A Once in A Lifetime Experience
This is possibly the most compelling reason to come to Iceland. I haven’t been to Iceland. Even though I participated in the virtual retreat this past April, I haven’t had the whole immersion experience in Iceland, surrounded by other writers. If you’ve been following this series, then you’ll remember how that immersion aspect of the retreat is key to the whole experience.
Up until now, I’ve based all my feelings about the retreat on research. I’ve written about what I understand about the location, the format, and the writer and the team behind the event. The more I learn about these subjects, the more excited I am.
But the authentic experience of it can only be told by those who have experienced it. Luckily, we have great writers and their experience to go by. If you haven’t read the posts from past alumni award winners, I encourage you to do so. Here are just some of the things that really spoke to me when I read their posts.
Nathan Ramsden also found it “transformative” helping him get a clearer idea of what kind of writer he is. Nathan felt after the retreat that he brought some of Iceland home with him. And he left some of himself there. This sounds like the experience I need in my life. The romantic idea of gifting and receiving from the event is beautiful. I hope that this is not only my experience in Iceland, but in all the monumental experiences of my life.
Puja Changoiwala’s article expanded on this idea that the Iceland Writers Retreat is more than connecting with other writers. It’s about connecting with the literary culture of Iceland. I am excited to meet and attend workshops whose unique perspectives will help deepen that connection.
Sara Letourneau described her time at the Iceland Writers Retreat as “world-shifting” and it helped build her confidence. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t need their confidence built, and I am no exception.
Out of all the essays, I connected most with Audrey Wright. As a writer with a day marketing job, I also sometimes suffer from the “imposter’s syndrome.” The connections and comradery she describes feel like what I need to build my confidence.
This isn’t just a holiday. This is an experience where we all come away from it forever changed if you let it. I, for one, am not going to miss out on this experience.
There are spots still available. Sign up for the 2022 Iceland Writers Retreat next April. I hope to share this experience with you.
Mara Rutherford attended the 2015 Iceland Writers Retreat. Since then, she’s published three books and has two more under contract. This month, we spoke with Mara about IWR, her writing career, and tips she learned in Reykjavik that uses in her work today.
Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR): When and why did you choose to attend IWR?
Mara Rutherford (MA): I didn’t exactly choose to attend IWR 2015, though once I saw that Barbara Kingsolver was the on faculty, I absolutely wanted to! My husband surprised me with the trip thanks to a major hint from my twin sister. Our youngest son was just old enough for me to travel, we were between posts in the Foreign Service, and I really wanted some time to focus on writing. This was the perfect opportunity and the best surprise gift ever.
IWR: What were the highlights of IWR?
MR: The workshops were all amazing, particularly the ones led by Barbara Kingsolver, as she’s one of my very favorite authors. But the highlight was probably getting to spend so much quality time with writers – whether guest speakers or fellow attendees – and talking about this thing we’re all so passionate about. That, and taking a picture with Barbara at the top of a frozen waterfall. It’s one of my favorite memories ever!
IWR: What was the most unexpected thing about it?
MR: I didn’t expect to have so much access to the authors outside of workshops. That was such a wonderful benefit that I haven’t seen at any other conference or retreat.
IWR: Did you have any good take-aways or tips from IWR?
MR: Barbara did a workshop about theme that remains with me six years later. I’m not sure I ever really thought about theme prior to that – I was so focused on plot and character. She also said, “Revision is where art happens,” and I try to remember that when I revise (something I still don’t enjoy, even as poetic as Barbara made it out to be!).
IWR: Had you published a book when you attended?
MR: No – I had just signed with my first literary agent about six months prior.
IWR: What have you published since?
MR: My first Young Adult novel, Crown of Coral and Pearl, was published in 2019, with the sequel, Kingdom of Sea and Stone, publishing in 2020. My next book, Luminous, releases on October 5, 2021. I have two additional fantasy novels coming out in 2022 and ’23. And hopefully many more to come!
IWR: Who do you think would benefit most from the IWR?
MR: I think any writer at any level could benefit from the IWR. For new writers, you’re giving yourself permission to say, “I’m a writer,” and acknowledging that this is something you take seriously, which is so important. I often say that if you want writing to be your career, you have to treat it as such, even if you’re not getting paid (yet!). And for more experienced writers, this is a great opportunity to learn craft, network, and spend time on your own writing.
IWR: What do you think is most unique or special about this event?
MR: First off, it’s in Iceland! That in and of itself is amazing because Iceland is unlike anywhere else on earth. It’s such an inspiring place to write, with a rich literary history and so much fascinating folklore (something I personally love). Combine that with the workshops, delicious meals with authors, literary tours, and meeting great people who I’m still friends with to this day, and it makes for a truly special experience.
Thank you to Mara for sharing your time and wisdom with IWR. We’ve loved watching your career soar. Learn more about Mara at mararutherford.com or on IG: @mararutherfordwrites
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.
The Iceland Writers Retreat will broadcast two free, virtual events in October and you’re invited! We will post a link here to watch the live streams as they appear on Wednesday and Thursday.
Watch our panel an Introduction to Icelandic Authors below:
Watch our workshop with Neel Mukherjee and Ruth Reichl below:
Wednesday, October 14, 2020: 12 noon ET / 9 a.m. PT / 5 p.m. BST / 4 p.m. Iceland: An Introduction to Icelandic Writers. Pre-recorded in Reykjavík, this panel will feature writer, poet and former IWR faculty Gerður Kristný, crime writer Lilja Sigurðardóttir, poet and former IWR volunteer Fríða Ísberg, and writer and poet Mazen Maarouf. (Ævar Þór Benediktsson is unfortunately no longer able to attend.) It will be moderated by IWR Co-Founder Eliza Reid. Duration: One hour. Co-presented with Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature.
Registration for the event is free and here. Registration is not obligatory. The panel will be streamed on Iceland Writers Retreat’s Facebook page.
Thursday, October 15, 2020: 12 noon ET / 9 a.m. PT / 5 p.m. BST / 4 p.m. Iceland: Iceland Writers Retreat Mini Workshop and author Q&A. Memoirist, editor, and bestselling food writer Ruth Reichl (IWR faculty 2015) will discuss memoir writing and Man Booker Prize nominee Neel Mukherjee (IWR faculty 2016) will talk about point of view in fiction writing via “mini workshops”. They will also speak about their time teaching at the Iceland Writers Retreat. Viewers will have an opportunity to pose questions to the authors. Moderated by IWR Co-Founder Erica Jacobs Green. Duration: One hour.
Registration for the event is free and here. Registration is not obligatory. The workshop will be streamed via Facebook Live on the Iceland Writers Retreat Facebook page.
There is no need to register in advance for the events. We’ll update this page when we have links for how to view them.
The Iceland Writers Retreat and inaugural Iceland Readers Retreat are scheduled to take place in Reykjavík from April 28 – May 2, 2021. Click here for details.
Following this week’s developments, that in Iceland now include a minimum 4-week ban on public gatherings, we have decided that the only responsible course of action for us to take is not to hold the Iceland Writers Retreat / Iceland Reader Retreat in April this year. This will come as a disappointment to many, not least to ourselves, but under the circumstances it is the best responsible and reasonable decision.
We, will, however, try to re-schedule this event for later this year, possibly in late August or early September. (And of course aim to hold another event in April 2021.) We will announce everything via our usual channels once we have confirmed further details.
These are interesting times, indeed, and we will get through them by sticking together and being responsible citizens. Stay healthy, wash your hands, be kind to each other, and as soon as it’s good to do so, please patronize your local businesses, cultural and otherwise!
This year is the fifth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Michelle Walshe.
Michelle Walshe was born in England but raised in Ireland where she resides after living abroad for many years. She worked as a teacher at third level before she began writing in 2017. Her work has been published in print in the national media in Ireland and the UK and in Teachers Who Write: An Anthology, online on Writing.ie, Skelligmichael.com and Silverbirchpress.wordpress.com. She has been shortlisted in short story competitions and won a prize for flash fiction. She has won residencies, a scholarship, and bursaries to the John Hewitt Summer School, The Stinging Fly and The Bronte Parsonage. She volunteers at Roddy Doyle’s Fighting Words, an organisation promoting creative writing for children, and at literary festivals. She is working on a memoir and a children’s book. All her published work can be found on her website www.thesparklyshell.com.
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney will be leading workshops at this year’s Iceland Writers Retreat. She replaces Maria Semple, who is unfortunately no longer able to attend. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel The Nest spent more than six months on the New York Times Bestseller list. The book was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer’s pick, a best fiction finalist for the Goodreads Choice Award and was named one of the best books of 2016 by People, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Amazon, Refinery 29 and others. The Nest has been translated into more than 27 languages and optioned for film by Amazon Studios. Her novel Good Company will be published in May of 2021. Sweeney holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons. Cynthia will be teaching the same workshops that Maria was schedule for, i.e. “Making a Scene” (workshops are full; waitlisting is available) and “Your First Five Pages” (Thurs workshop almost full).
This year is the fifth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Jo McClelland Phillips.
Jo McClelland Phillips was born on the shores of Lake Ontario, then migrated to the mountains of New South Wales. Her work has been published in TIME Magazine, USA Today, Fairfax Media, and Mashable along with several national and independent newspapers and magazines. She is the winner of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award and she has been shortlisted for the Publisher Introduction Program Fellowship with Varuna, the National Writers House in NSW. Her short story, The Glass Slipper, won the Fringe Festival Award at The Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, and received honourable mention in The Glass Woman Prize.