For Writers, A House Up Their Alley

A Penn cottage has put out the welcome mat for word-stringers. Kelly Writers House is part-coffeehouse, part-salon.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

You write a letter to Mom.

She raves about your talent.

So you go out into the world and ``throw up on your typewriter,'' as one newspaper editor who had endured young reporters put it. When you find out nobody loves you like your mother, you quit writing and go into real estate.


Too bad.

The Kelly Writers House might have saved you.

The house, which opened in a Gothic cottage at the University of Pennsylvania in September, is a place for writers -- both on-campus and off -- to try out their work in small groups or workshops or at open-mike nights.

It's a little like a coffeehouse, a bit like a salon. The furniture is yard-sale -- the coffee tables are for feet. Scores of worn books stand and lean along shelves in the Reading Room, a parlor where authors come to read.

Upstairs, chairs are pulled in a circle in one room; there are a couple of desks in another. Two computers sit in a third.

Standing on Locust Walk at 38th Street, the house is one of the oldest buildings on campus. It's also ``prime real estate,'' Penn Provost Stanley Chodorow said. Penn's chaplain had lived in the house, built in 1851, for 34 years until retiring in 1995.

``There were other groups that talked to me about it,'' Chodorow said of the cottage. ``For me, it was easy,'' he said of the final match. (He's a writer.)

``It was student-driven. Students who had fire in their belly. . . . It's exciting, that kind of energy.''

Not only that. They were undergraduates. Energy like that is rare, he said.

It was also easy for Shawn Walker. (She's a poet.) The 1996 graduate postponed study in England to be coordinator for house activities during its first year.

``When I was an undergraduate, the writing community was very dispersed,'' she said. ``It was very important to me to connect writers to each other.''

When Chodorow let them use the house, the students had only a vague idea of what to make of it, she said. For a year they planned, along with faculty and staff, slinging ideas across e-mail.

``We generated more messages a day than I've ever seen,'' said Penn English professor Al Filreis, who directs the house pro bono (and is also a writer). They were ``so thrilled to be making something from nothing. To this day, that's the feel of the place.''

Filreis said the next step is to find an endowment to provide a budget of $90,000 to $100,000 a year.

The professor believes the Kelly Writers House is a one-of-a-kind in the country, ``a space for writers in a university that is not affiliated with a department.''

For that reason, admission to the house doesn't hang on prerequisites or writing samples, and no grades are issued. You write, you show up.

All types of word-stringers are welcome -- from poets, story-makers and essayists to journalists and technical writers. Those who drop by are students, both undergrad and graduate, professors and staffers from Penn, as well as writers from the community.

``I want high school students to feel like they can come out and hang out,'' Filreis said.

Workshops, all free, are offered on poetry and playwriting and screenwriting. The house runs largely on volunteer steam, but those who conduct the workshops get a small honorarium.

People gather weekly for groups such as the Writers Circle, where they share and critique one another's work -- and march toward publication.

Published writers regularly do readings, giving the non-published a sense of what it takes.

On Feb. 15, writers read as WXPN (88.5 FM) broadcast, for the first time, ``Live at the Kelly Writers House'' from midnight to 1 a.m. Filreis wants to make the broadcast monthly.

A total of 180 events are scheduled during spring semester, he said.

Although the writers might be looking to get published, Penn officials want better citizens, as well as more marketable ones.

The university is ``about who we are and it's about culture,'' Chodorow said. ``The foundation of our civilization is writing. . . . Providing a cadre of people who are capable of saying or writing what we mean is critical.''

Of course, there is a practical side, Chodorow said. The word business is big.

Penn officials hope to hook up students at the house with alumni in publishing, clearing the way to freelance writing assignments, internships and jobs.

Last month, alumnus Paul K. Kelly gave $1.1 million to the university to renovate the house and rewire it for desktop publishing. The number of computers will grow from two to four to six, Walker said.

Kelly is president and CEO of Knox & Co., an investment-banking firm, in New York City and Westport, Conn. He graduated with a bachelor of arts in English in 1962, then earned his master's in business administration from Penn's Wharton School in 1964. He named the house for his parents, Rita P. Kelly of South Yarmouth, Mass., and the late Thomas J. Kelly Jr.

Paul Kelly talks about the practical side of the house, but he seems thrilled by the idea of it. He, too, is a writer.

``I keep trying the Great American Novel,'' Kelly said. ``I've sketched it a couple of times.''

But he's decided to go with nonfiction, a socioeconomic overview of ``what I think is going to happen worldwide . . . how does one deal with it.''

He's outlined the book several times.

Oh, yes. And he's sending his daughter to Penn next year.

She's a writer.

House hours are noon to 11 p.m. daily. A weekly schedule of events is on the Writers House Web site at The phone number is 215-746-POEM.