If I’m being totally honest, I certainly didn’t expect the most memorable experiences of my Iceland Writers Retreat to occur indoors. In my defense, the reasoning seemed obvious at the time — it’s the “I” of IWR — but I still hesitate to admit it now. I was so impressed with the sharp minds and incredible writers at IWR that I don’t want to embody the quip, so often misattributed to Twain, about what happens when fools open their mouths. And yet, here we are.
The promise of the Icelandic landscape initially drew me in. In part, this can be attributed to the total dearth of photographs of hotel conference rooms in Iceland’s tourism adverts. Though, probably more of it has to do with the fact that I am only semi-domesticated. That I feel so much more myself with grass underfoot and foliage overhead in place of carpet and fluorescents. I’m happy to say that this part of me was not left wanting as we traveled the Golden Circle on my first day of the retreat. From Geysir to Gullfoss and Thingvellir, my eyes (and camera) feasted. And then, each clear night thereafter, I got to watch the northern lights dance until my toes threatened to secede from my feet.
How funny it was, then, for me, this semi-feral part-ape man, to arrive for my first workshop the next day and discover just how tame my writing practice had become while I wasn’t paying attention. That first session, Priya Basil led us through an exercise where we welcomed abrupt and unplanned transitions. We jumped from one topic to another, which allowed the subconscious to weave connections from seemingly disparate prompts. This twenty minutes was so productive that afterwards I declared I would pay good money for an app that replicated the exercise where she read a random word every four minutes. She was not swayed then, but the offer still stands.
Though it sounds borderline obsequious, IWR knows how to do programming. Every workshop I attended was just as good and productive as the first. Elizabeth Renzetti got us into the point of view of other characters from our own memories; Chigozie Obioma steered us through character-generated plots and the difference between tales and stories; Tessa Hadley’s love of craft was twice as infectious in person as it is on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast as we dissected a short story word for word, finding new and deeper meanings in every line; and Lina Meruane guided us through an exercise to generate a story from two random photographs put into relation. In this last session, because of the unique interaction of my two images, I may have unwittingly taken my first steps into writing… well, let’s call it Romance and hope for the best. I walked away from each workshop invigorated and with an idea of something new and unexpected to write once I returned. Each session pushed us to expand our practice and suggested new ways to unbridle our writing.
But perhaps the most meaningful moment I had (indoors of all places) was also the most personal. On that Golden Circle tour our first day, the last stop was at Gljufrasteinn, the former home of Nobel prize winning author Halldor Laxness. We were in a rush to return in time for a visit to the President’s residence (#humblebrag) and we’d just seen, in order, a geyser, the largest waterfall by volume in Iceland, and the place where the European and North American tectonic plates drift apart 1cm at a time. The house seemed like an afterthought sandwiched between the geological and political events of the day. Until, that is, I stepped inside.
Audur Jónsdóttir’s memories of her grandfather lulled me somewhat out of the present. It seemed like with each word about this great author who was, to her, just a grand-dad, she sparked a memory of my own. The eclectic decor, like the zebra print couch that ran beneath an expansive window, the smell of old books, the paintings on the wall, and the tasteful midcentury modern furniture all (perhaps counterintuitively) fit together. It matched the charming stories of this man’s daily walks up the nearest mountain.
The house and her memories reminded me of my own departed Uncle and his home. A landscape painter of some small local renown, my Uncle Tom had been one of my first intellectual idols. When he passed away, rather than flowers, paint brushes were dropped on his casket. I frequently think of his studio, with the pile of canvases and prints against one wall. And the corner next to the sliding glass door where he set up his still-life compositions. The small mounds of dried oil paints and the piney smell of the cleaner that got them off his brushes. The only furniture in the studio was a humble chair in front of the easel.
My uncle was technically color-blind. It’s part of what made his paintings unique. He would paint a landscape and throughout there would be scattered, impressionistic pops of unexpected colors. Purples amidst greens. Blues with yellows. To him, these were not flourishes. The shade fit, even if the hue— that he could not discern— did not. His paintings all contained these small surprises and were elevated by them.
In Halldor Laxness’s den, I sat listening to Audur speak with warmth and love about this famous man who was never too busy to be a good grandfather, and I felt so close to being back at my Uncle’s. It is only in hindsight that I recognize how this all too brief visit foreshadowed my week at the Iceland Writers Retreat. How it would be about the joy and power of discovering the unexpected and integrating it into our own work.
Dan is currently a member of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. You can find him online at danmusgrave.com