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College senior Sabrina Qiao said the nine-day writer’s residency "was one of the best experiences … in my undergraduate career.”

Credit: Audrey Tirtaguna

Over spring break, College senior Sabrina Qiao was holed up in an isolated cottage near Astoria, Oregon working on her creative writing honors thesis.

Qiao was chosen to complete the annual nine-day writer’s residency hosted by English professor Buzz Bissinger and his wife Lisa Smith at their home in the Pacific Northwest. The writers' residency gives one student each year a chance to travel to Bissinger and Smith's home and spend a week working on a writing project.

Qiao, a former special issues editor for 34th Street Magazine, used the isolation of the cottage to make progress on a memoir she is writing for her thesis. She spent most of her mornings and afternoons writing before joining her hosts in the evenings for dinner and a cocktail party with writers and artists.

Bissinger started the residency in 2015 in collaboration with Kelly Writers House. A 1976 College graduate and acclaimed author and journalist, Bissinger found that he liked re-engaging with the Penn community when he worked as a Kelly Writers House fellow in the spring of 2014. Wanting to give back further, Bissinger approached Kelly Writers House Faculty Director Al Filreis about starting a writer's residency.

Since then, Bissinger and Smith have been hosting one student writer each year during spring break. Smith, a documentarian who has worked in news and public radio, said she has enjoyed hosting the residents.

“I find each of them to be truly wonderful human beings," she said. “I think that by being here, we allow them to focus. There is virtually no distraction at all.”

Students who participate in the retreat stay in the couple's cottage in Astoria, Oregon. (Photos from The Kelly Writers House Website)

Bissinger said each year, he makes an effort to immerse residents in the artistic community of the Pacific Northwest. 

”We [try] to introduce them to artists in the community because this is a really artistically oriented community centered around Astoria, Oregon,” he said. 

The residency is open to any student from any of Penn’s schools and is application-based. Filreis said the number of applications has increased over the years, but the commitment to give up spring break self-selects a dedicated and talented pool of applicants.

Bissinger said the residency focuses on providing a space for students rather than formal mentorship.

English professor Buzz Bissinger and his wife Lisa Smith host the nine-day retreat. (Photo from Buzz Bissinger)

“We don’t read anything they write during the time,” Bissinger said. “We don’t want anyone to think they have to produce a certain number of pages. This is their time and we’re offering a beautiful and quiet space.”

Residents are free to work on any type of writing project, and past residents have explored a variety of genres. 

2017 College graduate and 2017 writer's resident Nikhil Venkatesa said the program was crucial in validating his voice as a writer. 

Venkatesa, who is from South India, worked on a screenplay that he wanted to resonate with a global audience, so he workshopped the play with Bissinger and Smith to see how an American audience would interpret its cultural elements. 

Venkatesa added that meeting independent artists in the community was inspiring to him as someone who wanted to go in that career direction. 

“This is one of those opportunities every writer dreams of,” Venkatesa said. “It definitely gave me the confidence and told me this is something I want to do." 

2016 College graduate Alina Grabowski, who is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at Vanderbilt University Graduate School, was Bissinger’s and Smith’s first resident. During her residency, she wrote a short story which she published and later used in her MFA application. 

“I think it was just one of the first opportunities to be totally immersed in my own writing," Grabowski said of the residency. “Just having someone take your writing that seriously at that age, someone thinks it’s worth it to give you a week to work, was a pretty important vote of confidence.”