Young Writers in Key West find an “Island in the Works”

Young Writers Studio participants at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in July 2018. Left to right: Teacher’s Assistant Sabrina Walsh, Executive Director Arlo Haskell, Shalhevet Sanchez, Lead Teacher Kate Peters, Lucy Lannigan, Daniella McCausland, Carly Neilson, Sonya Griffin, Mercedes Da Silva, Julie Powers, Kayleigh Reed, Delaina Ross, Hemingway Museum Director Dave Gonzales, Co-Teacher Nick Vagnoni, Mysty Anthony, Leland Hurd, and Christina Tong. Photo by Nick Doll.

This summer, twelve South Florida high school students participated in “Island in the Works,” our innovative new studio program for young writers. The week-long session offered a curriculum rooted in great American writers who have lived on this subtropical island, including Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, and James Merrill, and in the dynamic natural landscape that inspired them.

“When you grow up here, the experience of reading and writing in school can be disorienting,” says Key West Literary Seminar Executive Director and author Arlo Haskell, a Florida Keys native. “The world described in schoolbooks is full of things like apples and ice storms, but what you know are mangos and hurricanes. It makes it feel like literature is something that gets made somewhere else, that writers are different from the kind of people you know.”

With funding from Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge, KWLS set out to counter this bias. Haskell headed a curriculum development team with former Bard College classmate Kate Peters, a veteran educator who focuses on interdisciplinary study and experiential learning. They were joined by Nick Vagnoni, a Key West native and poet who teaches writing at Florida International University. With input from a student advisory committee, made up of current and former Key West High School students, the team drafted an immersive, five-day program that emphasizes experimentation and self-discovery, and pairs classroom exercises with excursions to local sites of interest. Finally, they recruited novelist Victor LaValle, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts, to lead a daily craft workshop on the basics of fiction.

“Our student advisors were very clear about one thing,” remarks Peters. “A summer program has to be fun. It can NOT feel like school. Today’s students are so busy, and with summer jobs, family vacations, and everything else, you have to make something that compels their attention.”

Writing exercises invited students to sample local fruits including Spanish lime, soursop, and mangosteen; and to describe their taste, aroma, and the memories or emotions they aroused. Students wrote about their families’ experiences during Hurricane Irma, which ravaged the Keys during the summer of 2017, by modeling “Who Murdered the Vets?,” Hemingway’s account of the devastating 1935 Labor Day Hurricane. They explored rare documents at the Key West Public Library and visited Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and its pine-shaded beach to swim and write letters and poems modeled after works by Merrill and Bishop. But the highlight of the week for many was a daylong excursion to Dry Tortugas National Park, located 70 miles west of Key West and accessible only by boat or seaplane, where participants enjoyed an immersive experience in regional history and ecology.

The class of 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old writers hailed from across our 100-mile-long chain of islands, and included students from each of Monroe County’s three public high schools. “I challenged myself to write things I have never written before,” one student remarked. “I learned how to not dwell over everything and just write more naturally what came to me,” said another. “There’s so much to write about just by staying where you live!”

Congratulations to the twelve graduates of our first Young Writers Studio: Mysty Anthony, Mercedes Da Silva, Sonya Griffin, Leland Hurd, Lucy Lannigan, Daniella McCausland, Carly Neilson, Julie Powers, Kayleigh Reed, Delaina Ross, Shalhevet Sanchez, and Christina Tong.

The next Young Writers Studio will take place June 24-28, 2019. Thanks to ongoing funding from Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge, the Keys Open Doors Foundation, and the KWLS Patrons Circle, tuition fees will once again be waived for all accepted students. Look out for faculty announcement and open application in early 2019.

2 thoughts on “Young Writers in Key West find an “Island in the Works”

  1. S'ri Mitchell says:

    Having lived on the space coast since 69 (yep last century) AND having worked & played in the Keys frequently during that yesterday & today time…: what is the geographic cut off point for “south Florida students?”
    We too only know mangos, papayas. love bugs & hurricanes.
    We do thank you for the green parrot, iguana, spoonbill ++×n migration to our area. Please advise re: above; perhaps it’s time to share our Space-X excitement…maybe in a sister community capacity?

    • Arlo Haskell says:

      The program is open to any high-school-aged student in Monroe County. Students who are not full-time residents but who may be visiting the Keys during the program are also invited to apply.

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