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Rich Literary Heritage Draws Writers To Key West

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If you're a writer, Key West is on your bucket list, likely in the number one spot.

This bohemian island city, the southernmost in the contiguous United States, is where Ernest Hemingway produced nearly half his life's work including To Have and Have Not and For Whom the Bell Tolls. It's where Tennessee Williams wrote Streetcar Named Desire, supposedly while listening to Billie Holiday records, and where he partied with Truman Capote, James Leo Herlihy and Thomas McGuane.

This two- by four-mile island that's nearer to Havana than Miami is said to have more writers per capita than anywhere, including 13 Pulitzer Prize winners. Whether drawn by the tropical climate or its famed zany hedonism, writers such as Ann Beattie, Annie Dillard, Robert Frost, Ralph Ellison, John Dos Passos, Judy Blume, Shel Silverstein and Elizabeth Bishop are just a few whose names have appeared on Key West mailboxes.

If you're truly ambitious, your bucket list contains the hope to be an invited presenter at the prestigious Key West Literary Seminar, held every January since 1983. Or your list could be like mine, just wanting a little recognition for your wild-ass dream to make a living doing what you love.

When I visited Key West in the early 1990s, I had already written a couple books, but hadn't yet convinced a publisher they deserved airing. I'll never forget gazing reverentially at the second-floor studio behind Hemingway's Whitehead house, the place where he wrote every morning whether hung-over from a night of hard drinking with Sloppy Joe Russell or sore from a dust-up with Wallace Stevens. I remember feeling giddy, inspired, thinking to myself, "Someday, like my fellow Kansas City Star alum, I, too, will be recognized for my words."

So when I went back to Key West last month to celebrate the anniversary of its April 23, 1982 secession from the union, a raucous reenactment complete with parades and water balloons of the day the city declared itself an official nation -- The Conch Republic -- in protest of the roadblock that was deterring tourists, I couldn't resist returning to Hemingway's home.

The six-toed cats, heirs to Hemingway's beloved "Snowball," a gift from a Cuban sea captain who believed the extra toes brought good luck, still roam the one-acre grounds. Pictures of his four wives still hang in the parlor. And, of course, the studio with his leather writing chair, his books and his typewriter still looks as it did between 1931 and 1938 when he was there every day pounding the keys.

But this time, as I descended the steps leading to and from the famous studio, it suddenly hit me. The vow I made 20 years ago had come true. Fifteen times, in fact, I've signed a contract with a publisher who believes in my work.

I noticed a certain bounce in my step and as I looked up at Key West's clear, cerulean sky, gave a nod and a grateful, "Thank you, Papa."

Now, if I can just get the Key West Literary Festival to call.