Featured, The Creative Process, Travel, Writing

The Animal Club

Last August, I got an email about the 2019 Key West Literary Seminar. I’d been there ten years earlier, in 2009, when the theme was Historical Fiction and I was looking for help transforming my academic work on Crossfire and the Hollywood blacklist into a historical novel. That workshop a decade ago with novelist-memoirist-travel writer Mary Morris sparked the plot and characters that became The File on Margot Black. What a powerful experience, not only the workshop, but also the weekend events that book-ended the writing workshops, filled with talks by literary luminaries: Gore Vidal, Geraldine Brooks, Joyce Carol Oates, and so many more….

The theme this year is Under the Influence: Archetype & Adaptation from Homer to the Multiplex, and again, the list of writers on the stage is mouth-watering: Margaret Atwood, who  is giving the keynote; Joyce Carol Oates and Geraldine Brooks again; Madeline Miller, of Song of Achilles and Circe; Danielle Paige, of the Dorothy Must Die series; Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English, and half a dozen more. I am swooning…. How can I not apply for this?


The workshop that first called to me was Emily Raboteau’s on The Nonfiction Fringe; its focus on “innovating the essay via structure, language, content, form, image, and other techniques” seemed ideal for my road-memoir. But when you apply for a scholarship, which was the only way I was going to be able to go to Florida for the workshop, you have to pick two. Two spots in each workshop are reserved for the scholarship kids, and the selection committee slots people in accordingly.

My attention was caught by an advanced fiction workshop with Richard Russo, whose writing I love… but a couple of things pulled me back: 1) I felt that to have any chance of getting in, I’d have to submit a super polished writing sample. Which meant submitting something from The File on Margot Black. Which might have been just what I needed to revive that manuscript,  but I’d already said goodbye to Margot and just wasn’t excited about getting back together. I wanted a new direction, some fresh energy for my creative work.

So, I decided to look elsewhere.

Among the other workshop offerings, Dara Wier’s The Animal Club caught my eye. I’d passed over it earlier because it was prose-poetry, soooo not my genre. I don’t write poetry. Well, only very, very secretly for the things that break my heart beyond ordinary languaging…. Besides, poetry scares me. It has so many rules at the same time it seems to love to break rules. And it’s hard. You have to linger on every word, dig, decode, excavate meanings….

Then again, I’m a Scorpio; I live for dark, difficult, complex, nuanced. These could be my people, my mother tongue!

And I do do animals. Omg, do I do animals!

I do animals in the real world, wild and domestic. I visit raptor rehabilitation centers, go out in boats to bond with Baja whales, swim with Hawaiian sea turtles. I save spiders trapped in bathtubs and bees trapped in the Avion. I talk to the deer that wander the woods near my house. The little animal snoring next to me right now is one of the greatest loves of my life, my boon companion and my creative muse.

And I do animals in other realms and archetypes. I have a whole menagerie of animal spirits linked to my chakras. I’ve worn down the edges of my Wild Unknown animal spirit card deck. I’ve been working on a novella inspired by the myth of the Selkie, a seal whose soul-skin is stolen and is forced to live on land in the body of a human woman, and my current novel-in-progress draws on the Morrigan, the Celtic crow goddess.

So, yeah, I do animals.

By the time I pulled together my application, The Animal Club was no longer my second choice.


So, I’m in, and I fly out of Sacramento on the 12th. I would have loved to drive to Florida but the timing just wasn’t right. So I’m leaving Fiona and the Avion behind with my parents and jetting off to Key West for a week. My friend Jennifer Mee — the other Jennifer from grad school in Madison — is picking me up at the airport and driving me down to Key West. We haven’t seen each other since the last time I did KWLS so we have a lot to catch up on. Luckily, it’s a good four hour drive down the keys and she’s planning to hang out for a couple of days.

I’m super excited, but also a bit anxious, I must confess. Poetry, for goodness sake…. What am I getting myself into? Everyone else will be really good and I will really suck. Wait, no,  that’s my old story, the one where it’s all about being top of the class, an A student all the way. Good from the very beginning. One smart cookie.

It’s time for a new story. One that lets me go in with beginner’s mind and just be curious. That lets me say without shame, “I don’t know.” And to ask questions, even really basic ones like, “Why are you doing it that way? What happens if I try this?” One that lets me just have fun.


My Animal Club “inspiration packet” arrived in the mail the other day. When I pulled it out of the envelope I literally screamed with excitement. Thirty, maybe forty, spiral bound pages of poems, pictures, prompts.

Squeeee! This is going to be so much fun!

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