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.