When I was asked to write about Iceland for the IWR, I didn’t know what to say. I’d applied in late 2016, sceptical of my chances, and somehow won a bursary. I’d have to find my own accommodation, source my own transport, but the Retreat would be paid for. I’d been studying Icelandic on and off for over three years, translating old sagas (badly) and failing to learn the grammar, and I’d built Iceland up to be some kind of solution to whatever problems I’d been facing – and not just of the literary kind. Life had taken unexpected and interesting directions, and I was still finding my feet on these new paths. For whatever reason, I was looking to Iceland as a place to go to clear my head, to find inspiration, and to kickstart my Difficult Second Novel, amongst other things. So when I was asked to write about Iceland, I didn’t know what to say. It was too complicated to express simply.
Or was it? Iceland – and more precisely, my time at the Retreat – was transformative. I mean that genuinely, without pretension, without being grandiose. Some things we experience change us slightly, some greatly, and to spend a week in the company of writers, in another country, in the folds of another language, would have been special even if that was all it had been. But on top of that, we had a welcome drinks reception at Bessastaðir, the presidential residence no less; we went to a whale party with a handful of ambassadors (and for those who remember the adverts, no, there were no Ferrero Rocher); at City Hall, overlooking what is rather modestly called ‘the pond’ á íslensku, I ate the most wonderful chocolate-coated strawberries I remember ever eating; I got to share a coach into the wilderness with prize-winning authors who were the most approachable and interesting people, and not in the slightest removed from the sense of belonging, the in-the-same-boatness of it all that one feels when one is bussed to a waterfall in the freezing rain and just happen to be sitting next to forty other people who have written books, or are at least trying to. Even the tour guide on our day trip was a writer. So many writers! There was no escaping these people! Nor did I ever want to. They were, to a one, excellent company.
The primary content of the Retreat is ostensibly its panoply of workshops. I’ve been to classes like these before, and even used to run some myself, so I know how they go. My stand-out favourite was Madeleine Thien, who ran two groups: one on short-form fiction, the other on time in narrative. Her methods were inspiring. I came out of the first class with a surprising amount of fresh prose; I left the second with a lot of blank paper, but some clear ideas about what kind of writer I actually am. That’s hard to pull off in a couple of hours, and she did wonderfully.
Even so, when I was asked to write a 500-word piece for the IWR, I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t. The workshops, with all their engagement, frustrations, and joys, form nonetheless only part of my memory of the week. I met new people, and have stayed in touch with several. I spoke to the locals, in my best/worst Icelandic, and found that ‘potato’ is a fiendishly difficult word that sounds like an apologetic sneeze when done right/badly. But mostly, I did not want to leave. I truly felt at home there, and the Retreat enabled that magnificently. I’ve brought some of Iceland home with me, and some of me is still there. One day I shall go back, though whether to retrieve it or add to it, I am not at liberty to say. But when I do, I shall be writing, and perhaps it will be that Difficult Second Novel after all.
Watch photo highlights of the 2017 Iceland Writers Retreat here.
To help send deserving writers to the 2018 Iceland Writers Retreat, click here.Tags: Madeleine Thien, nathan ramsden