By Barbara Sherf
Northwest Philadelphia has an abundant supply of yoga teachers, art galleries and music and dance studios. Now there is also a studio in which writers can gather and practice their craft.
Longtime writer, editor, and teacher Janet Benton held an open house on Dec. 5 to kick off her new venue, The Word Studio, an 1100-square-foot space located on Mt. Airy Avenue that she shares with homeopath Denise Warkov. The event featured readings from manuscripts in progress, and the place was packed with about 45 writers and writing aficionados.
“An opportunity came up to rent this wonderful space, so I decided it was time to pursue my dream and create a center for writers,” Benton said. “There’s so much going on creatively in this region, but Philadelphia didn’t yet have a writers’ center. So my first goal is to bring writers together for workshops, readings and social events.” She also uses the space to consult with writers working on manuscripts. The sunny studio has several rooms, comfortable chairs, desks, a kitchen and a bathroom.
After working in publishing in New York City, including at Working Woman magazine, Benton decided to pursue an MFA in fiction writing. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1993. In 1996, after a move to Philadelphia, she took the leap to self-employment, starting a business called Benton Editorial. She has opened The Word Studio to offer more writing workshops and to boost the area’s writing community.
A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article showed that Benton’s workshops, now in their 12th year, have had an impact on the area writing scene. The April, 2010, article profiled seven area novelists, and two of her long-time students were among them. One is Pam Jenoff, author of four published novels, including the bestseller “The Kommandant’s Girl.” Said Jenoff, “Janet’s skillful guidance and feedback have in large part made possible my career as a writer.” Other authors of note include Larry Kane, news analyst and author, with whom Benton has worked closely on three books, including “Ticket to Ride: Inside the Beatles’ 1964 Tour that Changed the World.”
“I think one reason I’m able to make a difference is that I combine technical knowledge with a strong sense of how important the writing is to each person,” Benton said. “People who write want to communicate something that matters a lot to them.”
At the open house, the testimonials were flowing like good prose at a writing workshop. Among the six readers was West Oak Lane resident Elvedine Wilkerson, a retired educator who spent 35 years with the Philadelphia School District. She is working on a novel for young adults about Oney, a young servant to Martha Washington, and her escape to freedom. Wilkerson is in Benton’s workshop and uses The Word Studio for writing space.
“When I write at home, I’m distracted by putting clothes in the dryer or checking on something cooking in the kitchen. When I’m here, I write and meet other writers and bounce ideas off of them,” said Wilkerson. “It’s a very special place.”
Natasha Kassell, a Mt. Airy resident, has worked on her memoir in several workshops with Benton. Kassell read a section titled “Back to School” about the bittersweet challenges of starting her year of teaching veterinary science on the same day as her children’s school began. After her reading, she talked about Benton and the space.
“We are so fortunate to have her here, and to have a place in Mt. Airy where writers can gather to take workshops and find community,” she said. “I love coming here to write. It’s homey, quiet and comfortable. I much prefer it to a coffee shop or home because there are very few distractions.”
Flourtown resident Jennifer French, a poet and the former managing editor for Temple University Press, was on hand to celebrate the studio’s opening. “I’ve known Janet forever, and I just think this space and what she is doing is wonderful for writers. She had a good idea, and she ran with it. I give her a lot of credit and wish her well.”
Benton and her husband, David Updike, an editor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, lived in Mt. Airy for five years before moving out to Wyncote with their daughter “for a yard … I love Wyncote, but I joke that it’s my bedroom community for Mt, Airy,” she said.
Benton is accepting applications for two workshops slated to start in January. The Word Studio’s Writing Intensive will meet every other Tuesday evening for five months and is limited to seven members. The Word Studio Manuscript Group is a yearlong program for six writers working on book-length manuscripts. The group will meet every six weeks on Friday night and all day Saturday. For more information, visit www.TheWordStudio.us or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.