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.
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.
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 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.
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.