Life, if you’re extremely fortunate, blesses you with a few defining experiences — journeys that clear the fog over your ultimate destination, that bring you closer to yourself, and simply, ones that take your breath away. The Iceland Writers Retreat was one such experience for me.
Back in December last year, when I learnt I was one of the recipients of the IWR Alumni Award, my first reaction was disbelief, followed by insurmountable gratitude. I couldn’t wait to get to Iceland, and experience this gorgeous little Nordic nation in the middle of the North Atlantic, its rich literature, and her keepers. I was looking forward to my interactions with the IWR faculty, and learn from them in those mindfully-designed, eclectic set of workshops. But the experience I had during those five days went beyond these tangible flashes of pleasure.
The most unique part about IWR for me was the brilliant combination of writing workshops and cultural tours. At first, I assumed that the cultural tours were meant only to help us view the many prolific natural wonders that Iceland is famous for. But as we went about the tours, which had a strong literary bent enabled via readings from local Icelandic authors, I realised the relevance of that natural beauty to Icelandic writers, and why exactly IWR had decided to make the tours part of the writers’ retreat.
For example, at Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness’ home, Gljúfrasteinn, the care-taker, Margret Marteinsdottir told us how the country’s natural beauty was a source of creative inspiration for the brilliant twentieth-century writer. “He would walk for five hours every day in the woods around his home, and would return inspired,” she said. The man penned 62 works of writing over seven decades — novels, poetry, plays, short stories, essays and memoirs, which were translated into 43 languages.
With such interactions, it was during these cultural tours that we got closer to Iceland’s raw beauty, agreed with Laxness’ view of it, and to some extent, started hoping for the literary inspiration the vistas had left him with.
It’s almost poetic romance, the idea of a writers’ retreat in the land of ice and fire. The Scandinavian nation, I noticed, was gorgeous in its own unconventional right. Home to just 340,000 people, its landscapes are untouched, dotted with striking contrasts – stretches of yellow grass juxtaposed with black igneous rocks from centuries of lava depositions, golden basalt caves in the backdrop of black sand beaches with boulders of ice adorning their shores, and thundering waterfalls next to silent, stagnant seas of snow.
With 110 participants from 17 countries, I met writers from all over the world at IWR — those who had written multiple books, and those who were struggling to bring themselves to write, those who walk around with fantasy worlds within them, and those who wish to capture the difficult reality around them. And with each encounter, I felt inspired.
Being in that space with fellow writers, I realised that we were similar in the fact that we were all at the retreat to be better wordsmiths, but the similarities also extended to our determination when it came to the art of writing, our vulnerability in terms of its craft, and our passion to tell the stories we hold dear. IWR created a community of like-minded people for me, a community with a strong sense of belonging — something, which is matchless and invaluable.
The most important highlight of the retreat, the writing workshops, were conducted by some of the most brilliant writers in the world, including Pamela Paul, author and editor of The New York Times Book Review, Susan Shreve, award-winning author of fourteen novels, and Craig Davidson, whose literary fiction, Rust and Bone was made into an Oscar-nominated feature film of the same name.
The workshops were eclectic and varied in their discourse, rooted deeply in the technical nuts and bolts of writing – creating captivating anti-heroes, sensory writing, plotting non-linear fiction, writing to inspire, writing humour, to become another person when writing, and learning how to outline your novel, among other subjects. There was a lot that I learnt during these workshops, which were mindfully organised as small-group classes, limited to fifteen participants. This ensured close interactions with the faculty, allowing an informal and constructive exchange of ideas.
While the workshops delved into the fundamentals of the craft of writing, a Q & A session with the faculty on the last day put focus on its practicalities, and how one can deal with its many challenges. The floor was open for the attendees, and we could ask whatever question we wanted. Although an informal interaction, I returned with several practical tips on becoming a better, more productive writer.
For example, writer Lauren Groff shared the importance of protecting one’s writing hours, and how she has “built very high walls,” and dedicates every morning until 3 pm to writing alone. Other faculty members shared how setting daily word-count targets help, how exercise should be part of a writers’ routine since writing is a physically-straining job, and how one should not wait for inspiration. “It isn’t coming,” said the writer, “So just quit the wait, and start writing now.”
Another highlight of IWR was the literary walking tour around Reykjavik. “There are more statues of artists in Reykjavik than politicians,” said the tour guide, also a local author, as she walked us around the UNESCO City of Literature, and introduced us to the many literary sites in Reykjavik. We witnessed similar veneration for literature when we interacted with Iceland’s president, Gudni Johanneson during an IWR reception at his official residence, and when we met Lif Magneudottir, president of the Reykjavik City Council during a reception hosted by the City of Reykjavik at City Hall. We all could feel the love Icelanders hold for literature, and although I didn’t realise it then, it was contagious.
Through each of the encounters and experience at IWR, I could feel my passion for writing soar, and I returned home a much more equipped and passionate writer. In the two months since, I’ve not only come up with an idea for my second non-fiction book, but have also signed with a leading Indian publisher for it. That’s what IWR has left me with — a priceless, intangible experience, which is now quietly guiding the course of my life, directing me closer to my dreams.
What you take from Iceland: soil the color of rust. Grey sky-hue of Hallgrimskirkja. Mountains shawling fog around their shoulders. Mustard yellows of cottages in Reykjavík. Spurt of geysers hissing up into an April afternoon. Arctic winds jostling you off your feet.
To experience such a landscape, to amble in it, to breathe its glacial air, to have it whistle its mysteries into your ear, is something that a writer can only dream of. It enlarges the imagination. Time warps in the strange spring light. ‘The end is in the beginning and lies far ahead,’ the narrator of Invisible Man says, and here you are reminded of those words. You feel as though you are at the end of time and at its beginning all at once.
As spectacular as it is, that scenery is simply a backdrop for the books. There’s the pleasure of listening to a rowdy 80 year old tell the story of her life in Hallgrímur Helgason’s Woman at a 1,000 Degrees. Debates about wickedness in ‘The Wife of Bath’ and Lolita in a workshop with Lauren Groff. Dissections of the twists and turns of narration in The Polyglot Lovers with Lina Wolff.
You leave brimming with inspiration from these conversations. Thinking about how to apply lessons to the novel you’re finishing, set in a landscape very different from the one you wander through in Iceland. A landscape on the equator, of desert dunes and swamplands and spotted cattle and temperatures that feel like a 1,000 degrees indeed.
You meet strangers who become friends. A Nigerian author who paints a gorgeous scene of a boy sitting atop an old fridge on a beach in Lagos. An Indian writer who presses little gifts from Mumbai into your hands. An American author who opens her door to you and conjures up for you the bustling alleyways of Barcelona.
And you laugh. At one reading the former mayor of Reykjavík evokes his childhood disorientation at the many strangers he meets in the Icelandic countryside who turn out to be…relatives. You laugh so hard you are in tears at this mirror-image of your own confusion as a child stumbling amongst aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins in Sudan.
Beyond the laughter, you are reminded that each word on a page is a step that bridges the gap between yourself and other selves. Your world and other worlds. It’s why you’ve always been drawn to books. And why you are ever so grateful that they’ve set you down in Iceland, crossed you from Khartoum to Reykjavík.
Fatin Abbas was a recipient of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award in 2018. We are currently fundraising to be able to offer this scholarship again for 2019. To contribute, click here.
What if I told you how brave, accomplished, and assertive I felt when I registered way back during the summer of 2017? It was taking place in one of my favorite places on this planet. And I was to learn so much.
Romantically I saw myself as looking out the window between finely crafted words, at the black and white diapo landscape. The blue ice cube glaciers at Jokulsarlon lagoon yonder on the horizon, glinting in the sun. Geysirs bubbling happily across the stark scenario and my writing flowing like its gorgeous and diverse waterfalls. I would be inspired by its plenty literary muses, immersed in a bubble with its silent icy mists and steaming thermal waters surrounding me. Totally concentrated with razor sharp focus. And my iPad.
And so, busy as a bee. I submerged my fantasies, illusions and expectations into the dark, healing waters of the Secret Lagoon of my subconscious. It was done. Back into my frazzled life as a CranioSacral therapist, wife, mother, grandmother, orchid collector by day, and reader and writer by night. Stealing blinks of time from my colored agenda: Grandchildren circled in fluorescent MeTime pink, caring for my Orchids, Laundry and Groceries in HomeTime yellow, CST appointments in PatientsTime blue, and home managing in FinanceTime green.
So far, writing for me was a hobby. Pleasing, satisfying, therapeutic and cathartic. I had no WritingTime color circling any space on my book. Nada, nothing in any page. I’ve always described myself as a reader. In spite of being half way into my project of a thirteen short story collection, & taken several fiction and nonfiction workshops. Writing still was a hobby for me.
Seriously? Writer? Me?
What if I told you how intimidated I was feeling as time approached and gnawing self doubt reared its ugly head?
While riding the short distance from Odinsgata to the Natura Hotel, I felt like a tweenie all dressed up, going to her first prom. Butterflies in my stomach? You gotta be kidding me.
Moths more like it.
What on earth possessed me to think I belonged in this exalted level of talent, creativity and expertise? Words like Fellowships, Awards, X many books published, daunted & haunted me. What was I doing entering the sacrosanctum lobby and registering in this Retreat for Writers? Why wasn’t I soaking in Sundhollin pool, or trekking Landmannalaugar? When I reached my room, after receiving my black ‘goody bag’ from the welcoming, smiling staff, I wondered if I shouldn’t be running across the tarmac I could see through my window, to the first plane out to Akureyri, Greenland, or the Faroes, instead.
Far, far away from making a fool of myself.
Ok, I confess I love Iceland, Icelanders, Icelandic lopapeysa sweaters, Icelandic smart and distant sense of humor, not to mention the Canelle Snudurs from Sandholt, Messinn’s Atlantic Char, Gæsabringa slices with Raspberry Vinagrette from The Deli, Skyr, Lamb Grilled Koftas from Alibaba, Kjötsúpa from any petrol station, and my new obsession: Loki’s Rye Bread Ice Cream with Whipped Cream, drizzled with Rhubarb Caramelized Syrup — I bought a tiny bottle of it so I can smell & taste Iceland every time I open it back home in Florida. A whiff of its earthy, creamy, tart and sweet aromas magically making Íslands come back to life. Thankfully NO whiffs of fermented shark, thank you very much.
So, I was here, entering the Dinner and Readings. Sit with us close by the mic — as suggested by my new friends, repeat alums Rosie and Ian. ‘Live in the moment. Smile. Breathe deeply in and exhale slowly out’— As directed by myself. Worse case scenario, I would take notes, and try my best to keep silent with an intensely creative expression on my face throughout the workshops.
Loved hearing the stories read. Started melting into my surroundings. Restless night with weird dreams.
When I stepped into my first workshop, the one by the fantastic Lina Wolff about “Plotting and Writing Non – Linear Fiction”, and later her “Creating Antiheroes” and then both of Rory Maclean’s Travel Writing workshops, and finally Lauren Groff’s brilliant one on “Gaps, Spaces and Silences” I had stopped feeling like an isolated molecule, an outsider, a dwarf comet passing by into the void.
I’ve never felt more at home. I belonged. I became part of the live, pulsing, creative body of this wondrous galaxy of writers. By the time I exited the Q&A Panel Final session, I had finally assumed my craft. It was my language, I was a writer. I was hearing a reflection of my own intuition. It resonated with what I felt should be, from the gut. I had gained confidence. I volunteered to read out loud my class exercises. I recognized myself as being part of this pack. I trusted my ability. I metabolized everything I learned. So…
What if I told you I came out of 2018 IWR enveloped in my newly minted creative self with the word WRITER engraved in my mind, heart and soul? Learning so many techniques was invaluable. Now, I not only know and own these tools. But most importantly, I own the acquired confidence and self acceptance that I AM a writer. With the multitude of colors of the landscapes of my travels, weaved by the myths and legends of my Venezuela and adopted Ireland and Iceland, I intend to circle lots of WritingTime in my book.
#AmWriter……………………………………. Janine Vici Campbell
Throughout the years I had been hoping for an opportunity to get away from my hectic lifestyle and just focus on myself and what I enjoy doing the most—writing. The unique picturesque scenery, the rich literary culture, the people—every nook and cranny of Iceland promised me just that, making the Iceland Writers Retreat an experience I can never forget. I embarked on this journey with an open mind and a blank notebook, seeking to fuel up my passion and harvest my skills. The Iceland Writers Retreat was, for me, chance to feel part of a family with like-minded goals and aspirations, exchange ideas and tips in small intimate groups and build precious friendships in the process. The workshops offered were tailored to focus on the different aspects of writing, ranging from plot construction to experimenting with different literary genres. It was a pleasure for me to discuss, learn, and grow as a writer, thanks to the feedback provided by my designated tutors after a number of hands-on exercises. I was moreover thrilled with the activities programme, every single one intended as testimony to the nation’s love for the written word. Now I understand where it all comes from and would like to heartily thank Eliza, Erica, and all the organizers of the Iceland Writers Retreat for making this possible. I feel inspired, recharged and ready to take on new writing ventures, keeping Iceland both in my mind and heart.
Michael Agugom was a recipient of an Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award in 2018
Here is something: I am learning to be brave. This is not the same thing as learning to be fearless. One needs to be afraid in order to be brave, otherwise there is no cause for bravery.
IWR 2018 has come and gone, but as we look towards 2019 let’s revisit some highlights from this April.
Our social media and marketing intern reflects on the 2018 Iceland Writers Retreat
Iceland Writers Retreat is done for another year! Thank you to all of our participants and faculty for joining us in Reykjavik. The 2018 Retreat added a new tour, hosted 22 workshops, and boasted participants from around the world. We will post more details soon, including photos and some blog posts from participants.
If you want to join us next year, save the date for April 3-7, 2019!
I am writing this blog entry in the back of a tour bus parked at the home of Icelandic Nobel Prize-winner Halldor Laxness, surrounded by an expanse of volcanic soil that swells into the peaks of small mountains that look like the knuckles of huge hands folded together in contemplation. Which seems fitting for a land of epic sagas and rich literary traditions. And sure, perhaps it is too easy to look to the dramatic landscape and say yes, of course this land is populated with writers moved to create epics that overlay this earth with monsters, magic, heroes, and trolls. How could it not be so with land like this as their setting? But as the rain taps like a metronome on the bus windows, urging me on in my typing, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I feel as if all the elements around me are undeniably evocative of the mysterious, the mystic, and the sublime. So maybe I’m easy, maybe I’m stating the obvious, but it just makes a kind of sense to me now that I am really here experiencing the inspiration of this landscape that I just didn’t fully grasp from reading about it. From the volcanic landscape that is at once otherworldly and idyllic, to the air so fresh it is almost alive, to the sound of unseen birds and sudden rains, to the constant mists and fogs that seem to dissipate and appear at will, there is inspiration everywhere here in Iceland, and since I’ve been at the IWR I’ve just been soaking it in.
Sarah Barnes was a participant at IWR 2018. We will be sharing alumni stories in the coming weeks, so please send us any writing you would like us to share.”