to hone their literary skills and receive constructive criticism. The self-run, self-organized groups span a wide array of genres and include novices as well as published writers.

One of the oldest and most active is the Penn and Pencil Club, a creative writing workshop for Penn and Penn Health Systems staff. The group has about 20 members and meets on the first Monday of each month.

Andrew McGhie, associate director of the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter, is a founding member of the club and has been a regular attendee for nearly a decade. "We felt there was a need for a writers group that catered to University staff members who, generally, are in a different age group from students," he says. "It is a forum to express ourselves and be constructively criticized, yet still remain friendly."

John Shea, the director of faculty and alumni publications at the UPHS and editor of Penn Medicine magazine, says Penn and Pencil Club participants have submitted poems, personal essays, children's stories, short stories, one-act plays and chapter books for review. He enjoys the diverse writing formats "because it takes you out of perhaps a narrower focus, and you can see other ways to do things."

Shea, also one of the group's cofounders, says many writers simply want people to read what they have written. Getting feedback is crucial because writers are often focused solely on what's directly in front of them. Outside opinions enable writers to approach a piece in a different way, further develop characters and clarify ideas.

"I think it's nice to have a group of other writers who are aware of the demands of writing and are there to try to help you finish the best piece you can," he says.

Another Writers House group, Jabberwocky, focuses on writing for children and meets monthly in the Lynch Building. Tracy Byford, the longtime manager of the James G. Kaskey Memorial Garden and the group's leader, says Jabberwocky offers writers a safe place to present their writing for the first time.

"I think everyone is leery of criticism, and the criticism, if you're a new writer, can really cut deep and make you feel that you're a poor writer," she says. "But this group is really good because everybody is a beginner. There are a few people who have published some things, and one person has self-published something, but most people are just trying to sort of feel their way."

There are around 50 Jabberwocky members, although not everyone attends every meeting. Some are Penn students or staff members, while others work for surrounding institutions such as the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

One member, a retired teacher, is working on a historical fiction piece about Oney Judge, one of Martha Washington's slaves. Another is writing books featuring her kids as characters. Others are working on picture books.

No matter what they're working on, though, Byford says some members find the feedback useful.

"I think what [our members] are finding is that a lot of people are closet writers and they're writing in a vacuum, and you can't write in a vacuum," she says. "You have to get feedback and criticism. Another writer is not going to be so shy and will say, 'This doesn't work.'"