Self-Doubt, Socializing, and Success: Reflecting on What the Iceland Writers Retreat Taught Me about Being a Writer

Self-Doubt, Socializing, and Success: Reflecting on What the Iceland Writers Retreat Taught Me about Being a Writer

Writers are notorious introverts. We’re wonderful in our own heads but sometimes face challenges socializing in groups. So what happens when you put 120 writers together for a four-day writing conference? The answer: the international whirlwind that was the fourth annual Iceland Writers Retreat.

I arrived at Keflavik Airport at 6 a.m. on April 5, jittery with excitement and exhaustion. I had made it to Iceland. Next stop: Icelandair Hotel Reykjavík Natura. I had been working with the Iceland Writers Retreat for eight months as the Social Media and Marketing Intern to fulfill the practicum placement for my Master’s degree. I learned a lot through my role leading up to the Retreat, but nothing fully prepared me for what I experienced over those few days.

Iceland Writers Retreat 014 © Roman Gerasymenko

The faculty comprised of 12 renowned, critically acclaimed writers of a variety of forms and genres. Many of the participants too were published and recipients of awards and good reviews. Many of the participants proudly referred to themselves as writers—but not all of them. There is often uncertainty regarding who is entitled to the label of “writer”—is it only reserved for full-time professionals? Does it extend to those who write for a side project or a hobby? There are emerging writers as well. We are at the beginning of our careers and have not yet overcome imposter syndrome enough to consider ourselves as true writers. Despite the diversity of the group, writers we all were.

One of the problems with “writer” as an identifier is that it doesn’t seem to encompass the breadth of possibilities for writing. The participants, those who identified proudly as writers and those who didn’t, represented this breadth of work and art. Short stories, novels, essays, news articles, screenplays, blogs, doctoral theses, curatorial material for art exhibits. Mystery, history, speculative fiction, magical realism. Some participants worked in more than one genre or form, and others were at the Retreat to learn how to do just that. Some participants were full-time writers, and some of us were hobbyists or part-timers who worked primarily in similar fields, like publishing or communications. The workshops catered to topics that were on technical aspects of writing, like developing character and conducting research. Yet during the discussion periods of some of the workshops I attended, other points of conversation emerged. These conversations sought practical guidance that went beyond the initial manuscript. Emerging writers had the chance to ask questions about agents, editors, and self-publishing from established writers and other industry professionals. The friendliness and openness of the environment further encouraged these exchanges to continue past the end of the workshops.

Iceland Writers Retreat 036 © Roman Gerasymenko

Conversations of all kinds took place during the breaks between workshops, meals, and bus rides to and from sightseeing tours. The personalized schedules allowed for dynamic socializing; there was always someone to engage in conversation, and often in a new environment. I knew that the Retreat was a fantastic networking opportunity, but I was confused how to network with folks who were also introverts. As it turned out, this burdensome chore was so much easier than I thought. All I had to do was ask, “So what do you write?” to begin a conversation. Repeatedly asking the same question was a bit tedious, but it was fascinating that a simple question elicited an interesting and unique answer each time. It may not have been the most professional approach, but I ended up making meaningful connections with folks who happen to share similar professions. In the end, I think that might be the point.

Iceland Writers Retreat 032 © Roman Gerasymenko

A reception at the Whales of Iceland museum

Apart from exchanging personal contact information and asking writers how they launched their careers (crucial information for a grad student about to enter the “real world”), I focused my newfound “networking” skills toward learning what it means to be successful as a writer. The faculty consisted of writers who earned critical acclaim and coveted awards; yet, many of them expressed self-doubt over their work. Writing is subjective, and apparently, so is success. Although the numbers of copies sold or good reviews are great quantifiers, they do not encapsulate the full extent of being a successful writer. By the end of the final event of the Retreat, a Q&A session with all 12 faculty members, an answer to my query began to emerge. Telling a good story, finding truth, and building community through language seemed to be the defining qualities that we shared as writers on our distinct paths toward seeking, and earning, success. And I don’t need to fret if there’s some uncertainty along the way.

Iceland Writers Retreat 059 © Roman Gerasymenko

Q&A panel on the last morning of the Retreat

Author Reading at IÐNO 34 © Roman Gerasymenko

During the Q&A session, Paula McLain said, “To sit in the chair everyday is both my favourite thing and least favourite thing to do. And if you feel the same way, you know you’re a writer.”

Adriana Sgromo was the IWR’s Social Media and Marketing Intern in 2017. 

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