How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?
I found out about this retreat in 2016. I was researching for an article about writing retreats around the world and found this mentioned in a list of the best writing retreats! I didn’t apply that year but decided to try my luck for the 2019 retreat.
What were you most looking forward to about the Retreat? How has writing influenced your life? What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?
I have always been a reader and looking back, it was obvious that the world of literature is where I belong, but this wasn’t something that happened until a few years ago. I studied science and it was only after I finished my Master’s in Computer Science and started working that I realized that I enjoy literature more. As a result, I started writing poetry and fiction only recently. Along the way, I have worked as a software engineer, a teacher, a journalist, and now am an editor. I don’t get much time to write, but when I do manage to write, I feel that I am celebrating the most beautiful aspect of life—the gift of creativity. Given my writing journey and the fact that I also love traveling, there were actually two things that I was most looking forward to about the Retreat: learning the craft of writing and visiting Iceland.
What was your favourite part of the Retreat? Were there any other highlights to your time in Iceland?
There are too many favourite parts and highlights: Starting from the first day when we went on the tour of the Golden Circle, standing at the fissure between the two tectonic plates, meeting the President, the workshops, listening to the stories by Icelandic writers during the walking tour…the list is endless! A completely unexpected bonus was the rapport and friendships I formed with the other participants; people who love books and writing and support each other, even now when we are back to our respective lives.
Are there any exercises or bits of wisdom you heard at the Retreat that you look forward to using in your writing going forward?
I learnt something from all the workshops. Maintaining a goal of certain words and finding the time to write every day, learning to analyze samples of writing, and realizing the atypical ways one can write are some of the points that have really impacted me. I hope to implement these in my writing going forward.
Is there anything else you think would be relevant to share with our followers?
I would like to share my appreciation of the organizers and volunteers for the excellent coordination and help they provided for each of us. At some point there was a lot of anxiety about travel and hotel arrangements, and I really appreciated how we were all kept in the loop, and everything was kept running smoothly. It was made to look easy, but it is an amazing feat given the number of events and people who participated!
Jonaki is a 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award winner. 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.
How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?
I want to say it was in a writing group on Facebook, or perhaps from Alexander Weinstein, whose workshop I attended a few years ago. Or maybe it was both?
What were you most looking forward to about the Retreat?
Time. I have a big family, and while I am usually able to fit in little snippets of writing thanks to an extremely supportive husband, I don’t have the luxury of large chunks of uninterrupted time to reflect and let my words meander a bit. So I was most excited for that opportunity.
How has writing influenced your life?
I started off reading very young and kept going. Before I stopped to consider that I might be capable of creating, I had built up a hefty mental library of literature. My brothers and I read and re-read The Great Brain books so many times, and I think that was my first introduction to memoir, which has definitely influenced my desire to work on some myself.
What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?
Time again! Well, that and getting in my own way. I am easily distracted by new projects and often get frustrated that my first draft isn’t perfect, which is something I’ve been working against. First drafts should be somewhat terrible.
What was your favourite part of the Retreat?
Well that is a loaded question if ever there were one! Can I say all of it? The Golden Circle Tour was amazing, and I fell in love with Iceland that day. But the sessions were fantastic, and I learned so much – the writers who presented were accessible, helpful, and the one session that I mistakenly chose thinking it was another ended up being the best one I had.
Are there any exercises or bits of wisdom you heard at the Retreat that you look forward to using in your writing going forward?
In Sarah Moss’ session, we wrote about rubbish. Each person brought a piece of discarded somethingorother, from home or from our stay, and we exchanged them and wrote about what the object might be or what purpose it served. The change of perspective made for a fascinating exercise. And in Paul Yoon’s session, we dissected a really great piece of writing and worked through our understand of cliche’ and how to use it to our advantage. My little snippet from that exercise is going into my current project.
Were there any other highlights to your time in Iceland?
This sounds trite, but it was like summer camp (chillier, tho!) for grown ups, and I think that’s an experience I hadn’t fully realized I needed. I enjoy learning so much, and I miss that from being in school. Taking culinary risks was also fun, and making connections with other writers from around the world and some from my own backyard was a definite highlight.
I should also mention the Icelandic cats that wander in and out of restaurants and shops without anyone stopping them.
Is there anything else you think would be relevant to share with our followers?
The organizers of this retreat are fantastic and so helpful. I hadn’t left the country in over twenty years, and I had never left my family for this long, and their support and availability made it that much easier to do.
Jenn Morson is a writer living and working outside of Washington, D.C., along with her husband, their five children, and two cats. Her words can be found here: jennmorson.contently.com and hopefully someday within the pages of a hardcover book. Just as soon as she is allowed to sit down for five minutes.
Note to organisers: I hope you are sitting down as you are reading this. I know this is not the kind of feedback you would want bandied about for all the world to see, so I will fully understand and respect your position if you decide not to publish this. Sorry guys, I’m going to be brutally honest.
So these are some of the emotions that IWR 2019 triggered in me…
FEAR crept up my backbone as I read the headline, just a couple of weeks before the event: “Massive Strike in the Works in Iceland”. My insides were in liquid state by the time I reached the bottom of the article: Icelandic bus drivers and hotel employees would be on strike for three full days bang in the middle of the IWR! Oh shit! Some too-vivid images started to form in my head: my (not-even-remotely-athletic) self starting to walk from the airport in the direction of the hotel. My numb fingers frozen around the handle of my suitcase, struggling to drag it behind me while bravely facing a raging blizzard. With luck I’d manage to hitch a ride, and I saw myself hauling my suitcase up into a massive truck, with a big blond toothless smile greeting me from behind the steering wheel. You wouldn’t want to hear how the rest of that vision went…
Happily, all my fears turned out to be unfounded, not because the strike was called off, but because Eliza, Erica and their team had devised an extraordinary Plan B that was more like Plan P for Perfect. They had thought about and addressed every little detail, and as it were I’m pretty sure that, had the strike happened, we would have hardly noticed.
Thinking about it, I am now actually sorry that the strike didn’t happen. The strike-scenario images in my head are of (the not-at-all-unlikely possibility of) being driven from the airport to the hotel, or indeed my bed being made in the morning, by the First Lady of Iceland herself! Or how about touring the wild wonders of Iceland – again, driven by the First Lady – and getting to know that our tall, erudite tour guide was none other than the President of the country? How cool would that have been? Perhaps the strike being called off wasn’t such a lucky strike after all…
DISGUST was what I felt when I found out that, among the workshops offered, two were actually about Writing Rubbish! I turned up my nose disdainfully, thinking, Well I’ve been writing rubbish every single day of my life, Ms Sarah Moss! I certainly need no tips for that (excuse the pun and thank you very much!) I signed up for it anyway, and was surprised to find myself enjoying a fascinating discussion about a fascinating collection of rubbish from all around the world. I was impressed, litter-ally! In fact, now that I’m back in Malta it’s my neighbours’ noses that are being turned up in disgust every morning, at the sight of me peering through their rubbish bags, sometimes even bending down over a particularly intriguing specimen and turning it over for a closer look!
The rest of the workshops also had some pretty interesting effects on me (and my bodily fluids). I broke out into a sweat when Lina Meruane asked us to write and I couldn’t manage to string a single sentence, let alone a whole little story. I literally shed tears when Ann Hood asked us to write about food and emotions, which drove me to let out a pretty painful scribble about split pea soup and my dear departed daddy. And I was drooling in Louis de Bernières’ classes in the idle hope that a drop of his literary genius could somehow rub off and make its way to me! I dare not imagine what might have happened had I signed up for one of Ivan Coyote’s (undoubtedly hilarious) workshops…
ANGER keeps welling up inside me when I think of the capricious Northern Lights, which showed themselves to everyone in Iceland during IWR week, except me! Deep into the night I was two hours out of Reykjavik feeling confident that I was about to tick that right off my bucket list. But it was not to be. For more than an hour my little Mediterranean body, sunkissed since birth, was made to stand shivering in Arctic temperatures, squinting in vain at a pitch-black sky. It was silently screaming at me: WTF?! What are we doing in this freezing hell? I tried to explain patiently: We’re waiting for Aurora Borealis. She’s right there, behind those clouds. It’s showing on that guy’s camera, see? We just have to wait for the clouds to move away, then we’ll be able to see it with our naked eye and rejoice. My body, itself feeling naked despite being wrapped up in all the clothes I had brought with me to Iceland, was not impressed. It gloated – I told you it was pointless! What a sheer waste of five precious sleeping hours! – as we made our way back to Reykjavik, having seen absolutely nothing, bucket list still intact.
Sure enough, my disenchanted body refused to repeat the attempt another night. I did glimpse a shadow of the elusive lights from outside our hotel one night, but peering at them from a brightly-lit airfield doesn’t quite cut it, does it?
I could say a lot about another set of emotions that IWR fired up in me: EXCITEMENT, SURPRISE, JOY… but then I’d have to use a lot of boring adjectives like amazing, friendly, wonderful, delicious, beautiful, breathtaking… I think I’ll spare you all that cheesy, touristy stuff and stop right here…
Note to Eliza, Erica, faculty and the rest of the organising team: THANK YOU! WELL DONE! Sorry (for that missed heartbeat a little while ago)!
Note to fellow participants: You are such lovely people. Thank you for the smiles and the laughs and your friendship.
Note to Aurora Borealis: You haven’t seen the last of me!
Michael Agugom was a recipient of an Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award in 2018. This story was inspired by the 2018 Iceland-Nigeria World Cup match.
Thanks to generosity of our alumni and friends, we will be offering Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Awards for the 2019 event — three full and two partial scholarships. Full funding covers all participation of a “complete package” in the Iceland Writers Retreat, as detailed on our website (including accommodation). The scholarship also includes round-trip flights to Iceland. Partial funding covers the participant fee for the Standard Package only, and neither accommodation nor round trip flights.
The recipients will be chosen based primarily on two factors: a) The potential they demonstrate (or has demonstrated) as a writer 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.)
We will begin accepting applications and linking to the form to apply from 1 September. Full details on how to apply will be posted at that time. It will be free to submit an application, but follow the instructions carefully, as incomplete submissions will not be considered.
We are so pleased to be offering the IWR Alumni Award for the fourth time. We are extremely grateful for the generosity of our alumni and friends.
Life, if you’re extremely fortunate, blesses you with a few defining experiences — journeys that clear the fog over your ultimate destination, that bring you closer to yourself, and simply, ones that take your breath away. The Iceland Writers Retreat was one such experience for me.
Back in December last year, when I learnt I was one of the recipients of the IWR Alumni Award, my first reaction was disbelief, followed by insurmountable gratitude. I couldn’t wait to get to Iceland, and experience this gorgeous little Nordic nation in the middle of the North Atlantic, its rich literature, and her keepers. I was looking forward to my interactions with the IWR faculty, and learn from them in those mindfully-designed, eclectic set of workshops. But the experience I had during those five days went beyond these tangible flashes of pleasure.
The most unique part about IWR for me was the brilliant combination of writing workshops and cultural tours. At first, I assumed that the cultural tours were meant only to help us view the many prolific natural wonders that Iceland is famous for. But as we went about the tours, which had a strong literary bent enabled via readings from local Icelandic authors, I realised the relevance of that natural beauty to Icelandic writers, and why exactly IWR had decided to make the tours part of the writers’ retreat.
For example, at Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness’ home, Gljúfrasteinn, the care-taker, Margret Marteinsdottir told us how the country’s natural beauty was a source of creative inspiration for the brilliant twentieth-century writer. “He would walk for five hours every day in the woods around his home, and would return inspired,” she said. The man penned 62 works of writing over seven decades — novels, poetry, plays, short stories, essays and memoirs, which were translated into 43 languages.
With such interactions, it was during these cultural tours that we got closer to Iceland’s raw beauty, agreed with Laxness’ view of it, and to some extent, started hoping for the literary inspiration the vistas had left him with.
It’s almost poetic romance, the idea of a writers’ retreat in the land of ice and fire. The Scandinavian nation, I noticed, was gorgeous in its own unconventional right. Home to just 340,000 people, its landscapes are untouched, dotted with striking contrasts – stretches of yellow grass juxtaposed with black igneous rocks from centuries of lava depositions, golden basalt caves in the backdrop of black sand beaches with boulders of ice adorning their shores, and thundering waterfalls next to silent, stagnant seas of snow.
With 110 participants from 17 countries, I met writers from all over the world at IWR — those who had written multiple books, and those who were struggling to bring themselves to write, those who walk around with fantasy worlds within them, and those who wish to capture the difficult reality around them. And with each encounter, I felt inspired.
Being in that space with fellow writers, I realised that we were similar in the fact that we were all at the retreat to be better wordsmiths, but the similarities also extended to our determination when it came to the art of writing, our vulnerability in terms of its craft, and our passion to tell the stories we hold dear. IWR created a community of like-minded people for me, a community with a strong sense of belonging — something, which is matchless and invaluable.
The most important highlight of the retreat, the writing workshops, were conducted by some of the most brilliant writers in the world, including Pamela Paul, author and editor of The New York Times Book Review, Susan Shreve, award-winning author of fourteen novels, and Craig Davidson, whose literary fiction, Rust and Bone was made into an Oscar-nominated feature film of the same name.
The workshops were eclectic and varied in their discourse, rooted deeply in the technical nuts and bolts of writing – creating captivating anti-heroes, sensory writing, plotting non-linear fiction, writing to inspire, writing humour, to become another person when writing, and learning how to outline your novel, among other subjects. There was a lot that I learnt during these workshops, which were mindfully organised as small-group classes, limited to fifteen participants. This ensured close interactions with the faculty, allowing an informal and constructive exchange of ideas.
While the workshops delved into the fundamentals of the craft of writing, a Q & A session with the faculty on the last day put focus on its practicalities, and how one can deal with its many challenges. The floor was open for the attendees, and we could ask whatever question we wanted. Although an informal interaction, I returned with several practical tips on becoming a better, more productive writer.
For example, writer Lauren Groff shared the importance of protecting one’s writing hours, and how she has “built very high walls,” and dedicates every morning until 3 pm to writing alone. Other faculty members shared how setting daily word-count targets help, how exercise should be part of a writers’ routine since writing is a physically-straining job, and how one should not wait for inspiration. “It isn’t coming,” said the writer, “So just quit the wait, and start writing now.”
Another highlight of IWR was the literary walking tour around Reykjavik. “There are more statues of artists in Reykjavik than politicians,” said the tour guide, also a local author, as she walked us around the UNESCO City of Literature, and introduced us to the many literary sites in Reykjavik. We witnessed similar veneration for literature when we interacted with Iceland’s president, Gudni Johanneson during an IWR reception at his official residence, and when we met Lif Magneudottir, president of the Reykjavik City Council during a reception hosted by the City of Reykjavik at City Hall. We all could feel the love Icelanders hold for literature, and although I didn’t realise it then, it was contagious.
Through each of the encounters and experience at IWR, I could feel my passion for writing soar, and I returned home a much more equipped and passionate writer. In the two months since, I’ve not only come up with an idea for my second non-fiction book, but have also signed with a leading Indian publisher for it. That’s what IWR has left me with — a priceless, intangible experience, which is now quietly guiding the course of my life, directing me closer to my dreams.
What you take from Iceland: soil the color of rust. Grey sky-hue of Hallgrimskirkja. Mountains shawling fog around their shoulders. Mustard yellows of cottages in Reykjavík. Spurt of geysers hissing up into an April afternoon. Arctic winds jostling you off your feet.
To experience such a landscape, to amble in it, to breathe its glacial air, to have it whistle its mysteries into your ear, is something that a writer can only dream of. It enlarges the imagination. Time warps in the strange spring light. ‘The end is in the beginning and lies far ahead,’ the narrator of Invisible Man says, and here you are reminded of those words. You feel as though you are at the end of time and at its beginning all at once.
As spectacular as it is, that scenery is simply a backdrop for the books. There’s the pleasure of listening to a rowdy 80 year old tell the story of her life in Hallgrímur Helgason’s Woman at a 1,000 Degrees. Debates about wickedness in ‘The Wife of Bath’ and Lolita in a workshop with Lauren Groff. Dissections of the twists and turns of narration in The Polyglot Lovers with Lina Wolff.
You leave brimming with inspiration from these conversations. Thinking about how to apply lessons to the novel you’re finishing, set in a landscape very different from the one you wander through in Iceland. A landscape on the equator, of desert dunes and swamplands and spotted cattle and temperatures that feel like a 1,000 degrees indeed.
You meet strangers who become friends. A Nigerian author who paints a gorgeous scene of a boy sitting atop an old fridge on a beach in Lagos. An Indian writer who presses little gifts from Mumbai into your hands. An American author who opens her door to you and conjures up for you the bustling alleyways of Barcelona.
And you laugh. At one reading the former mayor of Reykjavík evokes his childhood disorientation at the many strangers he meets in the Icelandic countryside who turn out to be…relatives. You laugh so hard you are in tears at this mirror-image of your own confusion as a child stumbling amongst aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins in Sudan.
Beyond the laughter, you are reminded that each word on a page is a step that bridges the gap between yourself and other selves. Your world and other worlds. It’s why you’ve always been drawn to books. And why you are ever so grateful that they’ve set you down in Iceland, crossed you from Khartoum to Reykjavík.
Fatin Abbas was a recipient of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award in 2018. We are currently fundraising to be able to offer this scholarship again for 2019. To contribute, click here.
What if I told you how brave, accomplished, and assertive I felt when I registered way back during the summer of 2017? It was taking place in one of my favorite places on this planet. And I was to learn so much.
Romantically I saw myself as looking out the window between finely crafted words, at the black and white diapo landscape. The blue ice cube glaciers at Jokulsarlon lagoon yonder on the horizon, glinting in the sun. Geysirs bubbling happily across the stark scenario and my writing flowing like its gorgeous and diverse waterfalls. I would be inspired by its plenty literary muses, immersed in a bubble with its silent icy mists and steaming thermal waters surrounding me. Totally concentrated with razor sharp focus. And my iPad.
And so, busy as a bee. I submerged my fantasies, illusions and expectations into the dark, healing waters of the Secret Lagoon of my subconscious. It was done. Back into my frazzled life as a CranioSacral therapist, wife, mother, grandmother, orchid collector by day, and reader and writer by night. Stealing blinks of time from my colored agenda: Grandchildren circled in fluorescent MeTime pink, caring for my Orchids, Laundry and Groceries in HomeTime yellow, CST appointments in PatientsTime blue, and home managing in FinanceTime green.
So far, writing for me was a hobby. Pleasing, satisfying, therapeutic and cathartic. I had no WritingTime color circling any space on my book. Nada, nothing in any page. I’ve always described myself as a reader. In spite of being half way into my project of a thirteen short story collection, & taken several fiction and nonfiction workshops. Writing still was a hobby for me.
Seriously? Writer? Me?
What if I told you how intimidated I was feeling as time approached and gnawing self doubt reared its ugly head?
While riding the short distance from Odinsgata to the Natura Hotel, I felt like a tweenie all dressed up, going to her first prom. Butterflies in my stomach? You gotta be kidding me.
Moths more like it.
What on earth possessed me to think I belonged in this exalted level of talent, creativity and expertise? Words like Fellowships, Awards, X many books published, daunted & haunted me. What was I doing entering the sacrosanctum lobby and registering in this Retreat for Writers? Why wasn’t I soaking in Sundhollin pool, or trekking Landmannalaugar? When I reached my room, after receiving my black ‘goody bag’ from the welcoming, smiling staff, I wondered if I shouldn’t be running across the tarmac I could see through my window, to the first plane out to Akureyri, Greenland, or the Faroes, instead.
Far, far away from making a fool of myself.
Ok, I confess I love Iceland, Icelanders, Icelandic lopapeysa sweaters, Icelandic smart and distant sense of humor, not to mention the Canelle Snudurs from Sandholt, Messinn’s Atlantic Char, Gæsabringa slices with Raspberry Vinagrette from The Deli, Skyr, Lamb Grilled Koftas from Alibaba, Kjötsúpa from any petrol station, and my new obsession: Loki’s Rye Bread Ice Cream with Whipped Cream, drizzled with Rhubarb Caramelized Syrup — I bought a tiny bottle of it so I can smell & taste Iceland every time I open it back home in Florida. A whiff of its earthy, creamy, tart and sweet aromas magically making Íslands come back to life. Thankfully NO whiffs of fermented shark, thank you very much.
So, I was here, entering the Dinner and Readings. Sit with us close by the mic — as suggested by my new friends, repeat alums Rosie and Ian. ‘Live in the moment. Smile. Breathe deeply in and exhale slowly out’— As directed by myself. Worse case scenario, I would take notes, and try my best to keep silent with an intensely creative expression on my face throughout the workshops.
Loved hearing the stories read. Started melting into my surroundings. Restless night with weird dreams.
When I stepped into my first workshop, the one by the fantastic Lina Wolff about “Plotting and Writing Non – Linear Fiction”, and later her “Creating Antiheroes” and then both of Rory Maclean’s Travel Writing workshops, and finally Lauren Groff’s brilliant one on “Gaps, Spaces and Silences” I had stopped feeling like an isolated molecule, an outsider, a dwarf comet passing by into the void.
I’ve never felt more at home. I belonged. I became part of the live, pulsing, creative body of this wondrous galaxy of writers. By the time I exited the Q&A Panel Final session, I had finally assumed my craft. It was my language, I was a writer. I was hearing a reflection of my own intuition. It resonated with what I felt should be, from the gut. I had gained confidence. I volunteered to read out loud my class exercises. I recognized myself as being part of this pack. I trusted my ability. I metabolized everything I learned. So…
What if I told you I came out of 2018 IWR enveloped in my newly minted creative self with the word WRITER engraved in my mind, heart and soul? Learning so many techniques was invaluable. Now, I not only know and own these tools. But most importantly, I own the acquired confidence and self acceptance that I AM a writer. With the multitude of colors of the landscapes of my travels, weaved by the myths and legends of my Venezuela and adopted Ireland and Iceland, I intend to circle lots of WritingTime in my book.
#AmWriter……………………………………. Janine Vici Campbell
Throughout the years I had been hoping for an opportunity to get away from my hectic lifestyle and just focus on myself and what I enjoy doing the most—writing. The unique picturesque scenery, the rich literary culture, the people—every nook and cranny of Iceland promised me just that, making the Iceland Writers Retreat an experience I can never forget. I embarked on this journey with an open mind and a blank notebook, seeking to fuel up my passion and harvest my skills. The Iceland Writers Retreat was, for me, chance to feel part of a family with like-minded goals and aspirations, exchange ideas and tips in small intimate groups and build precious friendships in the process. The workshops offered were tailored to focus on the different aspects of writing, ranging from plot construction to experimenting with different literary genres. It was a pleasure for me to discuss, learn, and grow as a writer, thanks to the feedback provided by my designated tutors after a number of hands-on exercises. I was moreover thrilled with the activities programme, every single one intended as testimony to the nation’s love for the written word. Now I understand where it all comes from and would like to heartily thank Eliza, Erica, and all the organizers of the Iceland Writers Retreat for making this possible. I feel inspired, recharged and ready to take on new writing ventures, keeping Iceland both in my mind and heart.
Michael Agugom was a recipient of an Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award in 2018