Note to organisers: I hope you are sitting down as you are reading this. I know this is not the kind of feedback you would want bandied about for all the world to see, so I will fully understand and respect your position if you decide not to publish this. Sorry guys, I’m going to be brutally honest.
So these are some of the emotions that IWR 2019 triggered in me…
FEAR crept up my backbone as I read the headline, just a couple of weeks before the event: “Massive Strike in the Works in Iceland”. My insides were in liquid state by the time I reached the bottom of the article: Icelandic bus drivers and hotel employees would be on strike for three full days bang in the middle of the IWR! Oh shit! Some too-vivid images started to form in my head: my (not-even-remotely-athletic) self starting to walk from the airport in the direction of the hotel. My numb fingers frozen around the handle of my suitcase, struggling to drag it behind me while bravely facing a raging blizzard. With luck I’d manage to hitch a ride, and I saw myself hauling my suitcase up into a massive truck, with a big blond toothless smile greeting me from behind the steering wheel. You wouldn’t want to hear how the rest of that vision went…
Happily, all my fears turned out to be unfounded, not because the strike was called off, but because Eliza, Erica and their team had devised an extraordinary Plan B that was more like Plan P for Perfect. They had thought about and addressed every little detail, and as it were I’m pretty sure that, had the strike happened, we would have hardly noticed.
Thinking about it, I am now actually sorry that the strike didn’t happen. The strike-scenario images in my head are of (the not-at-all-unlikely possibility of) being driven from the airport to the hotel, or indeed my bed being made in the morning, by the First Lady of Iceland herself! Or how about touring the wild wonders of Iceland – again, driven by the First Lady – and getting to know that our tall, erudite tour guide was none other than the President of the country? How cool would that have been? Perhaps the strike being called off wasn’t such a lucky strike after all…
DISGUST was what I felt when I found out that, among the workshops offered, two were actually about Writing Rubbish! I turned up my nose disdainfully, thinking, Well I’ve been writing rubbish every single day of my life, Ms Sarah Moss! I certainly need no tips for that (excuse the pun and thank you very much!) I signed up for it anyway, and was surprised to find myself enjoying a fascinating discussion about a fascinating collection of rubbish from all around the world. I was impressed, litter-ally! In fact, now that I’m back in Malta it’s my neighbours’ noses that are being turned up in disgust every morning, at the sight of me peering through their rubbish bags, sometimes even bending down over a particularly intriguing specimen and turning it over for a closer look!
The rest of the workshops also had some pretty interesting effects on me (and my bodily fluids). I broke out into a sweat when Lina Meruane asked us to write and I couldn’t manage to string a single sentence, let alone a whole little story. I literally shed tears when Ann Hood asked us to write about food and emotions, which drove me to let out a pretty painful scribble about split pea soup and my dear departed daddy. And I was drooling in Louis de Bernières’ classes in the idle hope that a drop of his literary genius could somehow rub off and make its way to me! I dare not imagine what might have happened had I signed up for one of Ivan Coyote’s (undoubtedly hilarious) workshops…
ANGER keeps welling up inside me when I think of the capricious Northern Lights, which showed themselves to everyone in Iceland during IWR week, except me! Deep into the night I was two hours out of Reykjavik feeling confident that I was about to tick that right off my bucket list. But it was not to be. For more than an hour my little Mediterranean body, sunkissed since birth, was made to stand shivering in Arctic temperatures, squinting in vain at a pitch-black sky. It was silently screaming at me: WTF?! What are we doing in this freezing hell? I tried to explain patiently: We’re waiting for Aurora Borealis. She’s right there, behind those clouds. It’s showing on that guy’s camera, see? We just have to wait for the clouds to move away, then we’ll be able to see it with our naked eye and rejoice. My body, itself feeling naked despite being wrapped up in all the clothes I had brought with me to Iceland, was not impressed. It gloated – I told you it was pointless! What a sheer waste of five precious sleeping hours! – as we made our way back to Reykjavik, having seen absolutely nothing, bucket list still intact.
Sure enough, my disenchanted body refused to repeat the attempt another night. I did glimpse a shadow of the elusive lights from outside our hotel one night, but peering at them from a brightly-lit airfield doesn’t quite cut it, does it?
I could say a lot about another set of emotions that IWR fired up in me: EXCITEMENT, SURPRISE, JOY… but then I’d have to use a lot of boring adjectives like amazing, friendly, wonderful, delicious, beautiful, breathtaking… I think I’ll spare you all that cheesy, touristy stuff and stop right here…
Note to Eliza, Erica, faculty and the rest of the organising team: THANK YOU! WELL DONE! Sorry (for that missed heartbeat a little while ago)!
Note to fellow participants: You are such lovely people. Thank you for the smiles and the laughs and your friendship.
Note to Aurora Borealis: You haven’t seen the last of me!
Michael Agugom was a recipient of an Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award in 2018. This story was inspired by the 2018 Iceland-Nigeria World Cup match.
Thanks to generosity of our alumni and friends, we will be offering Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Awards for the 2019 event — three full and two partial scholarships. Full funding covers all participation of a “complete package” in the Iceland Writers Retreat, as detailed on our website (including accommodation). The scholarship also includes round-trip flights to Iceland. Partial funding covers the participant fee for the Standard Package only, and neither accommodation nor round trip flights.
The recipients will be chosen based primarily on two factors: a) The potential they demonstrate (or has demonstrated) as a writer and b) Their need for financial support to be able to attend. We will also evaluate based on the other questions in the application, though, so make sure to tell us about yourself and why you think you’d be the perfect match for the Iceland Writers Retreat. (Please don’t just tell us how you have always wanted to visit Iceland.)
We will begin accepting applications and linking to the form to apply from 1 September. Full details on how to apply will be posted at that time. It will be free to submit an application, but follow the instructions carefully, as incomplete submissions will not be considered.
We are so pleased to be offering the IWR Alumni Award for the fourth time. We are extremely grateful for the generosity of our alumni and friends.
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.
We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Catherine Wayne joined us in 2014 and 2016.
Catherine is the author of the Edda Melkorka children’s series: Too Many Pets and So Many Rainbows as well as a number of specialized College text books. She lives with her husband in Merritt, British Columbia. For more information you can check out her website Global Grammas.
How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?
My daughter, Robyn Phaedra Mitchell, has lived in Iceland for about fifteen years. She and I had been talking about writing the Edda series (based on the adventures of my Icelandic granddaughter) and she told me about the IWR. Going to the Retreat was an excuse to also visit Edda Melkorka.
Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat, either as faculty or as a participant? If yes, how did the experience benefit you and/or your writing?
I’ve been retired for a few years now but during my working life I both attended and led seminars on technical writing which is quite different from story writing.
What did you most look forward to about the Retreat?
Meeting with others who are as passionate about writing as I am to exchange ideas and experiences.
Did it match up to your expectations?
I think the Retreat exceeded my expectations. Talking to people from all over the world who have things to share about how they see life was quite a treat and getting to meet with very successful writers in a number of genres was inspiring for me.
What was the biggest lesson you took from the retreat? Or perhaps a piece of advice, or writing exercise that had an impact on your writing?
First, that there is no one “right” way to write. Everyone I spoke or listened to has a different process. The process I heard about that I could really relate to was Miriam Toews’ who said she thought about and suffered over her stories for ages and then just sat down and wrote them. That describes my process perfectly. I think about the story; do some research; lie awake at night figuring out the details; obsess about characters for a few weeks and then just sit down and slam out the first draft. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in the process.
Second, was a writing exercise in one of the workshops that had everyone in the room contribute one word and then all the people in the room having to write a quick story using those words. It was a great demonstration that language, even if it’s not language you choose yourself, can still tell the story you want to tell.
What and/or who do you find inspiring?
I am consistently amazed at the creativity of children and I guess that’s why I like to write for children. I love listening to kids expound on their views of the world and how it works.
How has writing influenced your life?
Writing is my way of staying in touch. I think so much is lost to the ether when your message is limited to 160 characters. I still write long letters to people and send them by post. I get letters too from nieces or brothers or cousins which is something I really enjoy. I think I get this from my Mom who was a great correspondent and taught me early that if you send letters to people, you get to look forward to getting mail. I think of my stories as a way of corresponding with future generations.
What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?
Discipline. I could spend forever thinking about my stories and figuring out each and every small detail. I have to make myself sit down and actually write. Once I start, I am good for a few hours at least, but it’s getting that first word on the page that I have trouble with.
What are you working on currently and/or is there anything exciting that has happened in your writing life since the retreat?
I currently have a couple of projects on the go:
- I have been doing genealogical research about my Mom’s side of the family with the idea that I will tell a fictionalized version of that story.
- The next in the Edda series is in process. This one may end up being a cookbook. Not sure yet. We are still in the thinking, researching, and suffering stage.
Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?
I will be forever grateful to the “Viking” who took my daughter to Iceland. If not for him, I would never have discovered this astounding little part of the world. If I was able, I would attend IWR every year because there is so much to learn and so many people to learn it from. IWR is a fabulous opportunity to meet and talk with storytellers from all over the world.