Each year we offer a different collection of small-group writing workshops at the Iceland Writers Retreat. Whether seasoned authors or just beginning to test the waters, our participants return home inspired and with concrete tips to help improve their writing.
In July, a group of 2019 participants shared the key takeaways they got from some workshops. Here are a few of them:
- Ivan Coyote reminded me that I could be faster and write more if I didn’t overthink it. – G.G., US
- Louis de Bernière said to enjoy what you’re writing, even if it’s unconventional. So I’ve spent these past few months reaching inside of me and asking myself what things really interest me, and how I can tell stories from a place of acquaintance and understanding. – Lola, Nigeria, Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipient
- Lina Meruane reminded me to return to the visceral, which is hard to do when you get bogged down with the profession/business side of being an author. – VS Holmes, US
- Priya Basil had us embrace the semi-random jump cut, not worrying about transitions but allowing the subconscious to draw connections between seemingly disparate things. We did an exercise where she read one random word each five minutes and we’d write a paragraph incorporating it into a story in some way. Can be very surprising what shakes out and quite freeing during drafting. – Daniel, US, Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipient
- Ann Hood – When writing about something hot, write about it cold. – Antoinette – Malta
- Tessa Hadley reminded me the best way to learn writing is through reading great stories. Also, revision is the time for real creation. – Vivian – China
- The biggest relief for me was during the closing panel when one of the questions asked to the instructors was if they wrote daily – and they were all like “Nope.” – It was assuring to me that it’s okay if I didn’t write every single day. – Phoebe, US
- Louis de Bernière said “Writing without the flowers makes it more powerful” – Stephanie, USA
- Paul Yoon indicated that perfectionism can get in the way of ideas and creativity – Lisa, Canada
- I found Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson’s class so freeing! I loved the fact that approaching things experimentally can be a true asset. It’s okay to do things differently. Maybe it will work; maybe it won’t. — Lisa, Canada
In November, we will be announcing the specific workshops on offer during the 2020 Iceland Writers Retreat. Remember that workshop spaces are limited and fill on a first come, first served basis. Click here to register for the Iceland Writers Retreat April 29 – May 3, 2020.
Registration is now open for the Iceland Writers Retreat. In addition to general registration, which is currently open to all, we have scholarships slots available for those with financial need. The Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award offers talented writers in need of financial support an opportunity to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat in Reykjavík, Iceland in April, 2020.
Please read these guidelines and click on the link at the end of this article to apply.
Who can apply
Anyone who is aged 18 or over on April 29, 2020 is eligible to apply for an Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award (anyone is welcome to independently register and attend the event without a scholarship). The winning candidate(s) must demonstrate that s/he does not have the financial means to attend the conference without this award.* Candidates do not need to be professional writers, but should be serious about the craft and interested in developing their skills and contacts. Their writing interests must fit well with the faculty for the 2020 retreat (i.e. literary fiction, non-fiction, memoir).
Family members of the judges and those who have already attended the IWR are not eligible to apply.
What does it cover?
Entrants can apply for either full or partial funding. Full funding covers one participant fee, four nights accommodation at the Retreat hotel (Radisson SAS Saga Hotel), and round-trip flights to Iceland.
Partial funding covers the participant fee only, and neither accommodation nor round trip flights.
(Note that there is no scholarship available for the Iceland Readers Retreat.)
Please ensure that you apply for the most suitable category for you, as if you apply for full funding you are very unlikely to be considered for a partial award. (Note that we usually have many more applications for full funding than partial funding.)
The award does not include airport transfers, travel insurance, travel visas (if applicable)**, other incidentals or meals not listed in the itinerary, or the Relax & Write extension.
How are the recipients chosen?
The recipients will be chosen based primarily on two factors: a) The potential s/he demonstrates (or has demonstrated) as a writer and b) his/her need for financial support to be able to attend. We will also evaluate based on the other questions in the application, though, so make sure to tell us about yourself and why you think you’d be the perfect match for the Iceland Writers Retreat. (Please don’t just tell us how you have always wanted to visit Iceland.)
The applicant should also be available for media interviews before and during the Retreat, and be able to explain how s/he would help to share their experience with others after the fact. This may include being asked to prepare a short report on their experience to be published on the IWR website.
Applications will be reviewed by a group of IWR alumni. The final decision on the award recipient will be made by the IWR Founding Directors.
Deadline for applications: Thursday, 31 October, 2019. Midnight, PST. We will announce the recipients on 2 December, 2019.
**Please note that we are not responsible for issuing travel visas and cannot guarantee that one will be issued for you. However, we would provide all the required supporting letters and our past recipients who have required visas have had no problem being issued with one.
General Tips for applying:
We receive hundreds of applications for the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. To increase your chances of being selected, please follow the application instructions very carefully.
- Incomplete applications will not be considered.
- It is not possible to make changes to your application once it has been submitted; you will receive email confirmation that your application has been received.
- Level of funding: We receive far more applications for full funding than partial funding, but you need to show that you are unable to afford even the cost of flights to Iceland and accommodation while in the country. Note that you are very unlikely to be considered for partial funding if you have applied for full funding.
- Your background: We welcome applications from people of all backgrounds and with all levels of writing experience. However, we are more likely to rank applications highly from people who have not had the opportunity to attend many other writing retreats or to develop their writing in other ways. The quality of your writing is what is most important, whether you are just starting out, have been working for a while, or are at a mid- or post-career break. We encourage people of all ages (over 18) to apply.
- Why do you want to attend? We all love Iceland. And we all love writing. If you are applying simply to get an opportunity to visit Iceland you are unlikely to be granted an award. Tell us why this particular event and this particular faculty have captured your interest. Show us that you have done some research about the Iceland Writers Retreat. Note especially that our workshops in 2020 focus primarily on literary fiction, non-fiction, and memoir. Your writing samples should also reflect this and should therefore be prose samples.
- Writing samples: Note that the maximum length for each writing sample is 1000 words. We will not consider applications that have longer writing samples.
- Why you need financial assistance: This is one of the most difficult yet important factors to consider for this award. Please be as honest as you can with us in explaining why this event is beyond your means without support. Your answer to the question about applying for additional funding is also important. We know that some countries offer support to writers who attend conferences, and we’d like to see if you have taken any initiative in terms of thinking broadly for ways in which you can attend.
- How will you share your experience with others? We want many people to know about the Iceland Writers Retreat. How will you help us get the word out if you are awarded a scholarship? We know that social media is very popular. Do you have other, more original ideas too?
- References: References should be by people who are familiar with your writing and are not family members. We give higher marks for references that have been written specifically for this event. Applications without appropriate references will not be considered. Please note that due to the number of applications we receive, we cannot accept references that have been sent separately.
About the Iceland Writers Retreat
Held for the first time in April 2014, the Iceland Writers Retreat is an event comprised of a series of small-group writing workshops and cultural tours designed to introduce participants to Iceland’s rich literary heritage. Faculty in 2020 include Maria Semple, Kamila Shamsie, David Chariandy, Gretchen Rubin, and Ariel Levy. The Iceland Writers Retreat was named one of the world’s best writers’ retreats by the Sydney Morning Herald, and one of the top 10 “Events to travel for in 2014” by Four Seasons Magazine.
About the IWR Alumni Award
This is the fifth time the IWR Alumni Award has been granted. It is so named because it has been funded by former IWR participants. We are extremely grateful for their generosity.
To apply for this award, please click here.
Once upon a time the Hallgrímskirkja clock struck 03:00 and, on her way to the bus that would take her to the airport, a South African girl lost her hiking boot in the streets of Reykjavik. She did not mean to, and it happened swiftly, the shoe slipping off much easier than it had been to put on. As if it had a will of its own, forcing her to leave a piece of her behind so that she might have to return one day.
In the airplane, on the final stretch of the trip towards Iceland from Munich to Keflavik, I watch an Icelandic crime series and listen to the language. The words I hear and see at once seem so familiar to the tongue, yet so foreign:
“neyðarútgangur” (Icelandic), “nooduitgang” (Afrikaans) – emergency exit
“kirkja” (Icelandic), “kerk” (Afrikaans) – church
“Mánudagur” (Icelandic), “Maandag” (Afrikaans) – Monday
Upon arrival at Keflavik International Airport I meet with one of the other retreat attendees and we are met by a glacial wind unlike any I had ever experienced before. We stare through the window of the bus at a foreign landscape.
I had never seen snow before.
Iceland is unyielding, stark, cold, sublime.
The sublime: an aesthetic value judgment – that which is linked with both pleasure and pain. With danger, extremity. The experience gives a type of pleasure that is riddled with anxiety, with an awareness of something that transcends the ordinary sense of beauty. The sublime is the experience of the limits of understanding and reason.
The sublime threatens one’s existence and is a delightful horror.
Iceland is a mythical mistress, forcing one to face beauty, tragedy, and catharsis.
Oddities reveal the truth. Staircases and landings. The senses are the strings of an instrument. Rubbish. Dogs and cats and old people and children.
Just past midnight I stand on the bow of a boat and I try to focus my camera in the dark, the North Atlantic wind blowing against my jacket. The cold had taken hold of my hands. It is nearly impossible.
I await her. The Aurora Borealis.
She is mischievous and I sometimes wonder if I ever truly saw her shimmering green satin dress for a brief few minutes that final night in Reykjavik.
Carien Smith will be a JIAS Writing Fellow in 2020 after which she will pursue her PhD studies in Climate Change Ethics and Epistemology (Philosophy). For more information, visit her website: https://www.cariensmith.com and https://www.facebook.com/Carien-Smith-166234987540871/ .
We did it — thanks to your support!
Thanks to the generosity of our wonderful alumni and friends of the Iceland Writers Retreat, we have once again achieved our goal and will be able to offer Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Awards for deserving writers to attend our event in 2020, at least one full and one partial award.
(Full funding covers all participation in the Iceland Writers Retreat, as detailed on our website, as well as accommodation and round-trip flights to Iceland. Partial funding covers the participant fee only, and neither accommodation nor round trip flights.)
Details for eligibility and how to apply for will be published from 1 September, with applications accepted until 31 October. It will be free to submit an application, but follow the instructions carefully, as incomplete submissions will not be considered. (We will post full details on how to apply on 1 September.)
The recipients will be chosen based primarily on two factors: a) The potential they demonstrate (or have demonstrated) as writers and b) Their need for financial support to be able to attend. We will also evaluate based on the other questions in the application, though, so make sure to tell us about yourself and why you think you’d be the perfect match for the Iceland Writers Retreat. (Please don’t just tell us how you have always wanted to visit Iceland.)
If you’re not eligible to apply for the scholarship, but wish to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat, you can register now. Anyone can register to attend, but spaces fill on a first come, first served basis.
A special thank you to our contributors:
Jose R. Garcia
Erica Jacobs Green
Felicia L. Mason
Martine van Bijlert
Janine Vici Campbell
*Names in bold denote individuals who contributed EUR 110 or more to the campaign.
We are currently fundraising to offer an Alumni Award again in 2020. These awards are need- and merit-based scholarships that allow talented, international writers to join us in Reykjavik next spring to explore Iceland’s unique literature and culture, as well as to learn from our internationally-renowned faculty. If you’d like to donate, you can do so via our Karolina Fund here.
If we raise enough funds, applications will open in September 2019 and continue through October. Winners will be announced in early December.
Jonaki Ray is a 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award winner, receiving a partial scholarship to attend the Retreat. 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.
Jonaki wrote a guest blog about her experience at IWR for Authors Electric. Read more about what she learned at IWR 2019, and what she took from the experience, here.
To help writers like Jonaki attend the Retreat in 2020, you can donate to the Alumni Award fund here. Registration for IWR 2020 opens on July 9th. To learn more about the Retreat, and our brand new Iceland Readers Retreat, check out our website.
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
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?
I 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?
If 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.
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)
What 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?
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!
Are 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.
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.
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.
Then 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.