Key West Literary Seminar 2013

Key West Literary Seminar 2013 Stage
Key West Literary Seminar 2013 Stage

by Sharon Harrigan

Sharon Harrigan, a friend and fellow WriterHouse member, was the Joyce Horton Johnson Fiction Award recipient at KWLS this year, and I asked her to share her thoughts on the experience.  Thanks, Sharon, and congrats again on a much deserved award.

If the view out your window is anything like mine right now—snow on slippery sidewalks—let me offer you this mid-winter writer’s daydream: Flip flops and floppy hats on beach cruiser bikes to stir up inspiration. The sun so bright on the ocean you can swim in it every day of the year, like Tennessee Williams did. The descendants of Hemingway’s cats lounging at his house under flowering shrubs, just the sight of their softness somehow making your prose more muscular. Cafe con leche and guava pastries before writing workshop with Hilma Wolitzer at Judy Blume’s house. Panels and presentations by literary superstars like Colm Toibin, Brad Gooch, and Billy Collins, followed by dinners with the speakers and your fellow workshop writers at the lighthouse, near the southernmost tip of North America. Finally, after a corkscrew climb down the winding steps, a pink taxi or pedi-cab waits to deposit you in the jacuzzi at your bed and breakfast (aptly called, of course, Authors’ House).

It’s not a day dream. It’s called the Key West Literary Seminar. I was able to attend for the first time, last month, and the experience still helps me write more brightly, whatever gray days may arrive, outside my window or in my head.

The seminar takes place every January, and there are three ways you can attend—as a winner of one of the three prizes, as a scholarship participant, and as a general attendee. I was lucky enough to be the Joyce Horton Johnson Award recipient this year. For more information, see the seminar’s web site:

Spread the word about KWLS. I wouldn’t have known about it at all if it weren’t for my fellow WriterHouse members who won the award in previous years (hooray for Kristen-Paige Madonia, George Kamide, and CHRISTY STRICK!).  It must be something WriterHouse puts in the water, or maybe good things just happen when you’re part of a fabulously smart and encouraging literary community. Thank you, Christy, for all your tips on Key West and everything else.

Sharon Harrigan has published over three dozen short stories, essays, and reviews in such journals as Narrative, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown.


Some Random Stuff I Learned at KWLS

San Carlos Institute, site of KWLS
San Carlos Institute, site of KWLS

My lofty intention this week was to summarize the Key West Literary Seminar, in 500 words or less.  I really had no idea before going just how impossible a task that would be.  I’m still trying to process it all myself.  So instead of giving you a blow by blow of all the panels, etc, I’m going to offer up just a few of the things I learned this past week.

1)      The cardinal sin in fiction is to bore the reader.  I honestly can’t remember who said it (it was on the first day, which seems so long ago) but it really resonated with me.  Sure, it should go without saying, but how many perfectly competent books have you started reading only to put them down after the first few pages because they couldn’t hold your interest?

2)      Don’t close off possibilities in the story from the beginning.  This is the main thing I took away from the workshop of my story with Robert Stone.  I need to challenge myself, make the story more difficult, so the opening doesn’t lead directly to the outcome.  In my story as currently written, there could be only one outcome, and this makes the story predictable and boring.  (see number 1)

3)      Writers can win readers over by their appearances on panels and in readings.  I knew absolutely nothing about Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story) before Key West, but after hearing him read and discuss his work, I’ll be reading his book.  The same goes for Colson Whitehead (Zone One), even though his book has zombies in it and I’m not really into zombies.  The entire group of writers, really, blew me away.  You can hear them yourself once the KWLS podcasts are online.  (Make sure you listen to everything with Margaret Atwood.)  You’ll even be able to hear my reading, I think.

4)      All writers get a little nervous before an appearance.  Or maybe George Saunders just told me that to be kind.  But what he said (and he is a fabulous speaker, by the way) is that I should look at it as giving the audience a gift, as sharing something with them that no one else can give. I can’t say it made me less nervous, but I will never forget it.  Oh, and if you love short fiction, read George Saunders.  He’s a master.

5)      Go to everything you can at a conference, no matter how exhausting the schedule.  This includes readings, panels, workshops, and social events.  I pretty much did everything there was to do.  I heard some wonderful writers, got to know a great bunch of attendees, learned a lot about myself, and had a beautiful evening sailing on a schooner at sunset.  Yes, it can be tiring, but there’s always time to rest when you get home.

Thank you Key West Literary Seminar.  It was a magical week filled with people who are passionate about literature.  Now I need to get back to writing.  A week is a long time away from my characters, and I missed them.

Conch Republic Here I Come!

Former home of Shel Silverstein
Former home of Shel Silverstein

I’m posting early this week because, after 9:00 am tomorrow morning, I’ll be mostly off the internet lifeline for eight days.  I’m headed to the Key West Literary Seminar, and can’t wait.  Not only is Key West one of my favorite places, but the conference promises to be amazing, with gifted writers like Margaret Atwood, Billy Collins, Jennifer Egan, Michael Cunningham, Colson Whitehead, Joyce Carol Oates, and so many more.

The first four days are filled with panels on all things to do with the 2012 theme, “Yet Another World.”  Then the next four days I’ll be in an advanced fiction workshop with Robert Stone.  There’ll be 11 other participants in my particular workshop, and I’m so looking forward to getting their opinions and suggestions on a story I’ve struggled with for about two years.  (yep, for those of you who don’t know, it can take years to perfect 15 – 20 pages of prose.)

I’m also looking forward to catching up with some of the great people I met when I was down there in May for my residency with The Studios of Key West.  By the way, they’re taking applications now for 2012 – 2013 residencies.  If you’re a writer or a visual artist, check it out.  It’s really magical.

I’m honored to have been chosen by KWLS as the Marianne Russo Award winner for emerging writers for 2012, and will read part of the story that won me the award at the open session on Sunday.  Not sure if the dog’s howling when I practice out loud means the story is really good or really bad. (Thank God he won’t be in the audience – I’m hoping most of the folks who are there will refrain from howling.)  I always get nervous when I read in front of a group (there’s something so naked about reading my own work) and this is a big group, so I’m thinking cocktails and xanax beforehand.

A conference is a great way to kick off the year in writing, and where better to be than in sunny Key West with so many fabulous writers?  When I post next I’ll tell you all about it.  Gotta go pack now for my trip to the Conch Republic.