I don’t remember when I first heard of Kelly Writers House, but it’s been on my radar for years. Today I finally paid a visit. What a great idea/spot/institution. The house–it’s literally one, though it has no full-time residents (it does have a bathtub, but I’m assured no one uses it)–is smack-dab in the middle of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, along Locust Walk, amid frat houses, across from Starbucks. First surprise: I opened the door and let myself in without running into a desk or any kind of administrative obstacle. I took a free KWH pen and some brochures and moseyed on into a library with some comfy chairs. Then I followed some voices to the kitchen where I found three young women sipping coffee and chatting. I introduced myself and they recruited a fourth to show me around. She–I think her name was Shayna–gave me a proper tour of the place. Basically the Writers House is what is sounds like: a house for writers. There are lots of rooms. Most have books in them. Some have computers. One room is a state-of-the-art recording studio. One is a classroom. There are a couple of offices, a bathroom or two, and a couple of patios with good shade. There are loads of chairs. I had assumed the house was owned and operated by UPenn, but actually they underwrite just 40%. The rest comes mainly from donations. And the writers who write there aren’t necessarily students. Apparently there are lots of regulars from the West Philly community. I was warmly invited to come work there whenever (I would and may, though I confess the urban parking situation is a bit of a deterrent). KWH hosts readings, open mic nights, seminars (e.g. “Careers in Journalism”) and other arts/culture events on a near-daily/eveningly basis. This evening is “War Stories: Veterans Writing About Iraq and Afghanistan.” Clubs also meet at KWH.
One of my aims for my sabbatical this year is to gather some ideas for our Learning Commons/Writing Center at Punahou. As I toured KWH, I couldn’t help but wonder if we couldn’t replicate something just like it at Punahou, maybe in Old School Hall. There are, of course, some obstacles: 1) Students at Punahou commute, so evenings may not work for events, 2) Sports and other activities often conflict with afternoon events, 3) High school students probably require more supervision than adults, 4) Oahu is small, so we have a limited pool to draw on in terms of readers, etc. (that said, there is a very vibrant artistic community–Hi, friends!). Still, there are some things about KWH I’d like for us to try to imitate: the laid-backness; the tacit understanding that writing consists of more than just sitting quietly at a desk, i.e. that conversations and coffee and sleeping and getting distracted are all part of the process; the implicit conviction that writing and art in general are to be celebrated on a regular and ongoing basis; that the whole community is invited in, not just students.
After touring KWH, I met up with a former student of mine, Ryan Kortvelesy, who is studying electrical engineering at Penn. I’ve known Ryan since he was a freshman in high school. Now he’s a sophomore in college and as tall as me. We got some free pumpkin-flavored coffee at Saxby’s (they’re commemorating the first day of autumn and making some new patrons, like me), went for a walk around Penn’s campus and Penn Park (I think that’s what it’s called), and discussed robotics, swarming, C++, and running, among other things. It was great to catch up (Thanks, Ryan). I grew up in this fair city, and I’ve been to the campus before–I ran in the Penn Relays in high school, for instance–but I always thought of it as an urban campus. I didn’t realize until today that it’s its own sort of enclave, like Columbia but bigger and with more trees.
I also dropped by the Writing Center a block away. The director wasn’t in, but I plan to email her with some questions. Now I’m back at Saxby’s. I confess to accepting another free coffee, but I bought an $8.00 sandwich, so maybe I can be excused?
I’ve loved working on my new novel on a regular basis, but I also loved taking a day off to do this.