5 Reasons Why a Writer Should Move to Tampa
Welcome to the Lightning Capital of North America
Goodbye, North. Hello, South, It’s so cold up here that the words freeze in your mouth
–Bessie Smith, “Florida Bound Blues”
The flash-bang of thunderstorms a hundred days of the year has earned Tampa the dazzling title of Lightning Capital of North America. Yet, the electric city and greater Tampa Bay area also shimmer from the fusion of rich cross-cultural heritages, magnificent flora and fauna, and an ardent grassroots literary community that welcomes new writers—or old writers seeking a warmer clime.
Tampa is the largest of the Gulf Coast cities collectively known as Tampa Bay, which also includes white-sand-beached Clearwater and St. Petersburg. These three, along with an assembly of smaller cities, towns, and unincorporated communities, comprise the region that is home to over three million residents sunkissed, between midafternoon rainy season thunderstorms, by 361 days of sunshine. Beyond the graduate writing programs at University of Tampa and University of South Florida, the lovely weather, low cost of living, dynamic arts scene, and natural beauty continue to draw writers to the glittering sunset shores of Tampa Bay.
Natural World—not just Swamplandia!
Far off in the red mangroves an alligator has heaved himself onto a hummock of grass and lies there, studying his poems.
We writers need long moments when we can look away from the black and white of our stories and let our minds wander. Florida’s wild and strange beauty feels like another world, and Tampa’s unique flora and fauna can reunite a heady mind of words with sensual experiences.
Home to mangrove forests and marshy canoe and kayak trails, nature-loving literati will find the natural Florida habitats throbbing with migratory birds, gators, turtles, and dopey-sweet manatees. Year-round, heron, egret, laughing gulls, and more than two dozen other birds make their home in and around Tampa Bay’s two national wildlife refuges, Pinellas National Wildlife Refuge and Egmont Key. North of Tampa, one of the largest big cat sanctuaries in the world, Big Cat Rescue, offers visitors tours of rescued and rehabilitated exotic felines—more than 80 lions, tigers, bobcats, cougars and other species.
Tampa’s nature is front and center, too: downtown’s Riverwalk wends along the Hillsborough River, which laces through the city. Pedestrians and bikers amble their way alongside water taxis and water bikes, past craft fairs, outdoor yoga, Tampa’s Museum of Art, the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and Floridian fare (including the popular Ulele’s alligator hushpuppies).
Ybor City’s Vibrant Culture and History
Let me in, sweetie, to your fair land. I’m Tampa bound. . .
–The Rolling Stones, “Rip This Joint”
Mother Nature isn’t the only source of inspiration to be found here—Tampa has a long, colorful history. The Ybor neighborhood is famous for the cigar factories that drew thousands of immigrants in the late 1880s from the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. In the nearly century and a half since this cigar town was first settled, the area has grown into a colorful patchwork of languages, cultures, folk tales, and personal histories. From journalists and novelists to literary activists, Ybor’s vibrant festivals swell with inspiring communities. A local coalition GaYbor hosts the annual Pride Festival and Parade, and the annual Fiesta Day (this year marked Ybor’s 71st) celebrates the cuisine, cultures, and heritage of the Cuban, Italian, African, Spanish, Jewish, and German immigrants who settled the region at the turn of the 19th century.
One unique literary tradition brought over from Cuba to Tampa’s cigar factories in the early days of Ybor City is the los lectores, who were hired specifically to read novels and news aloud while the factory workers quietly de-stemmed and rolled cigars. Los lectores were the local heroes 130 years ago. Today, Lector Wine Bar, “Natural Wine Shoppe by Day; Contemporary Lit Space by the Light of the Moon,” honors this literary history in Tampa Heights with author readings, open mic nights, and writers’ residencies, which offers visiting writers a few weeks of modest accommodations in town.
A Wide Selection of Bookstores
Age appears best in four things:
old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read.
Half the joy of getting a book is getting lost in the stacks. Here, a number of independent bookstores offer curated collections, reading series, book clubs, and gathering spots. Best Books & Rich Treasures in Ybor city sells new, used, and rare books across genres, with particular specialization in African diaspora. Inkwood Books in Tampa Heights hosts regular author readings and monthly book club events for kids, teens, and adults, the latter of which is moderated by local author and literary editor in resident, Lorin Oberweger. Not far away, the Old Tampa Book Company is an old book-lover sanctuary, with over 40,000 new, used, and rare books on virtually every subject. Just a few minutes’ walk between Inkwood and Old Tampa Book Company lands you at Café Hey, which hosts a poetry and music open mic every Thursday night.
On the other side of the river, near University of Tampa, find the quirky and cool Oxford Exchange in a renovated 1900s building. Part large house, part small town, its delightfully curated bookstore, organic restaurant, home décor shop, and community gathering space has breathed new life into the district with author book signings, workshops, book clubs, lectures, and social events.
Close to the University of South Florida campus, Tampa’s largest independent bookstore and record shop, Mojo Books & Records, is a favorite books, music, and coffee gathering spot for writers and students.
Writers Retreats in a Backyard Paradise
Down in the St. Pete, Florida, I found my baby there
–Ray Charles, “St. Pete Blues”
Although much of a writer’s work is spent in solitude, Tampa also offers a passionate community of bibliophiles. The Festival of Reading, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, takes place every fall on the University of South Florida campus. USF is home to the Saw Palm literary journal, which celebrates Florida authors and themes; an MFA program; the USF Lecture Series; the USF Humanities Institute; and the Florida Literary Arts Coalition, which frequently hosts readings, master classes, and day-long workshops around the city. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute offers literature and writing courses for the 50 and up age group, along with a Friday free lecture series.
For complete immersion, every January writers gather for eight days on the beautiful Eckerd College campus for master workshops at Writers in Paradise. In May, Saint Leo University hosts an annual one-day Sandhill Writers Retreat. Every April, book sellers from all around descend on Tampa for the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair, the oldest and largest booksellers’ fair in the southeastern U.S.
Job Opportunities, Both Literary and. . . Otherwise
Sometimes I think I’ve figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida, swamped by incongruity and paradox, and I have to start all over again.
–Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief
For the teaching writer, there are over 20 colleges within 25 miles of Tampa’s center. The burgeoning energy, tech, and construction industries means that communication, technical writing, and content strategy career paths are wide open. Tampa living is 43 percent cheaper than Los Angeles and 48 percent cheaper than New York. For that bang, you get more for the buck, and more mornings to devote to writing the next Times bestseller.
Of course, it is still Florida: a state of curios, folklore, and fanciful whimsy. Springtime in Tampa is called “Gasparilla Season” and dedicated to the mythical aristocrat-turned-pirate, José Gaspar, who supposedly terrorized the Gulf of Mexico. So, there’s always a need for pirate impersonators. If mermaids are more your thing, Weeki Wachee Springs is only an hour away (and hiring!).