Laura Kepner Can’t Stop
The doyenne of Safety Harbor’s literary scene proves that one (seemingly tireless) person can change lives – including her own.
When she first moved to Tampa Bay in 2008, Laura Kepner had a serious problem — where to sit.
Kepner and her husband had just transplanted from Puyalup, Washington, a small city between Seattle and Tacoma. She’d been working as a teaching assistant there, while nurturing dreams of writing. But when she arrived in Safety Harbor, in the midst of the Great Recession, she had trouble finding work in her previous field.
“So we decided, we don’t need furniture right away. I should just write.”
Ten years later, Kepner is a leading light in the city’s literary scene, running conferences and journals and writing groups (oh my). She organizes open mics and summer camps, creates public art, and is also the proud author of a real-deal Published Book. But her individual accomplishments all seem secondary to her ambitions to help other writers pursue their dreams, just like she did.
Her first steps along that path were modest. Kepner’s first paid writing gig after moving to Florida was writing “SEO,” text intended to help websites catch the attention of search engines. It’s not glamorous, but the work is often an on-ramp for new writers. In her case, it led her to Destination Tampa Bay, a Safety Harbor-based magazine (and now website) where she wrote about art and music.
From there, Kepner’s writing life exploded. She founded the Safety Harbor Writers and Poets Group, a regular meetup of writers who continue to support and hone each other’s work. She also founded an open mic for area writers and taught writing classes at the local library.
Somehow, she was also finding time to work on her own historical fiction novels. As she worked to usher her writing into print, she ran up against the harsh reality of the business side of writing – it’s really, really hard to sell a book that the market isn’t clamoring for.
“I was writing historical fiction and I was up against vampires,” she says. “I was up against Twilight and things like that.”
Those books remain unpublished, but they did lead her to the promised land, albeit indirectly. By 2013, she had channeled her love of history into A Brief History of Safety Harbor (The History Press) in collaboration with fellow Safety Harbor literary figure Warren Firschein.
Her collaboration with Firschein also extended to what may be Safety Harbor’s most ambitious literary production, the literary journal The Odet. With Kepner as Editor in Chief and Firschein as Managing Editor, the journal is intended to honor Florida’s storytelling traditions. In fact, the journal takes its name from Odet Philippe, a serial spinner of tall tales who claimed, among other things, to be a nephew of the King of France.
Kepner’s most recent project may also provide the most important lesson for writers looking to make both an impact and a living. She’s just finished collecting submissions for the Rainy Day Sidewalk Poetry Project, which she’ll stencil onto Safety Harbor sidewalks using paint that only appears when wet. She received a grant from the city to execute the idea, and encourages writers to look at public art initiatives usually dominated by visual artists.
“That feels really good, when you work hard and you get a paycheck.”
But the truth is, Kepner still gets little or no pay for a lot of the work she does for her community and her fellow writers. In a country and era obsessed with money, it’s easy to be puzzled by that sort of selfless dedication. But Kepner’s motivations are as rich and varied as the places they take her:
“I really believe in my community. I know it sounds sappy, but those of us who are creative and can promote the arts, we should, because they’re precious right now. And it does feed me to do this — I feel inspired.”
She’s channeling that inspiration into more books, including a book about writing and another novel, and she’s considering self-publishing the books sitting in her drawer. She also, fortunately, has a few more places to sit.
“We finally bought furniture,” she laughs, “So I’m okay in that department.”