About Jessica Key

2019 Alumni Award Recipient Lola Opatayo’s Experience

2019 Alumni Award Recipient Lola Opatayo’s Experience

What were you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

I wanted to meet new people and gain new insights from the sessions.

Are there any exercises or bits of wisdom you heard at the Retreat that you look forward to using in your writing going forward?

The most important thing I learnt from Louis de Bernières is to enjoy the writing process, even if that means going against the norm. I needed to hear that, because I had been having a hard time with a project, trying to follow a “due process” that was clearly ineffective and frustrating. Now I’m particular about enjoying the process, I realize that if I’m not enjoying it, my readers probably wouldn’t too.

I learnt about paying more attention to the other senses. Prior to this, I’d really only concentrated on sight, touch, and a few times, smell. Now, it’s amazing to see how much more affective my stories are, because I’m adopting a wholistic, deliberate approach to conveying the senses. Paul Yoon taught this.

Another important thing I gathered from the retreat, is really fundamental. Chigozie Obioma expounded on characterization and how it’s important to check that that foundation has been well laid. It was really the answer to a question I went to the retreat with. As a result of this, I’m rewriting a significant portion of my novel.

Were there any other highlights of your time in Iceland?

Welcome dinnerI can’t talk about Iceland Writers Retreat without talking about the food! Gosh! I loved it all. It was delicious and healthy, and we were well-fed during and in-between meals.

I also enjoyed walking around Reykjavik and observing the lifestyle of the people. I was quite impressed with the warmth of the Icelandic people.

It was also such an honour to meet Audur Jónsdóttir, granddaughter of Halldór Laxness.

And yes, I made new friends that I’m happy to keep in touch with!

Is there anything else you think would be relevant to share with our followers?

Snowy MountainsIf you can make it to Reykjavik for this retreat, please do. And go on the Literary Borgarfjörđur tour! You would be incredibly inspired by the rich, intriguing history of the Icelandic people. If you do, look out for the snowy mountains, they’re majestic.

Lola blogs creative writing news and tips at lolaopatayo.com. Her work has appeared in Obsidian and Hot Metal Bridge. She is a recipient of the Iceland Writers Alumni Award. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria where she is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.

A Q&A with IWR 2019 Participant Stephanie Olivieri Bourbon

A Q&A with IWR 2019 Participant Stephanie Olivieri Bourbon

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally? 

I was searching for a writing event in Iceland because I wanted an excuse to visit and this one popped up. I have wanted to go ever since then. (2015)

Stephanie with friendsWhat were you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

Being in Iceland and meeting writers from all over the world. I feel like international writing events always bring something extra special to the table because we come from every corner of the globe with this one common thing—storytelling.

How has writing influenced your life?

It’s everything to me in so many ways that it’s hard to pinpoint. I wrote my first novel at age 13 after becoming best friends with Ponyboy Curtis and Holden Caufield. I think it was then when I realized that I could escape in any book, whether I was writing it or reading it. It’s made me a storyteller for even the most basic of things.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

Time management.

What was your favourite part of the Retreat?

Meeting so many amazing writers. I have lifelong friends now. Of course, all the workshops were amazing too, and the outings, and the pub night, and the Golden Circle Tour—so EVERYTHING!

stephanie at pub nightAre there any exercises or bits of wisdom you heard at the Retreat that you look forward to using in your writing going forward?

Pretty much everything was useful in some way. The thing about craft is that I always find new ways into things that help me right when I need them too. All the workshops I happened to be in really helped me with going deeper into my novels. I also realized that I’m not half bad at descriptions as I thought I was.

Were there any other highlights to your time in Iceland?

Well, I got to see the Northern Lights TWICE. On the recommendation of another writer I signed up for a tour by bus and it was pure magic! I was already booked on the boat tour. I have heard that it’s not common to see them and I saw them two times, that was magical.

I loved the city too and being in the crisp cold weather.

Is there anything else you think would be relevant to share with our followers?

Yes, if you are thinking about going to this, you MUST. It’s beyond amazing in so many ways. I learned so much, had such a magical time that I can’t even put into words, and feel so lucky that I got to experience it. A month later and I’m still on a high from everything there. It’s truly one of the best retreats that I have even been on and I go to at least one writing conference or retreat every month.

Stephanie with CarienStephanie’s bio:

I have been writing for more than 20 years in many areas including; film, TV, novels (mainstream fiction), short stories, graphic novels, picture books, work-for-hire and am now focusing on young adult contemporary fiction. I also work as a writing consultant and am launching my signature course, Story Concierge, this fall. www.judaniebean.com The name of my company is a combination of my mother’s name, my name & my first Westie’s nickname-so they can always be with me. 

IWR: What happened, Or, IWR 2019 Participant Rachel Weld’s Story

IWR: What happened, Or, IWR 2019 Participant Rachel Weld’s Story

Here’s the thing. I was an emotionally exhausted, overstretched, under-creative workhorse, fast-drifting along. I couldn’t see a window, not one that wasn’t opaque with frustration. I dreamed of a clear glass pane onto another world, where fewer demands were placed upon me and I could stop and stare into space. I know, as writers know, about windows onto other worlds, the multi-faceted ones of the imagination and of reality, or a fusion of both, and I wanted to step through.

I went to Iceland, a special treat of a holiday, to celebrate a multitude of milestones. I felt my soul expand in the bleak February landscape, its spare, unflinching reality wild and achingly beautiful in such an unapologetic way. Even the rocks seemed expressive, although old and wise and solid. I saw that I needed the remoteness, the wind blowing through me, wild and supercharged, the deep black sand and the incredible blue ice.

That ice placed itself before me, with its tiny bubbles thwarted in ascent, trapped motionless in a layered frame. How great, to fizz for so many hundreds of years, like being immortal (in a good way), with clarity and support, transparency and black depth, a freedom and a soul. I wanted to preserve them and release them, those bubbles, and with the black gritty layer in myself, transform them into words. I wanted the fizz and the grounding, the black ash like the settled firebrand I want to be, I was, I can be, I am inside. I craved a glacial, wild simplicity, the frank rawness and smoothness of the thing, the ice.

Rachel JanesThen I started to find it. In conversations, slippery as poetry, yet concrete as a glacier, it was all there for the mind to grasp: questions of people and ice – like is it possible to be transparent and mysterious, unknown or unknowable? Here’s how the springboard happened.

IWR came to me, somehow, a random google from the hidden corners and desires of my mind, from when I used to write. Unaccountable really. I signed up only two weeks before, having never done anything so rash, so last minute, so out of my normal sphere. It’s lucky I am well practised at going with the flow because the process took on a life of its own, aided and abetted by Eliza, and I found myself back in Iceland in April. Those conversations:  giving, listening and receiving, laughter, insights, random exchanges with people, writers, whose names and backgrounds I didn’t even know –  it was a fizz of bubbles not trapped, but visibly starting to move, in ice that never felt cold. What I could see, I could now begin to touch and feel. I could be brave enough to be my former me and spark and laugh, a lot. I was part of a wonderfully diverse range of the written word. And I could write, of course, into an opening window, stepping through into remembered pleasure.

I listened, I talked, I’m writing.  Thanks IWR, for the unlocking.


2019 Alumni Award Recipient Jonaki Ray’s Experience

2019 Alumni Award Recipient Jonaki Ray’s Experience

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

I found out about this retreat in 2016. I was researching for an article about writing retreats around the world and found this mentioned in a list of the best writing retreats! I didn’t apply that year but decided to try my luck for the 2019 retreat.

What were you most looking forward to about the Retreat? How has writing influenced your life? What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

I have always been a reader and looking back, it was obvious that the world of literature is where I belong, but this wasn’t something that happened until a few years ago. I studied science and it was only after I finished my Master’s in Computer Science and started working that I realized that I enjoy literature more. As a result, I started writing poetry and fiction only recently. Along the way, I have worked as a software engineer, a teacher, a journalist, and now am an editor. I don’t get much time to write, but when I do manage to write, I feel that I am celebrating the most beautiful aspect of life—the gift of creativity. Given my writing journey and the fact that I also love traveling, there were actually two things that I was most looking forward to about the Retreat: learning the craft of writing and visiting Iceland.

What was your favourite part of the Retreat? Were there any other highlights to your time in Iceland?

There are too many favourite parts and highlights: Starting from the first day when we went on the tour of the Golden Circle, standing at the fissure between the two tectonic plates, meeting the President, the workshops, listening to the stories by Icelandic writers during the walking tour…the list is endless! A completely unexpected bonus was the rapport and friendships I formed with the other participants; people who love books and writing and support each other, even now when we are back to our respective lives.

Are there any exercises or bits of wisdom you heard at the Retreat that you look forward to using in your writing going forward?

I learnt something from all the workshops. Maintaining a goal of certain words and finding the time to write every day, learning to analyze samples of writing, and realizing the atypical ways one can write are some of the points that have really impacted me. I hope to implement these in my writing going forward.

Is there anything else you think would be relevant to share with our followers?

I would like to share my appreciation of the organizers and volunteers for the excellent coordination and help they provided for each of us. At some point there was a lot of anxiety about travel and hotel arrangements, and I really appreciated how we were all kept in the loop, and everything was kept running smoothly. It was made to look easy, but it is an amazing feat given the number of events and people who participated!

Jonaki is a 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award winner. Her work has been published, both online and in print, in India, the US, the UK, Ireland, Italy, and Singapore. She was nominated by Zoetic Press for the 2018 Pushcart Prize for short fiction; and by Oxford Brookes Poetry Center for the 2018 Forward Prize for the Best Single Poem and was the winner of their 2017 International Poetry Contest, ESL. She has been shortlisted for multiple other awards including the 2018 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and the 2016 Writers’ HQ International Fiction Contest.

A Q&A with IWR 2019 Participant Jenn Morson

A Q&A with IWR 2019 Participant Jenn Morson

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

I want to say it was in a writing group on Facebook, or perhaps from Alexander Weinstein, whose workshop I attended a few years ago. Or maybe it was both?

What were you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

Time. I have a big family, and while I am usually able to fit in little snippets of writing thanks to an extremely supportive husband, I don’t have the luxury of large chunks of uninterrupted time to reflect and let my words meander a bit. So I was most excited for that opportunity.

How has writing influenced your life?

I started off reading very young and kept going. Before I stopped to consider that I might be capable of creating, I had built up a hefty mental library of literature. My brothers and I read and re-read The Great Brain books so many times, and I think that was my first introduction to memoir, which has definitely influenced my desire to work on some myself.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?Jenn Morson

Time again! Well, that and getting in my own way. I am easily distracted by new projects and often get frustrated that my first draft isn’t perfect, which is something I’ve been working against. First drafts should be somewhat terrible.

What was your favourite part of the Retreat?

Well that is a loaded question if ever there were one! Can I say all of it? The Golden Circle Tour was amazing, and I fell in love with Iceland that day. But the sessions were fantastic, and I learned so much – the writers who presented were accessible, helpful, and the one session that I mistakenly chose thinking it was another ended up being the best one I had.

Are there any exercises or bits of wisdom you heard at the Retreat that you look forward to using in your writing going forward?

In Sarah Moss’ session, we wrote about rubbish. Each person brought a piece of discarded somethingorother, from home or from our stay, and we exchanged them and wrote about what the object might be or what purpose it served. The change of perspective made for a fascinating exercise. And in Paul Yoon’s session, we dissected a really great piece of writing and worked through our understand of cliche’ and how to use it to our advantage. My little snippet from that exercise is going into my current project.

Phoebe and JennWere there any other highlights to your time in Iceland?

This sounds trite, but it was like summer camp (chillier, tho!) for grown ups, and I think that’s an experience I hadn’t fully realized I needed. I enjoy learning so much, and I miss that from being in school. Taking culinary risks was also fun, and making connections with other writers from around the world and some from my own backyard was a definite highlight.

I should also mention the Icelandic cats that wander in and out of restaurants and shops without anyone stopping them.

Is there anything else you think would be relevant to share with our followers?

The organizers of this retreat are fantastic and so helpful. I hadn’t left the country in over twenty years, and I had never left my family for this long, and their support and availability made it that much easier to do.

Jenn Morson is a writer living and working outside of Washington, D.C., along with her husband, their five children, and two cats. Her words can be found here: jennmorson.contently.com and hopefully someday within the pages of a hardcover book. Just as soon as she is allowed to sit down for five minutes.

An Emotional Account of my Experience at the Iceland Writers Retreat 2019: Participant Antoinette Borg’s Story

An Emotional Account of my Experience at the Iceland Writers Retreat 2019: Participant Antoinette Borg’s Story

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!

Antoinette with Louis de BernieresThe 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?

Antoinette at GullfossI 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!

Meet Our 2019 Media Intern

Meet Our 2019 Media Intern

The Iceland Writers Retreat welcomes interns each year, and Marion Grant is this year’s Video and Advertising intern. She is currently completing Ryerson University’s Literatures of Modernity Masters Program. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in English literature from Ryerson University. She is a student research fellow at Ryerson’s Centre for Digital Humanities and works on the Yellow Nineties 2.0, which focuses on digital remediation and scholarship of nineteenth century periodicals. A Toronto native, Marion enjoys her time cooking, canoeing, and writing.

IWR: How did you become an intern for the Iceland Writers Retreat?

MG: The English Masters program at my school has a practicum component where we are required to get an internship related to our interests. I saw the posting for IWR and thought that my previous social media experience would be a good fit! I also love to write in my free time and the opportunity to meet such a diverse collection of authors was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.

IWR: How do you feel about being involved with the Iceland Writers Retreat?

MG: I’m very excited about the upcoming conference. It has been so wonderful to meet the IWR team, everyone is so wonderful and so talented. The workshops seem so incredible and address such interesting topics.

IWR: What part of the retreat are you looking forward to the most?

MG: I really appreciate that the workshops are small groups, I feel like that will be a really good opportunity to hone my writing skills. Also, I’ve never been to Iceland before so that’s very exciting!

IWR: What do you like to write?

MG: I primarily write academic work, mostly because of my degree. I am currently finishing up a digital exhibit that explores the intersection between the Fin de siècle Periodicals and Victorian theatre. In my free time I like to write non-fiction pieces.

IWR: What do you like to read?

MG: I just finished reading For Today I am a Boy By Kim Fu, which was incredible. However, as a Victorianist I primarily read Nineteenth century literature.

IWR: If you weren’t a student/intern right now, what would you be doing?

MG: If I was not a student or an intern right now I would hope to be travelling. I really enjoying exploring new places and experiencing different cultures.

IWR: What made you pursue your degree?

MG: I am currently completing my Masters degree at the same school I did my undergrad. I remember catching glimpses of the graduate classes or talking to some of the students and was always super impressed by it. The Literature’s of Modernity program at Ryerson University is a really incredible program. They program has very small class sizes so that each student gets a lot of attention from the professors to improve their work. The cohort this year only has nineteen people, including myself. Each student is paired up with a mentor who checks in quite frequently to make sure their mentee is on track. This type of set up of course resulted in such a strong sense of community between the students and teachers, which I think makes Ryerson unique in comparison to other programs. I also met a really wonderful professor in my undergrad that really encouraged me to pursue my academic career and helped me with my application to the graduate program. Through her support and assistance I was really about to blossom and pursue my interests. I am so happy with my choice for my graduate career, I could not possibly imagine doing my Masters anywhere else.


Third Place in the 2019 Writing Contest

Third Place in the 2019 Writing Contest

For the fifth year in a row, we partnered with Iceland Travel to run a competition to win a spot at the Iceland Writers Retreat. This year’s theme was “Equality” and we received over 400 submissions from the around the world. Today we are sharing the third place story, which is “On Reynisfjara Beach” by Alyson Hilbourne of the United Kingdom.

The winner of the competition is Giacomo Roessler from Germany, with his story “Ferðin” which you can read hereThe second place entry was “Volcanoes” by Petronella Wagner of South Africa.

There are still some spaces available to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat. Click here to sign up.

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