A Happy Wreck on Duval Street

I used to think it was something in the soil, that the dirt in certain spots just grew great writers. Like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and John Grisham in Mississippi.  Or like the way Rick Bragg, Lewis Grizzard, and Pat Conroy all have roots in a narrow stretch of the Appalachian foothills between east Alabama and west Georgia.  Like Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Jimmy Buffett producing some of their finest work in Key West, Florida.

But I was wrong.

I was on a girls’ trip with my mom, sister, and grandmother last week, and our cruise ship stopped in Key West.  We visited Hemingway’s house, strolled past the former hotel where Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire, and toasted Buffett with margaritas in his joint on Duval Street.  As a writer, I was feeling a bit as if I was on hallowed ground, like I was standing on the fertile soil where their creativity reached full bloom.

Then I found out Key West doesn’t have a spoonful of native soil. The island is a solid chunk of coral, which isn’t exactly fertile. Even the sand is trucked in.  Key West was formed by thousands of years’ worth of calcium deposits that solidified and cemented together with a new coral reef building layer by layer on top of that.

So if it’s not the soil, what in Key West inspires so much genius?  The air?  The water?

The answer, I believe, lies in Key West’s shipwreck history.

During the 1800’s, Key West was the wealthiest city, per capita, in the United States because the nearby Gulf Stream meant trade routes ran close to the reefs just off the island.  It’s a treacherous area because of those coral reefs, and ships with valuable cargo foundered in those waters almost weekly.  Professional wreckers, who were sworn to save lives before material goods, watched vigilantly for distressed ships; by law, the first wrecker to a site became the “wreck master,” who would eventually be entitled to half of what was recovered from the wrecked ship.  Wrecking became the island’s primary business, and its citizens became wealthy off of shipwrecks.

Key West thrived, in other words, because people dove deep to find the treasure in disaster.  And that’s the metaphor I believe the great Key West writers used for their own lives.  Buffett was leaving a failed marriage and an inability to break into the Nashville music scene when he arrived in Key West.  Hemingway came to Key West with his second wife, Pauline, after their affair broke up his first marriage.  Tennessee Williams holed up in a hotel on Duval Street to write, partly because being a gay man in the 1940’s was excruciatingly difficult.  They were all wrecked in some way, but they arrived in Key West looking for a fresh start and the strength to keep plumbing the depths of their souls.  In that pirate town, they found a safe shore that gave their salvaged selves the chance to start over.

The honest truth is that it’s never the soil or the location, the air, or even the direction a desk is facing that inspires genius. Genius is in the refusal to quit, even in the face of disaster.  Even when you feel wrecked beyond repair.  It’s in the ability to dive deep and salvage our selves, to surface with the treasure of tenacity.

Then again, an occasional Duval Crawl is awfully good for the soul, too.

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