“Klaus Neuenberg is a clown associated with several premier German circuses. He specializes in juggling and unicycling. He does not write this blog.” Nor does he attend Penn. But Charlie Sosnick (C ‘19) does.
Charlie is no poet or novelist, but he was recruited to Penn through the Kelly Writers House. He’s the author of an extensive humor blog from which we learn about Klaus and similarly absurd characters. In high school, Charlie posted regularly, updating his website with “Today’s Random Thoughts,” short scripts, and even quizzes. He had quite the fan base: his “smile counter” tallied upwards of 24,000 “people satisfied.”
When Charlie toured Penn as a junior, he visited the Writers House, where he met with faculty director Al Filreis. “I showed him my website, and I guess [he] liked me,” he says. After his initial meeting with Al, Charlie stayed in touch through email. He ended up at Penn in the fall of 2015, thanks partly to his ties to the Writers House. He currently works as a comedy writer for Under the Button.
Kelly Liu (C ‘21) was just eight years old when she wrote her first story on a too–big keyboard, excitement and imagination outpacing her tiny hands.
“I remember bits and pieces [of the story],” she laughs, trying to recount the loping, decade–old adventure tale, which featured mountain climbing and “something about noodles.” But what she vividly remembers is finishing the story, fumbling with the printer, and bounding into the room where her grandparents sat, ready to show off.
Kelly stuck with writing stories. Throughout high school, her free time was spent writing science fiction, but it was nothing more than hobby. She never considered pursuing creative writing in college. At least, not until she found herself at a summer camp presentation about the Kelly Writers House. Later, when she visited Penn, Kelly met with Jamie–Lee Josselyn, recruitment director at the Writers House, and discussed Kelly’s interest in Penn and writing. After this meeting, and her subsequent contact with Jamie–Lee, Kelly felt that the Writers House might be the community she was looking for.
When she applied, she did so as a Writers House recruit.
In April of her senior year of high school, Jessica Zuo (C ‘19) received an unexpected email recently after being accepted to Penn. It began:
“We at the Kelly Writers House are thrilled to learn of your acceptance—my colleagues in Admissions took note of the strength of your writing in your application and they thought you might want to learn more about the writing–related opportunities on Campus.”
Signed Jamie–Lee Josselyn, this email came as a surprise to Jessica. She had no background in creative writing, nor had she expressed interest in Penn’s writing programs. Admissions, it seemed, had drawn some inferences.
Jessica has not gone on to be involved with the Writers House on campus, but the email sends a clear message: Admissions is on the lookout for creative writers.
Candid and charismatic, Jamie–Lee is the Writers House version of a travelling salesperson. As recruitment director, she visits schools, writing programs, and camps across the country, presenting KWH (and Penn) to high school students.
Jamie–Lee is the first official recruiter for the Kelly Writers House. Unofficial recruitment has been present since the space opened its green doors in 1995, when Faculty Director Al Filreis began building the community. “He has always been a magnet for writers of all kinds,” including high school writers, Jamie–Lee says. Al would meet with talented young people who were interested in Penn. And occasionally, he would write letters of advocacy to Penn Admissions on behalf of an applicant.
The New York Times eventually got word of Al’s magnetic properties. They ran a particularly well–lit on the Writers House, describing it as an “oasis for the arts” with a unique process of recruitment. “If things could have gone viral in 2007, we would have gone viral,” Jamie–Lee jokes, and recounts the resulting flood of phone calls from high school teachers, parents, and young writers calling for Al.
For Jamie–Lee, the NYT article was a catalyst. “It got my gears turning to think, now that we have a little exposure, people are finding us, but it’s only really the people who read the New York Times. I thought, how else can we find these people, even if they don’t ultimately come [to Penn]?”
In 2017, upwards of 500 students contacted KWH recruitment in some way.
As Jaime–Lee’s assistant, Ian McCormack (C ‘21) spends a lot of time parsing through the Scholastic Arts and Writing Award lists, a nationwide contest for young writers and visual artists. He picks out winners of prizes related to writing, and from there, he does some investigative Googling, and searches for a contact at their high school, like an English teacher or guidance counselor. He documents his findings in a spreadsheet for Jamie–Lee, who makes annual trips to schools which repeatedly appear.
Specialized arts high schools are a KWH recruitment dream. Schools like The Governor's School in South Carolina and the Orange County School for the Arts in LA boast rigorous arts curricula. They offer guitar classes, musical theater, and instruction in the culinary arts, and thus allow students to hone their craft. The creative writing departments at these schools breed Scholastic winners, and Kelly Writers House tries to woo them.
It helps to come from a prestigious arts high school that Jamie-Lee visits. It provides access, a hand to shake. Rather than being just another anonymous email, students at these schools are able to meet Jamie–Lee in person without stepping foot off campus.
Amanda Silberling (C ‘18) has “weird, sort of negative feelings” about competitive, merit–based writing competitions like the Scholastic awards. “I think that judging people that are so young and developing creatively is really counterproductive,” she says.
Like many recruits, Amanda attended a writing summer camp. There, her eyes were opened to the world of high school writing contests, but she felt uncomfortable that opportunities for high school writers are based on “merit” rather than community–building.
“It seemed like you only got access to the communities by winning prestigious awards or by randomly being privileged enough to go to a big private school with creative writing classes,” she adds. Many students are connected to the Writers House through these often–inaccessible groups.
However, many of the schools on Jamie–Lee’s travel itinerary are public magnet schools. Even so, these schools are competitive, often requiring auditions or writing samples upon applying. Amanda went to a public school where she found that “no one cared about writing.” Searching for a supportive community, Amanda turned to the internet. She found a space called , which was at the time managed by a fellow high school student and eventual Penn graduate Peter LaBerge (C ‘17). Through these internet communities, Amanda learned about KWH and contacted Jamie–Lee.
Jamie–Lee is aware of the limited scope of her high school visits. “Even if I worked 24/7, I would never know every writer or literarily inclined student who wants to be involved. We take our advocacy work very seriously, but it only goes so far,” she says.
Trips to elite schools aren’t the only form of recruitment. More often, it takes place in the well–furnished living room of the Writers House, where prospective students meet with Jamie–Lee or Ian. And like Amanda, many students begin their recruitment process online. A simple Google search for “best creative writing colleges” and an email to Jamie–Lee is a often enough.
When Ian visited Penn for Quaker Days, he stopped by the Writers House. Excited to explore the space, Ian didn’t quite know what to expect. When he walked through the front door, he found an empty house. As he meandered through the living room, he found no one reading on the couches, no one sprawled at the dining room table.
Then, he paused at the closed kitchen door, Ian heard voices, laughter. A nervous high schooler, Ian couldn’t bring himself to open the door. He just turned around and walked out. Despite becoming a fixture in the writers house as Jamie–Lee’s assistant, he still feels a bit on the outside.
“That experience is one of the experiences that I channel when I work as an assistant to Jamie–Lee. I like to look for people who are a little too shy to go into the kitchen, where people seem like they're already friends,” Ian says, adding, “I want to make people feel welcome.”
Kaitlin Moore (C ‘18) was no recruit. She came to the Writers House after her freshman year, a fresh convert to the English discipline from the field of physics. At first, she felt similarly to Ian during his failed visit, “because I didn’t know anyone, so I felt like a bit of an outsider that summer.”
Now a senior, Kaitlin is thoroughly part of the Writers House kitchen, and friendly with other staff and students. However, she hasn’t forgotten the feeling of being on the fringes. “I realize what people mean when they say that they want to go to the Writers House but they feel like there's a bit of a wall,” she says.
“One of the things about a close community is that it’s possible to feel like you’re not part of the close community,” notes Jamie–Lee. Even from her perspective, she notices the “wall.”
Many recruits, like Amanda, Kelly, and Ian, find jobs at the Writers House, physically occupying space there. They are inside the kitchen, so to speak, where everyone is already laughing. Student staffers have a reputation for being fast friends.
The majority of KWH staff are hired through the work–study program, which provides subsidized jobs for students with financial need. It’s no surprise that recruits with work–study grants often end up at KWH, a space they already feel connected with.
Rodney Dailey (C ‘20) spent the past summer in London. He spent his days breakfasting with professors, writing poetry, and researching Virginia Woolf. By the end of the summer, he had produced an extensive book of poetry, exploring the spaces the author occupied.
Amanda Silberling, now a music writer, has a KWH–supported passion project as well. It was conceived during her sophomore year: an annual event titled , featuring musicians who will “explore the intersectional challenges that women and other marginalized people face in the music industry.” The Writers House has incorporated this event into their repertoire. It’s another program they financially support and provide space for.
The Writers House’s resources come mostly from individual donors, giving the institution more financial mobility than a regular academic department. For this reason, KWH has the institutional ability to provide “individualized care for creative minds,” as Rodney puts it. These opportunities are open to all undergraduates, but can be more difficult to find for students who don’t spend time there and aren’t on a first name basis with the administrators who write the checks. On the other hand, for student staffers, the opportunities are often in front of their faces.
Liv Lynn, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was a KWH recruit who did not end up at Penn. She notes via text that she met with Jamie–Lee during a visit to campus, remembering that “[Jamie–Lee] held onto some of [her] writing samples, and followed up with extra resources related to [her] interest in women’s studies.” Despite the warm welcome at KWH, financial factors drove her decision to attend UNC.
There, Liv has found creative spaces. She’s dabbled in documentary–making and edited for the The Siren, a feminist magazine, but notes that there’s nothing as “well–defined and extensive as Kelly Writers House.”
Still, she remembers Jamie–Lee and the Writers House and speaks fondly: “I got the sense that there was someone in this huge machine of a school that was rooting for me."