Penn & Pencil Club welcomes aspiring writers of all skills

Open to all Penn employees, the Penn & Pencil Club is a gathering in which writers of all skill levels get together at informal monthly meetings on campus to read their work and hear thoughtful group critiques.

Penn & Pencil Club
At the June monthly meeting of the Penn & Pencil Club in Vance Hall, Holman Massey read aloud pages 63-82 from his book-in-progress. Club members (from left) Linda White, Susan Staggs, and Asia Burnett followed along. Photo by Jacquie Posey

Now in its 20th year, the Penn & Pencil Club has helped writers at the University and Health System become published poets and even book authors in their spare time, while keeping their day jobs.

Not to be confused with the Pen & Pencil Club, a popular gathering spot for members of the Philadelphia press, the University’s club is a workshop in which members get together at informal monthly meetings on campus to read their work and hear thoughtful group critiques.

A long-time member and published poet, Luellen Fletcher is the group’s chairperson. She has worked at the Perelman School of Medicine since 1999. She is one of about 18 active Penn & Pencil members.

“Some folks start up for a bit and then move on if they finish a project or move,” she says. “We have success stories.”

Writers in the group have some fascinating backstories.

There’s Holman Massey, a retired Veterinary School researcher, who, after a long career writing science articles, now writes science fiction.

There’s also John Shea, who joined the club shortly after its launch in 1997. He started working at Penn in the 1980s, and retired from his post as editor of Penn Medicine last year.

A collection of his “Tales from Webster’s” will be published in August by Livingston Press. He conceived the idea for the book 30 years ago when, as a Penn graduate student, he consulted Webster’s Dictionary to look up the word “monstrance.”

In the book’s introduction, Shea wrote that he was intrigued by the juxtaposition of monstrance with consecutive entries on the same page, “there so suggestively: monster, mons pubis, monsoon, Monsignor.…Pay dirt! I knew it at once. For did this not seem a story in miniature, a veritable tale of temptation and passion, involving characters clinging to organized religion while adrift in the chaos of emotion?”

Penn & Pencil Club
Holman Massey’s close-up sketch of an alien sci-fi character in his book. Photo by Jacquie Posey

Shea is one of two original Penn & Pencil Club members who are still involved with the group. The other, Wendy Washburn, is a published short story writer who had a passion for the horror genre until, ironically, she eventually found the genre horrific. After the birth of two daughters, she started writing children’s stories and young adult fiction.

Another longstanding writing club member, Linda White, is working on her debut novel “That’s The Prize,” about the early days of the Civil Rights Movement in Philadelphia and the South. She joined the club 12 years ago when she worked at the Penn Center for Innovation, formerly known as the Center for Technology Transfer.

White is not a full-time writer, but writes in her position as a communications professional with the City of Philadelphia. Her novel-in-progress sprang from a 2014 creative writing boot camp for women of color in which she participated. Novelist Naomi Jackson, who was an artist-in-residence at Kelly Writers House at the time, led the boot camp.

White says the Penn & Pencil Club has been critical in making sure her novel makes sense, and maintains continuity, voice, and a forward direction.

“What I love right now is that they’re so engaged in the story that they're getting emotionally involved with the characters,” she says. “I hear comments like, ‘That’s not like her,’ or ‘I really don’t like Betts right now,’ during our workshopping sessions.”

The Penn and Pencil Club is one of the many writing groups affiliated with Kelly Writers House. Meetings are held there during the academic year and scheduled at various sites across campus over the summer.

Any employee of Penn or Penn Medicine who is interested in attending a meeting can contact Luellen Fletcher at luellen@upenn.edu for future dates, times, and locations.

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