Better Than Paradise: IWR Alumni Award Winner Nora Shychuk’s Story

Better Than Paradise: IWR Alumni Award Winner Nora Shychuk’s Story

Here is something: I am learning to be brave. This is not the same thing as learning to be fearless. One needs to be afraid in order to be brave, otherwise there is no cause for bravery.

During a Q&A on the last day of the Iceland Writers Retreat, travel writer and workshop instructor Rory Maclean thanked the participating writers, saying that he learned more about courage over the five-day retreat. Each and every one of us needed courage to come to Iceland, he said. To travel, to think, to learn, to create. He thanked us for our bravery.

I didn’t expect to be thanked for my bravery. At the time, I didn’t feel brave. I was thankful. In December, I was notified that I had received one of two full alumni award scholarships to attend the retreat. Gratitude took center stage and remained in the spotlight. I signed up for my classes and completed registration without pause. Nothing about the trip needed much consideration; I simply went through the motions. I felt lucky to be traveling from New York City to Reykjavik for five days of workshops with renowned writers, a trip through the Icelandic countryside, and time to devote to my own writing. I scanned past attendees’ testimonials, each citing their unforgettable experiences. Through their stories, I understood that geysers, mountains, hot springs, and waterfalls were not only a common enough feature of Iceland, but staples of a temperamental, striking landscape—and that’s where I was headed.

After my plane touched down in Keflavik Airport, after it taxied and came to a stop outside the terminal, the wind rattled the plane. The cabin shook from the sheer force of it. On the Grayline bus, rain streamed down the windows and resembled a network of veins, pulsing across the glass with each blow of wind. A rhythmic heartbeat.

At the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura, I met Eliza Reid and Erica Green, the founders of the IWR. A friendly volunteer handed me a swag bag, complete with my workshop schedule, Icelandic chocolate, and other bits and bobs. The hotel itself was hip and cozy, with fireplaces and sculptures by Icelandic artist Adalheidur S. Eysteinsdottir. I did not sleep on my flight, but was energized by the adrenaline of finding myself in a new place. I left the hotel almost as soon as I arrived, electing to walk around Reykjavik rather than rest.

From the moment I left the hotel, Iceland was like a postcard. It rolled like a projection, like an alluring tourist video of the country.

Smoked trout at Cafe Loki

I spent a relaxing morning at Sundhöllin, the oldest public bathhouse in Reykjavik. No matter where I ate in the city, the food was fantastic (but go to Café Loki and order their smoked trout on rye bread with cottage cheese. Then, do it again!). I had salmon and skyr and Icelandic donuts and strong coffee. I ventured to the top of Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik’s towering Lutheran church, where I was met with a panoramic, overcast view of the city. Even in the rain, Reykjavik was colorful. I adored the rainbow assortment of rooftops and funky street art decorating many of the buildings. The wind blasted through the tower and whistled in my ears. Iceland, located just outside the Arctic Circle, is the third windiest place on the planet. Standing from such a height, I believed it.

On the famed Golden Circle tour, I walked the peaceful grounds of Skalholt, one of only two episcopal sees in Iceland. Black, flat-topped mountains loomed in the distance. I marveled at Gullfoss Waterfall, which flows down two levels of the Hvitá River and spills into a canyon that is a long, dark 230 feet deep. From the cascading, carving waters a great mist rose from the cavern, creating a dreamlike, otherworldly atmosphere. The Geysir Geothermal Area was a land of bubbling earth, of hot springs scattered at the foot of mountains. I saw exaggerated, vibrant colors I’d never seen before in person: icy, glacier blue, gunmetal gray, emerald, pure white. A low fog hung over everything and only when Strokkur exploded was it pierced by the strength of the geyser’s power. People screamed and laughed, and I realized this is what the world can do: dazzle us into pure joy.

I walked through No-Man’s Land in Þingvellir National Park, the juncture between the Eurasian and American plates. These tectonic plates are slowly separating by about a centimeter per year. In this Tolkein-esque landscape, I saw waterfalls and jagged cliff walls, rivers and snowy peaks. Later, I toured Gljúfrasteinn, the former home and workplace of Halldor Laxness. Books abounded, as did wide windows in every room, providing picturesque views of surrounding mountains.

I have often heard that Iceland is a writer’s paradise and the “perfect” place for creative inspiration. This is, in part, what drew me to apply to the Iceland Writers Retreat in the first place. I had a mythical view of Iceland, a product of never having been there. Before I left for the retreat, I let my mind run wild. I imagined what it would be like to be there. The novelty, the excitement. The welcome relief from the throb and mania of New York City.

But then I went. I arrived. I was there. And I have to tell you: Iceland wasn’t perfect or mythical or paradise.

If a place is mythical, it implies a certain veil, a distance between what is real and imaginary. This mysticism can’t ever be experienced firsthand because, of course, it is fantasy. Whimsy. If a place is deemed paradise, it suggests an air of being apart from the earth and hangs omnisciently in the clouds, somewhere, just out of sight. In the land of the living, we certainly can’t go there. A truly perfect place is too pristine to be reachable and, as such, is inaccessible and closed off to us.

Iceland is none of those things. It isn’t unreachable. It isn’t distant or off limits. Iceland is more than a postcard or perfection or myth, and to say it is paradise is to do the country and the Iceland Writers Retreat a disservice, because when we promote a place or event as such we strip it of its realness, of the raw, absolute beauty of being there, up close and in the flesh, and experiencing a place for what it is, which is never heaven, although it might feel like it. A break from the responsibilities of life. Its exhausting realities and stressors. All of which can knock us down and crush our spirits at times. But don’t confuse this retreat as just an escape from all that. View it as an experience, genuinely available to you, and everything you learn and see and do there can be taken with you, no matter who you are or where you go.

Don’t get me wrong. Iceland’s landscape appears as if out of a dream, and the city of Reykjavik is charming and lively. The food is superb and, after knocking back both Gull and Brio, I can officially give Icelandic beer my personal stamp of approval. A casual observer might attribute this all to heaven, but I equate this instead to a striking world, of which Iceland is the heart.

So, here’s my argument: Iceland is better than paradise. Its magic is rooted in the fact that we are alive and very much a part of that wild splendor, witnessing it and taking it all in, with hearts beating and eyes wide open.

Every experience at the Iceland Writers Retreat surprised me. What is more appropriate to say in a country of towering volcanoes and shifting tectonic plates, simmering geysers and sparkling glaciers, jagged mountains and churning waterfalls? The very nature of life is turbulent, unpredictable, moody, and all the more remarkable.

Nothing surprised me more than the workshops themselves. I knew they would be brilliant and thoughtful, but I didn’t suspect I would learn quite as much as I did, or come away feeling so open and inspired. Eliza and Erica brought together a dynamic group of writers, including Craig Davidson, Terry Fallis, Lauren Groff, Hallgrimur Helgason, Rory Maclean, Andri Snaer Magnason, Pamela Paul, Gwendoline Riley, Adania Shibli, Susan Shreve, and Lina Wolff. I heard most of the faculty members read my first night in Iceland, after a welcome drink and dinner. It’s a night I won’t forget. Their words. Looking out at a sea of smiling, engaged faces. The laughter. The clink of glasses. It was a celebration, a good omen for what was to come.

Lauren Groff

“We write to write ourselves out of loneliness, to touch another heart,” Lauren Groff said at the end of her Gaps, Spaces, and Silences workshop. It was here I learned to listen to silence, to study pauses and what isn’t stated or directly expressed. I have a BA in screenwriting and an MA in creative writing. I have been in countless classrooms over the years and can honestly say that Groff gave one of the most enthusiastic, intelligent, and impassioned lectures I have heard. Ever.

In Travel Writing, Rory Maclean taught me to dig into myself, to find my “kernel” and trust that no one can tell my story because my voice is mine, and it’s worth listening to. So is yours.

In Outling Your Novel, Terry Fallis taught me to experiment, to discover “how I write best.” I may be more of a gardener than an architect when it comes to outlining and writing at large, but that’s okay because what he taught me more than anything was how to “dream on” an idea, and what’s more creative than that?

In Sensory Writing, Craig Davidson taught me the power of description and that I don’t need another author’s “gear box” to conjure feeling.

In Editing Your Work, Gwendoline Riley taught me, with razor sharp and often hilarious insight, that editing is artistic. It is expression. Tidy, clear writing is not simple, but stunning. Find the right word and put it in the perfect spot. It packs one hell of a punch.



An aside: there have been a few moments in my life when I know, instantly, that a moment will stay with me forever. That to simply witness is enough. That I will never be quite the same going forward. Standing next to Gullfoss, listening to rushing water as loud as an airplane, was just such a moment. But we don’t need a grand view to be moved. I felt similarly affected at the home of the President of Iceland, Gudni Th. Jóhannesson. I was struck by the warm welcome and timeliness of Jóhannesson’s speech, in which he discussed the importance of writing and storytelling, how words and ideas can build bridges and close gaps between nations. As an American citizen, I found this especially apt. It perfectly encapsulated an event devoted to exploration and inspiration.

The power of Iceland’s natural world. The weight of words and their magical spell. All this and more I have taken with me, as both writer and human.

But I could never end this piece without mentioning the most extraordinary component of the Iceland Writers Retreat: the people.

As an anxious person who often has trouble connecting, I came to the Iceland Writers Retreat with a singular worry: the other writers who would be there. Would I come across all right? Would I be able to talk to other writers or be an awkward fly on the wall? Could I vocalize my ideas, share my writing, and find my place?

I didn’t need to worry. The people I met, the writers I shared meals and classes with, are my most treasured gifts from the week I spent in Reykjavik. I watched and listened to these people, these lawyers and playwrights and documentarians and teachers and I was in awe. Their creativity! Their devotion! Their brainpower! It was formidable and stirring. I am a particularly sensitive soul and have been a part of workshops and writing groups before and it’s easy to come away feeling tired. Stuck. Retreats can be cold, pretentious, and soul crushing, but the IWR was a breath of fresh air. It stands as a prime example of a retreat that is nurturing and loving and special. People exuded warmth and passion, yes, but also authenticity and vulnerability. They cared. They smiled often. They were kind. I not only felt in my element and understood—I felt that I belonged.

There is one night that exists in my mind clearly, above the others.

Kex Hostel

Kex Hostel

After a wonderful evening at Kex Hostel with readings from poet Sigurbjorg Thrastardottir and writer and former mayor of Reykjavik Jon Gnarr, after the music from KK and listening to a table of Icelanders sing an old folk song, the light in the pub warm and low, I went back to the hotel. I thought I’d turn in and get up early for breakfast the next day, but then a writer I had met earlier in the week asked if I wanted to sit by the fireplace and chat. I decided to stay, to do something different. Another woman joined us. I didn’t go up to my room until almost 2AM because we had spent our evening laughing and drinking and talking about writing, about personal, embarrassing moments, about art and film and depression and life. These were almost strangers and I talked to them like the best of friends. I feel compelled to mention it now because the Iceland Writers Retreat not only offered workshops and travel and tours and writing time, but the opportunity to cultivate friendships and make memories. I think the marriage of physical and internal exploration is vital, and I came away from the retreat changed. I now have a stronger connection to the craft of writing and feel I know myself better as a writer—and it isn’t because of any helpful technical advice I received. It’s because of workshops that urged me to feel as much as possible. It’s because of like-minded people who not only made me feel that I belonged, but that I had come home.

All of this brings me back to bravery. In retrospect, I understand Rory’s words, the resounding feeling of courage, real and palpable and better than heaven or perfection. We didn’t come to Iceland because it was easy or because life was seamless, we came because we wanted to grow. Everyone I met at the retreat was a little messy and a little unsure. The best people are. We came from all over the world. We spent time away from jobs and families and comfort, all because of a commitment to writing and discovery. We crossed oceans for it. We shared work, some with shaking voices and hands. There was laughter. Tears. Fear. And what’s more courageous than taking all of that and turning it into art, into an experience worth remembering and cherishing? An opportunity came our way and, hungrily, we seized it.

We write to write ourselves out of loneliness, to touch another heart.

Yes we do. More than anything else, I think that’s what we did at the Iceland Writers Retreat. With minds sparking and live-wire passion, we shared ourselves. We bit back at pain and loneliness and touched hearts. I’d say that’s pretty brave.

To the Iceland Writers Retreat and the people I met, I thank you. For that push. That revival. That spark of magic.

Nora Shychuk was a recipient of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award in 2018. 




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