An innovative writing program for Florida Keys high school students

The Young Writers Studio is a program for young people who want to become better writers, learn about themselves, and see their island home with fresh eyes. If you are curious about the history of Key West and want to find your voice as a writer, this program is for you!

Open to students in Monroe County who will be starting their sophomore, junior, or senior years in the fall of 2023, the Young Writers Studio is free for all accepted applicants and is open to writers or would-be writers of all levels. Students who are homeschooled or from unconventional educational backgrounds are equally encouraged to apply.

UPDATE — Summer 2023

Our Young Writers Studio is temporarily on hiatus. We hope to resume the program in Summer 2024.

Virtual / Online Opportunities

If you are interested in online sessions to help find your voice as a writer and/or find inspiration and direction for college essays, please email or call 305-293-9291 to learn more.

“Island in the Works”


Students will spend five full days exploring Key West and learning about great American authors who have lived and worked here, including Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, and James Merrill. The program emphasizes journaling, close observation, and site-specific writing exercises, together with constructive feedback and group critique.

Daily classroom exercises will be paired with visits to local historic sites such the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. Students will picnic and write beneath the pines at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and investigate rare archival material at the Monroe County Public Library. Site-specific writing exercises will take participants from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and as far west as Fort Jefferson and Dry Tortugas National Park during a special daylong excursion into the dynamic natural landscape that has inspired countless writers. View the sample itinerary from 2019.

Each afternoon will feature a writing workshop led by a distinguished visiting writer. Throughout the sessions, a skilled and caring group of KWLS faculty and special guests will support young writers as they explore the relationship between identity and place and discover the joys and challenges of the writing process. Past visiting writers have included Victor LaValle and Nicole Dennis-Benn. More information about our core faculty can be found below.

The theme of the Young Writers Studio references James Merrill’s poem “Island in the Works.” Written from his Elizabeth Street home in the 1980s, the poem is rooted in natural phenomena and vernacular language distinctive to Key West. Full of observed imagery, a relish for language, and a great sense of humor, the poem represents the ethos of the Young Writers Studio.

How to Apply


Write a letter to Key West Literary Seminar:

  • Introduce yourself. Explain why you want to be part of this program. What makes you a great candidate? What in the description of Young Writers Studio intrigues you?
  • Describe your relationship to reading and writing. Please tell us what has been your favorite thing (novel, poem, short story, graphic novel, children’s book, anything) you have ever read and why.
  • Tell us about your relationship to Key West. What do you love about this area and landscape the most? Do you have a favorite place or a favorite aspect of life here?


  • Feel free to address these questions in whatever order makes the most sense to you and creates a logical flow.
  • Be yourself. Your letter should be casual and relaxed. Don’t be afraid to give us a sense of your personality and be completely honest.
  • Remember that detail, description, and sharing quick anecdotes or examples can help make your writing fun and relatable.
  • Also remember that editing for typos and small errors helps show that you care and are trying to make the best first impression.

Your letter should be no more than 650 words (minimum 500 words), which is the standard maximum length for a college application essay. It will be good practice!

Space is limited, and completed applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis until the course is full. Apply early for your best chance of being accepted!


“It was really amazing. I think the prompts really got me thinking about other aspects to a story to develop it more fully. I think traveling to various places and bringing in famous writers helped me to understand the process they use and what they do.”

“The Young Writers Studio was a truly amazing experience that has really bettered me as a person. Not only did I learn to write better, but I learned a lot about communication and its use in the real world. My most memorable experience has to be laughing and telling stories during our breaks between writing, not only with fellow peers, but also the leaders of the group. Throughout the entire experience, I felt like my thoughts mattered and that they could actually become something.”

“The program was helpful as well as comforting. Everyone was respectful, so you felt good about sharing your work. I also learned a lot of different writing techniques and ideas. I feel like I can express more thought and detail in my writing.”


Arlo Haskell, Executive Director, photo by Nick Doll

Arlo Haskell

Executive Director

Arlo Haskell is executive director of Key West Literary Seminar and author of The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969), which received the 2017 Florida Book Award gold medal for nonfiction. A native of the Florida Keys, he is a graduate of Key West High School and Bard College and lives in Key West with his family. In 2019, he was appointed Poet Laureate by the City of Key West.

Kate Peters, Education Coordinator

Kate Peters

Lead Teacher

Kate Peters is KWLS Education Coordinator and lead teacher for the Young Writers Studio. She has a bachelor’s degree from Bard College and a master’s degree from the University of Richmond. She teaches English at Saint Catherine’s School in Richmond, Virginia.

Nick Vagnoni


Nick Vagnoni teaches writing at Florida International University, where he earned an MFA in creative writing in 2009. He also teaches poetry classes in prisons in Miami-Dade County through a program called Exchange for Change. He is a Key West native who graduated from Key West High School in 1999 and New College of Florida in 2004. His poetry has appeared in Columbia JournalMid-American Review, Terrain, and elsewhere. He is the coauthor of Forager: A Subjective Guide to Miami’s Edible Plants (Jai-Alai Books).

Past Visiting Writers

Victor LaValle

Distinguished Visiting Writer 2018

Victor LaValle is an assistant professor in the writing department at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of The Changeling (2017), which was selected as one of the ten best books of the year by USA Today and Time magazine. LaValle is author of four other novels, a collection of short stories, and a comic book, Destroyer. His awards include a Whiting Award, a Ford Foundation Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a British World Fantasy Award, among others. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

Nicole Dennis Benn

Nicole Dennis-Benn

Distinguished Visiting Writer 2019

Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and an NPR Best Book for 2016. Her second novel, Patsy, was an Oprah Magazine Best Book and a Time Magazine 100 Must-Read Books for 2019. Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Dennis-Benn is a graduate of Cornell University and holds a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan, as well as an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and NYU and in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.

The Young Writers Studio is funded in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, as part of the Knight Arts Challenge.

Knight Foundation

Lodging support is generously provided by the Marquesa Hotel.