Phyllis Rose opened the 31st Key West Literary Seminar last night with a sparkling keynote address that explored the public/private duality of a writer’s life. At the core of Rose’s talk was John Hersey himself, the legendary journalist and longtime Key West resident for whom the keynote is named.
Rose’s talk centered on an image of Hersey riding his bike through the narrow streets of Key West. Was this white-haired bicycle rider the same man whose reportage of the atomic attack at Hiroshima brought Japan’s devastation to American readers with uncompromising moral authority and great insight? Was the man whose love for his classic white Mercedes bordered on the spiritual the same as the great writer? Was the writer the man? Was the poet James Merrill, whose workouts at a Key West gym were punctuated by the recitation “sets and reps, lats and pecs,” the same as the author of “Victor Dog?” Is there a contradiction between the two?
More than answering these questions, Rose set out to ask them again and again in a tour-de-force of literary history that invoked writers including Marcel Proust, Joseph Conrad, Grace Paley, and Roland Barthes. In conclusion, Rose challenged the audience to recognize the dual nature of writers and artists. “Writers are models of creative alchemy,” Rose said. “Nothing in a writer’s life is wasted—everything counts, everything is potential material.” Finally, in an inspirational coda, Rose reminded us that we can all turn the stuff of life into art “The secret to creativity can be the secret to happiness.”