Reason 3: The Iceland Saga (This is mine. What’s yours?)
By Jo McClelland Phillips, Alumni Award Recipient; Photo by Roman Gerasymenko
“Why do you want to attend The Iceland Writers Retreat? We all love Iceland. And we all love writing. Tell us why this particular event has captured your interest.”
Before winning the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award at the end of 2019, I applied and answered this question four times.
I wonder if my goal of visiting Iceland got in my way the first three times, I answered this question. Because – of course, I wanted (and still want) to go to Iceland!
My love affair with the Sagas and Iceland writers really began with the Iceland Writers Retreat – as I investigated the Icelandic authors and tour locations mentioned on their website. I realised how closely this tradition reflects my own views and passion for storytelling.
That tracks because we can trace back almost all our modern-day storytelling to the Icelandic tradition.
Sometimes called the “family sagas”, they spoke of the struggles and conflicts in the early generations of Icelandic settlers. Characters like Egil were complex and full of contradictions. Later, sagas like Njáls saga focused more on storytelling than on chronicling history.
It was also through this website that I was first introduced to modern Icelandic writer Kristín Helga Gunnarsdóttir. Her focus is “telling stories that unite and create bridges between generations.” This idea really spoke to me and related to my goals when I tell a story.
My journey to Iceland parallels my journey as a parent, having applied for the first time when my daughter was 6 months old. As a writer, I predominantly teach her what she needs to know by telling her stories. These last two years, I’ve been teaching my daughter about storytelling and creating her own stories. I see how we can deeply relate to the core elements of storytelling and that even today, in our home, we aren’t that different from the ancient Icelandic saga authors.
What’s your Icelandic Saga?
Tag @IcelandWriters @JoMcClellandPhillips (IG and FB) or @JoMcClelland on Twitter and tell us your Iceland stories! And don’t forget to sign up for the 2022 Iceland Writers Retreat next April. I hope to see you there!
Reason 2: Literary vs Commercial Fiction (It’s not a competition.)
By: Jo McClelland Phillips, Alumni Award Recipient
A literary novelist might write genre fiction, and that might even turn some readers off. But not I.
What excited me most about the Iceland Writers Retreat is that it is a place where literary and commercial writers meet in a warm and collaborative setting. Pretense isn’t an issue.
In some circles, literary fiction is held in higher esteem than what is referred to as “popular” or “commercial fiction.”
A common explanation of the two, beyond sales, would be that literary fiction comments on the human condition while popular fiction merely entertains. What about books that do both?
A writing teacher distilled the difference down to how complicated the sentences are written. She pointed out that while Stephen King is very commercial, he writes very sophisticated prose. Yet, no one considers Stephen King literature.
The Iceland Writers Retreat is where we can meet award-winning authors, such as Kamila Shamsie, and popular writers like Maria Semple, both of whom were scheduled to appear in 2020, before the global pandemic. I would say that their novels are both entertaining and comment on the human condition. For me, they are equally valuable. As a writer who wishes to elevate her stories while also keeping in mind the current book market, this is ideal.
At the 2021 Virtual Retreat, I studied with several authors and looked at character, setting, and humour.
Bret Anthony Johnston had us look at character through structure, giving weight to the story with a strong point-of-view. Andrew Evans gave us literary-leaning principles of description without using sight or cliché. I don’t know how to answer Terry Fallis’ question “what’s funny?’ but he defined it as “defying normal conventions with juxtaposition, shock, or surprise.”
A good story is grounded in a sense of place with strong characters. It has a clear point of view. And even a drama or horror is best when the strong feelings are offset by humour.
When I apply these tools and tactics that I learned in these workshops, my work improved. I hope the result will be both artistically appealing and commercially relevant. It doesn’t matter if you’re a genre writer, a satirist, or a poet. It doesn’t matter if you write memoirs or essays or short fiction. We all have something to learn from the writers at the Iceland Writer’s Retreat.
Registration is open for the 2022 retreat. Read about all the fantastic writers who will be in attendance next April.
This is part one of a 4-part series by Jo McClelland Phillips, Alumni Award Recipient
Reason 1: Immersion in Writing
Have you ever gone on holiday, with no other plans but to sit on the beach, or by a fire, or in a cabin in the woods with your favourite book and just read?
Imagine that ideal holiday without interruptions. And that you’re staying with people who just want to read their book as well – and at the end of the day you all come together for beautiful meals and talk about the book you’re reading.
Now imagine that your favourite book hasn’t even been written yet. And you’re going to write it.
Immersion time for writing is powerful and productive in a way that benefits the craft and inspires writers.
Writing is a massive commitment of time and energy. The immersive retreat formula feeds the writer with the connection and support of people going through the same thing. This is what makes it different from just committing yourself to taking time alone.
During the retreat, you will have discouragement, and doubt, and fatigue, so having other writers there who can support you in your commitment is invaluable.
As we suffer yet another lockdown here in Australia, I find my mind wondering about a future time when the borders open and I can finally get to the IWR.
Before I applied for the award for the first time in 2015, I searched Google looking for ways to get to Iceland. But that’s not why I kept applying. The more I grew as an author, and the more I researched this retreat specifically, I realised the value and the power of the complete immersion format of this retreat.
Back in 2019, I wrote as part of my application: “With the immersion format of the Iceland Writers Retreat, I can block out ‘external noise’ and commit my entire focus to writing.”
In 2021 I had the opportunity to attend the virtual retreat . I booked time off work and changed my sleep schedule – with the time difference in Australia, I needed to start at 1 am and go until 8 am.
The result was me alone in my home office in the middle of the night, working through the workshops. Then, as the sun came up, we had chat rooms where I had the opportunity to talk to other writers, like fellow Alumni Winner Michelle Walshe . She shared my views of the retreat in this unique way. And that connection kept me coming back and staying later each day.
I might not have held the commitment without knowing I would see her there, and she’d be looking for me. That accountability is something I wouldn’t have gotten by simply taking the weekend off to write.
She and I also shared our anticipation of meeting in Iceland in person. As wonderful as the virtual retreat was, I do long for the time when the retreat doesn’t pause because the screens are turned off. Also, it would be nice to be in the same time zone as everyone else.
If you haven’t signed up yet, get ready! Registration opens August 25th! And let’s all stay safe and do what we must to make sure the borders open and we can meet again in Iceland.