Faculty update

Faculty update

We regret to announce that Hilton Als is no longer able to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat in April. All participants who were scheduled to attend his workshops will be invited to select a new class. Iceland Writers Retreat apologizes for the inconvenience.

Q&A with Michael Agugom, Alumni Award Recipient

Q&A with Michael Agugom, Alumni Award Recipient

Thanks to a generous donation we were able to offer an additional full Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award to one of our finalists from this year’s application process. Meet Nigeria’s Michael Agugom!

Michael Agugom is a graduate of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, where he received a B.A. in English Language and Literature. He served as TV Presenter/Reporter with the largest TV network in Africa. His fiction has been published in Capra Review, Referential Magazine, Courtship of Wind, Hypertext Magazine, Queer Africa 2: New Stories (Ma Thoko’s Books), and forthcoming in the Cantabrigian Magazine. The anthology, Queer Arica 2: New Stories, that features his story Tar has just been shortlisted for the LAMBDA Award. His short story Ibinabo is currently on the longlist of the Short Story Day Africa Prize 2017.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally? 

I habitually skim through websites and blogs offering news and writing opportunities for writers, especially emerging writers. A few years back while doing that I came across Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award on the website of PEN South Africa. Then I read about the retreat and about Megan Ross, the first African and/or first-ever recipient of the award. I knew that moment that this was what I needed, especially the writing workshops. But the following year, due to some traumatic experience I suffered, I missed out on a chance to apply. So last year I had no reason not to apply. When I received the email informing me I hadn’t won but was among the 21 finalists, I was heartbroken: I really wanted to participate in this year’s retreat because of its theme and the esteemed faculty members that would be handling the sub-themes—sub-themes that are completely relevant to my present writing projects.  I remember my good friend and founding-editor of Capra Review, who has been very supportive of my writing, write me, encouraging me not to give up, that at least I made finalist which should count for something. I got over it and made up my mind to apply again during the next call for application. So it was a delightful surprise to receive another email months later saying the judges were really impressed with my application and that I have been selected to participate in the retreat if I still wanted to. The ecstatic feeling from that news is still fresh on my mind—I’m still relishing it.

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit your writing?

This would be my first. And I’m glad and grateful for the opportunity.

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

The opportunity to participate in a writing workshop with an assemblage of renowned writers is one I would give up sleep for, trust me! I’m always open to fresh ideas and creative writing experiences that can improve my writing. This retreat offers those and more.

Experiencing a country and her culture for the first time is, I believe, refreshing, inspiring and enlightening. Iceland is going to be a beautiful adventure for me. I’m looking forward to the cultural tours and learning more about Iceland, especially her literature.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

Human struggles inspire me—all forms of human struggles. The everyday struggles to fix what was broken yesterday and in the process break another today, trigger stories in me. Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe are the writers in my mind at moments like this. The first time I read Sula it was like listening to my mother tell me a story. Toni Morrison comes across to me as an Igbo mother. This is the same way Achebe makes me feel reading Things Fall Apart. The orality of their storytelling and how they weave the characters in their stories and put them through the everyday struggles of mankind inspire me.

How has writing influenced your life?

Writing for me is freeing. My stories are questions—questions threatening to break my backbone with their weight. My stories are my way of asking the world: why this way, why not this other way? Writing is my way of emptying myself of fears. The things I am too timid to express verbally, I say them through stories.

Writing has taught to listen to the unspoken emotions of those around me: the things they can’t find words to express or too afraid to express. I listen more now to understand, patiently; and not really to counter.

Importantly, writing has helped me to appreciate language. My multilingual ability plays a significant role in how I write. It has helped me to appreciate the beauty and burden of imagining a story in say Igbo, my indigenous language, and writing the same story in English.

Writing has made me very sensitive.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

My biggest challenge right now stems naturally from the kind of project I’m working on. I’m researching the practice of online fraud, especially among teenage boys being dropping out of school and being apprenticed to practitioners of this crime. The fear and threats to life that come from writing against a crime that is justified and encouraged by many impedes my writing. I’m also concerned about how to handle facts while writing a creative non-fiction book (lyrical essays mostly) without the facts making the book into a boring economic textbook. My challenges, however, are what keeps me going on.

Any final comments you would like to share?

One that comes to my mind right now is the advice I was given as an undergrad by one of my professors: if you want to be read seriously, write seriously. And I would also like to add that: and for you to write seriously, you must read seriously.

About the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award: This year is the third year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in its entirety by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 11 to 15, 2018 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received over 700 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting to Know IWR Faculty Member Adania Shibli

Getting to Know IWR Faculty Member Adania Shibli

We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Adania Shibli will be a faculty member at our 2018 Retreat in April. She will be teaching two workshops, Writing with Paintings and Secondary Elements, which you can learn more about the workshops she will be teaching here.

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat, either as faculty or as a participant? If yes, how did the experience benefit you and/or your writing?

In fact my work in academia, rather than the field of writing, has allowed the occurrence of such retreats. Participants in my courses and I would meet over the period of a few days. We would start by expressing urgent questions related to the process of writing, and which are of concern for each one of them. Then we try read texts that could further reflect on such questions. Alongside, we would go for walks to places of the participants’ or my choice. In that sense, these were retreats from the daily life of each of them, yet not from life itself. We try, as a matter of fact, to see the extension of their thoughts and questions in lived experiences that out of the way of their daily lives.

This results with creating shared fields of intimacy that in my view are an essential part of writing. Eventually it feels as if writing becomes alive; making such retreats a rare occasion to experience that by the participants and for me alike. This is as well what I most look forward to sharing with others in any such retreats.

Is there a particular piece of writing advice (or a writing exercise) you would like to share with our followers?

Never let a day pass without writing; to maintain writing as a daily practice; writing throughout the day, even if only a sentence every few hours. It is an advice that I try to give myself as well.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

I find speaking less is very inspiring.

How has writing influenced your life?

Writing in my case had taught me how to live, and probably how to love.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

The relation to language and words are most challenging and intriguing. One relation which is often encouraged is instrumental use: we use words to tell something. We get used to treat language in this way through speaking, where we are rarely allowed to babble, stammer or stutter. When we do so, we are ridiculed, mainly because we take language away from the single role forced on it to express things efficiently. Personally I find such instrumental use is reducing the potential of language, as instrumentalism reduces the potential of anything else. This said, I try in the process of writing to explore dimensions of language beyond that, something that is very difficult, after such dimensions have been repeatedly suppressed.

What are you working on currently?

I’m in anticipation of starting a new novel that might be written against the background of what I shared here.

Adania Shibli (Palestine, 1974) currently lives in Jerusalem and in Berlin. She has written novels, plays, short stories and narrative essays. She has twice been awarded with the Qattan Young Writer’s Award-Palestine in 2001 on her novel Masaas(translated into English as Touch. Northampton: Clockroot, 2009), and in 2003 on her novel Kulluna Ba’id bethat al Miqdar aan el-Hub (translated into English as We Are All Equally Far from Love. Northampton: Clockroot, 2012). She has also edited a Dispositions (Ramallah: Qattan, 2012), an art book about contemporary Palestinian artists. Her latest is the novel Tafsil Thanawi (Minor Detail, Beirut: Al-Adab, 2017). Shibli is also engaged in academic research and teaching. Since 2012 she has been a visiting professor at Birzeit University, Palestine.

Getting to Know IWR Faculty Member Terry Fallis

Getting to Know IWR Faculty Member Terry Fallis

 

A two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, Terry Fallis is the award-winning author of six national bestselling novels, including his latest, One Brother Shy, all published by McClelland & Stewart. The Best Laid Plans was the winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour in 2008, and CBC’s Canada Reads in 2011. It was adapted as a six-part television miniseries, as well as a stage musical. The High Road was a Leacock Medal finalist in 2011. Up and Down was the winner of the 2013 Ontario Library Association Evergreen Award, and was a finalist for the 2013 Leacock Medal. His fourth novel, No Relation, was released in May 2014, debuted on the Globe and Mail bestsellers list, and won the 2015 Leacock Medal. His fifth, Poles Apart, hit bookstores in October 2015, was a Globe and Mail bestseller and was a finalist for the 2016 Leacock Medal. One Brother Shy was released in May 2017 and became an instant bestseller. The Canadian Booksellers Association named Terry Fallis the winner of the 2013 Libris Award as Author of the Year.

Workshops: The power of a plan: Outlining your novel and Make them laugh: Writing Humour

How did you originally get involved in the Retreat? 

It was a conversation with a friend, the fine Canadian writer, Allison Pick that introduced me to the Iceland Writers Retreat. She was on the faculty in 2015 and raved about the experience. And that was all it took. I researched the retreat and was very impressed with the program, the people, not to mention Iceland. As a closeted chess fan, I’ve read so much about the 1972 World Chess Championships in Reykjavik when Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky. Then I read about Iceland’s strong literary culture and became slightly preoccupied—okay, “obsessed” is likely the better word for it—with somehow getting myself to Iceland for the retreat. So I proceeded to wage a two-year relentless campaign to elevate my profile in the right Icelandic circles trying not to look like I was waging a two-year relentless campaign. I’m sure Eliza wondered about my casual, friendly emails sent at strategic junctures. So you can imagine my excitement when the call came. I’m thrilled to be a part of this celebrated gathering in such a literary city.

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat, either as faculty or as a participant? If yes, how did the experience benefit you and/or your writing? 

Yes, I’ve attended many writers festivals, workshops, and retreats over the years and have almost always enjoyed myself and learned something, too. Anytime I can commune with other writers, be they aspiring or established, I’m inspired. Writing is a rather solitary pursuit, so the chance to hang out with, and learn from, other writers always leaves me energized and motivated to dive back in to whatever novel I’m writing at the time. I think most writers need to recharge their creative batteries periodically. Festivals and retreats help me do that. But seldom is the cultural and geographic backdrop quite so stunning as will be in Iceland.

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

Now that’s a tough question. As noted above, I enjoy spending time with other writers. There’s often an almost instant rapport among a group of writers, even a diverse gathering of scribes. I always look forward to those opportunities. I also really enjoy teaching and talking with writers who are working so hard to to break through. I know what that’s like. Of course, I’m really excited to see and experience a new and very special country for the first time. Finally, I’ve been listening to the New York Times Book Review podcast since it started. So I’m happy for the chance to meet Pamela Paul, the host of the podcast. (As a fellow podcaster, I understand that strange sensation when you feel that you really know someone even though you’ve never met them. That’s the power and intimacy of the human voice in your ear-buds.)

Is there a particular piece of writing advice (or a writing exercise) you would like to share with our followers?

Well, I’m leading two workshops, one on how to outline your novel, and the other on humour writing. I hope to impart some advice in those areas, but more broadly speaking, I’m often asked how I find the time to write when there’s so many other demands on our time including our families, our day-jobs, and the need to eat and sleep periodically. I think if you really want to do something—like write a novel or a short story—you can always, somehow, some way, find the time to make it happen. It requires commitment, belief, and some time management skills. (It occasionally helps if you are also a little deranged.) And when your desire to write overpowers the forces in your way, you may find as I did, that the writing doesn’t actually feel like work. It simply feels like it’s what you’re supposed to be doing.

Don’t get me wrong. Intellectually, I know that writing is in fact work—difficult, taxing and sometimes frustrating work. It just doesn’t feel like work when you’re doing something you love, or have wanted to do for a long time. So take that all-important next step. Make the move from wanting to write, promising to write, planning to write, and actually start to write.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

I’ve always been inspired by polymaths—those rare people who were born with an extra helping of curiosity and have amassed knowledge, insights, and understanding across a dizzying array of subjects. Leonardo Da Vinci, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, even Stephen Fry might be examples. Curiosity is such an important asset for writers, and it is the gift that keeps on giving.

How has writing influenced your life?

Relatively speaking, I came to writing novels quite late in life. I didn’t write my debut novel until I was 45 years old, and that was 13 years ago. Yes, I know, I don’t look like I’m in my late fifties. It’s a cross I must bear. So I’ve spent the last decade or so trying to make up for lost time. If you had told me back in 2006 that in 2018 I’d be just finishing writing my seventh novel, I’d have suggested you check your medication. Becoming a novelist changed my life in many ways. Most of all, becoming a writer has made me extraordinarily happy.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

I suspect I’m not alone in this, but I think finding the time and energy to sustain a disciplined writing life in the midst of everything else I have on my plate can be a considerable challenge. It is also difficult to strike the perfect balance between promoting your previous novel and writing your next one. Obviously, both are important. Both take time. Both yield rewards. But it divides your time, your mind, and your life. And that can be tiring.

What are you working on currently?

I am currently writing my seventh novel, If at First You Succeed. In fact, if all goes well—oops, I may have just jinxed myself—I should have the manuscript nearly finished by the time we land in Reykjavik.

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

Storytelling is an ancient and noble calling. It may be a tough life—okay, it’s definitely a tough life—but the rewards are many. I’ve never worked harder, yet I’ve never been more fulfilled. I’m so thrilled to visit Iceland and I look forward to a wonderful, productive, and enlightening retreat with so many fine writers. I have no doubt that I’ll learn more and take away more from this experience than I can possibly offer in return. But I’m going to try!

Q&A with Julia Duin, Alumni Award Recipient

Q&A with Julia Duin, Alumni Award Recipient

This year is the third year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in its entirety by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 11 to 15, 2018 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received over 700 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, with today’s interview being with Julia Duin. You can also read the responses from Fatin Abbas,  Puja Changoiwalaand Nora Shychuk!

Julia Duin is a Seattle-based journalist who has worked as a reporter or editor for everything from the Houston Chronicle to the Washington Times. She’s also written extensively for the Washington Post Sunday Magazine for which she just came out with a nearly 6,000-word profile on President Trump’s advisor Paula White. She’s published six books, the latest being In the House of the Serpent Handler, a nonfiction work about 20-something Appalachian pentecostal serpent handlers who use Facebook to publicize their exploits. During the 2014-2015 academic year, she occupied the Snedden chair as a journalism professor at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

Sometime last September, I was skimming an alternative journalism site — I think it was IJNet.org — when it caught my eye.

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit your writing? 

The writer’s retreat I attended was in the spring of 1978, literally 40 years ago. But I’ve been on other kinds of retreats and they’re wonderful for clearing your mind. I need at least 24 hours to dismiss exterior thoughts and concentrate on the matter at hand, which is why weekend retreats do me little good. I’ve no sooner quieted down when I have to return to the rat race.

As a journalist, does your writing process differ at all when it comes to your creative writing?

It’s night and day. As a reporter, you’re in react and deadline mode plus there are always space limitations. I’ve done academic writing as well where you have to footnote nearly every sentence. As for creative writing, I’ve not been able to do much of it in the past 30 years. But when I have been writing a story story or novel, I’ve had to withdraw for several days to get the mental space to think things out. For one book, I rented out a yurt for several days in the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina just to be alone. However, after I adopted a child 11 years ago, my ability to go somewhere quiet shrank to nil.

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

The international character of it intrigues me. I’m looking forward to meeting the many folks attending this retreat and yes, having it be in Iceland definitely adds to the allure.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

Classical music really helps me think and dream. The Russian romantics are the best but in recent years, Philip Glass has inspired me more. A time of prayer and Bible study early in the day sets my interior clock to what’s most important and it’s during those times that creative thoughts often come. Although British writers like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have always helped me dream, lately I’ve taken to looking at photo books of landscapes to help me think. I spent 2014-2015 teaching in Alaska and I find that gazing at Arctic scenes gets my thoughts out of the daily news rush into more eternal concerns. And in the past 3 years, my daughter and I have become avid consumers of any movie by Hayao Miyazaki and similar Japanese anime fantasies that have a whole different take on reality. I love their creativity.

How has writing influenced your life?

Since I have been making my living as a journalist for nearly 40 years (currently I blog thrice weekly for the blog getreligion.org and write for various other publications), writing has *been* my life. After taking second place in a writing competition as a sixth grader, I knew I had it within me to excel, so I quit ballet lessons (which I loved) and concentrated on writing during middle and high school years. Like Eric Liddell from “Chariots of Fire” who said that when he runs, he feels God’s pleasure, I feel the same sense of blessing when I write. Journalism is such a great way to bring about social justice and to elevate the deserving and expose the corrupt. I was able to do so while being on the religion beat for various newspapers. It’s one of the few occupations that gives you instant power, which is why it’s hard for many of us to give it up and move on to other kinds of writing. With so much information overload these days, one must invest in many hours of quiet to get the quality of writing and wisdom that the world so badly needs. We are the distillers of wisdom and insight for the world. Good writing is not cheap and it will cost us everything.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

Being a single parent is very tough. Children constantly need you for all sorts of things; they have a way of demanding your attention when you’re thinking through a phrase or on deadline, so your concentration is always fragmented. If I stay up late to get things done, then I miss out on sleep. My best friend in this is my laptop, which I can take wherever I go and on which I can write as fast as I want. Notepads seem intolerably slow.

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

I’ve published six books and will be working on my seventh during the retreat. Writing one is like being in touch with another world and sensing what will be important in the coming years. My books have grown from a time when I’ve sensed a shift in society or an undercurrent that no one is writing about but which is very much there. I start by taking notes on what I’m noticing and feeling. I see conversations on Facebook about it; I see people groping for what they cannot explain. A book is conceived when that same idea begins to burn in you and your circumstances work out to where you can learn more of this thing or you encounter just the right people who can guide you. Writing is very mystic in that sense. You have to be attuned to the tremors of a movement long before others have noticed it. My fourth book was about large amounts of committed believers who were leaving church. I knew it was happening but no one was writing about it. I began to research this and the book came out two years later. In that year and for two years afterwards, 20 books were published on the same or a similar theme. Writers had felt the zeitgeist of this trend and were able to catch the wave as it crested. One of the most important parts of being a writer is having your ear to the ground, sensing what is to come and discerning a response that will benefit readers when events take place. A good writer is part prophet.

Q&A with Puja Changoiwala, Alumni Award Recipient

Q&A with Puja Changoiwala, Alumni Award Recipient

This year is the third year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in its entirety by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 11 to 15, 2018 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received over 700 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, with today’s interview being with Puja Changoiwala. You can also read the responses from Fatin Abbas and Nora Shychuk!

Puja Changoiwala is a Mumbai-based independent journalist, and author of the widely-acclaimed true crime book in India, ‘The Front Page Murders.’ This book, Puja’s debut work as an author, is recipient of awards and unanimous acclaim from the most reputed quarters of the country. As a journalist, Puja is a contributor to some of the most esteemed news publications in India, Europe, and North America. Her writings have featured in The Guardian, BBC, among other renowned outlets. Previously a human rights correspondent with a London-based political magazine, Puja has also worked as a senior crime correspondent with Hindustan Times, a leading Indian national daily. She has produced award-winning work, covering Mumbai’s sins, and their casualties.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

I learnt about the Retreat through a post on the website of the International Journalists’ Network. In an instinct, I knew I had to apply for the Alumni Award. The opportunity seemed surreal – a five-day writing program in Iceland, which includes small-group workshops with some of the greatest stalwarts of the writing world. Plus, it hosts cultural tours with a focus on Iceland’s literary heritage. The program seemed like a perfect fit – it would enrich the writer as well as journalist in me. I’d be over the moon if I won this opportunity, I thought. And with the full scholarship I’ve been awarded, I’m now on my lunar expedition!

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit your writing?

I’m afraid I haven’t attended a Retreat before – but now I’m guessing it was worth the wait!

As a journalist, does your writing process differ at all when it comes to your creative writing? 

I’m not sure if it differs per se, but I do think that being a journalist certainly adds to one’s approach as a writer. In my opinion, more than the skill of writing, all of creative script is about thoughts that make your readers think – to say something beautifully, you have to have something beautiful to say. And as a journalist, I feel you own a treasure trove of such ideas since you’re well-acquainted with the world – you’ve seen its highs, its downfalls, and the people in those stories. You’re equipped with your interpretations of the world, and when you put them down on paper, you’re bound to create magic – more often than not.

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

This year’s theme – Literary fiction, Non-fiction & Memoir – perfectly complements my interest since I am a true crime writer. Although fiction remains a more lucrative genre worldwide, I believe there are several true stories, which essentially need to find their audience. And I’m certain that interacting with some great minds from the non-fiction space at the Retreat will not only strengthen this belief, but also fuel my passion further for the craft. I believe that it’s only unreasonable passion, which truly drives a writer.

Also, I’ve been scouring through the workshop details lately, and I’m amazed at the eclectic mix of subjects to be covered – so contemporary, so integral to writing, and just so fascinating. I’m also looking forward to the cultural tours. Reykjavik, I understand, is world’s first non-native English speaking UNESCO City of Literature, and I’m certain that it’ll leave me with several things to think about, speak about, and write about.

What do you find inspiring?

Lately, I think commercial art, which imitates life. I believe that as humans, we thrive on escapism and fantasies. That’s why, successful art today mostly comprises of stories and depictions, which transport you to an alternative reality. And that’s also probably why it’s so difficult to blend truth with commerce. I think, for me, any form of art, which manages to create an audience for reality, is inspiring.

It could be a book, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It could be a stage play, a photograph, a news story, or a painting. It could even be a film – for example, there was recently an Indian movie called Toilet, a comedy-drama about a woman, who threatens to leave her husband if he doesn’t agree to build a toilet in their house. Upon getting married, the woman realizes that her husband’s home doesn’t have a toilet, and that she would have to defecate in the fields to relieve herself. The film, which grossed 20 million USD at the box office worldwide, creatively created awareness about one of the most pressing issues of contemporary India – open defecation and sanitation.

How has writing influenced your life?

At the most basic and most important level, writing has taught me how to pay attention. It has made be a better audience of the world. When you write, you read better, and you watch better. You do these things academically – trying to decipher the mind of that content’s creator, hoping to learn from it. You listen more intently to people; you observe their body languages – hoping to understand their psychology, find your characters in them. And you go about life more awake, and more alive. Ironically, all these things that writing does to you, in turn, make you a better writer!

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

That I’m way too attached to facts!

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

From whatever I’ve learnt so far, I know that writing is neither about the art nor the craft. It’s all about finding one’s voice. If you’re there in the mind, you’ll go there in the body, and your readers will follow.

Q&A with Nora Shychuk, Alumni Award Recipient

Q&A with Nora Shychuk, Alumni Award Recipient

This year is the third year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in its entirety by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 11 to 15, 2018 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received over 700 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, with today’s interview being with Nora Shychuk. You can read Fatin Abbas’ responses here.

Nora Shychuk is a graduate of University College Cork in Ireland, where she received an M.A. in creative writing. Her B.A., from Jacksonville University, is in Screenwriting and English. Her work has appeared in several literary journals and magazines, including The Lonely Crowd and Pact Press’ Speak and Speak Again anthology. Her short story, Separations, was shortlisted for the 2017 From The Well Short Story Competition in Ireland. Last year, Nora was a finalist for the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award and couldn’t be more pleased to be one of the recipients this year. She is an assistant editor for Regal House Publishing and is currently finishing up a short story collection. She lives in New York City.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

I found out about the Iceland Writers Retreat through my writing mentor, Mary Morrissy. She sent out an e-mail plugging the Aerogramme Writers’ Studio website to graduates of University College Cork’s creative writing M.A. program. I spent some time trolling the site for writing opportunities, and the Iceland Writers Retreat was listed and open for applications. I read about the retreat and it seemed like a chance of a lifetime: five days in Iceland to write and workshop and explore. I applied in 2016 for the first time and was a finalist for the full 2017 Alumni Award. I promised I’d apply again the next year, and happily, I was one of two recipients of the full 2018 Alumni Award.

As someone who has previously been a finalist for the Alumni Award, did you have a different process when applying again?

When I applied for the Alumni Award again this year, I actually didn’t have a different plan or process in mind. I wanted to be as truthful to myself as possible and supply the judges with strong writing that spoke for itself. Something that did change, however, was my location. I left Florida and moved, permanently, to New York City to be closer to the literary world. I wanted to make that a focal point of my application because the move showed devotion and a strong commitment to my craft.

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit your writing?

No. I was awarded an Emerging Writer Residency with the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods in California in 2016. Unfortunately, I was still studying abroad in Ireland at the time and the expense was too great to attend. I have workshopped throughout my writing career, within fiction courses at UCC and, more recently, with a writing group in Brooklyn, but the IWR will be an exciting experience filled with new landscapes and fresh inspiration.

Do you feel as though your work as an editor has an impact on your writing process?

My work as an editor absolutely impacts my writing process, although not at first. If I have an idea, particularly one that I feel I need to write, I tend to work fast and messy. I give in completely to curiosity, freedom, imagination, and emotion. I believe in character, tone, and feeling above all else and ignore technicalities. But once I emerge from the telling of the story and look at my (crazy) first draft, I’m serious about making it as necessary and neat as possible. I think a sense of brevity in fiction is important. A story must say something and take the reader along with it. When I’m editing a piece of creative writing, clear direction and concise storytelling are crucial. I ask myself: what can I cut? What can I tighten? What is needed and what is expendable? Editing trains the eye.

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

I could go on and on. The Iceland Writers Retreat provides me with the opportunity to take workshops with writers I know and love and respect. I trust in listening. I count on being wrong and welcome a learning curve. So much of writing is finding your own path to creativity and trusting in the way you tell your stories. No two writers are alike, not really, and the Iceland Writers Retreat has put together a dynamic and diverse faculty of writers to learn from. I am also ecstatic about traveling to Reykjavik—duh!—and experiencing a country and culture for the first time. I have a traveler’s heart and thrive on adventure. The best work I’ve done in my life has been a result of movement, of going to new places and diving right in to something alien and unrecognizable. Iceland is wild and wonderful—and I’m sure it’ll leave its mark on me.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

Great art. It doesn’t matter what kind. When I read George Saunders’s Tenth of December, I realized the limitless possibilities of the short story. It made me want to sit down, skip meals, write, and never stop. Last fall, I was similarly stunned and after seeing Moonlight. Barry Jenkins created a movie that was truly unlike anything else I’d ever seen. It made me believe in movies again, in their ability to alter, stun, break your heart, and put it back together again.  I was speechless.

And the power of fresh air! A nice, quiet walk in the woods or a challenging hike takes me away and clears my head. It just helps. I always feel at home outdoors; there is a tremendous sense of belonging. As an anxious person prone to stress, being outside helps me to slow down and see the big picture. It’s a natural stress-killer for me.

Human-wise, my partner, Trey, inspires me more than any other person on the planet.  His kindness is unmatched and he is legitimately the funniest person I know. A writer himself, he understands the soul-crushing terror often associated with creative life and still, he has always urged me to look inside myself and go after whatever makes me come alive. I wouldn’t know how to listen to my heart if it wasn’t for him.

How has writing influenced your life?

For me, writing has been an elixir to a full and happy life. Yes, writing is hard. Yes, it scares me. Yes, some days I feel incredibly uninspired and hate everything I do—but! and it’s a big one—I love writing for exactly the same reasons: the challenge, its ability to throttle me, its unpredictability. I’ve never quite understood the tortured artist mentality. Why let something so freeing destroy you? Writing constantly demands that I tap into a creative and playful place, in search of answers or, better yet, questions. It doesn’t have to be perfect and neither do I. Oh, and the really cool thing? Art makes me feel shamelessly alive. Awake. In a constant state of awe. That sense of wonder, of course, has influenced my life all for the better. Writing provides me with the “OK” to look at myself and the world around me and find my own, unique path through it all. In short, writing keeps the magic alive.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

This stands in almost direct opposition to my last statement, but I believe both can be true. While I know that I don’t have to be perfect, perfectionism is hard to shake when you’re trying to make something “good.” Every sentence must count, right? I’m quite hard on myself when it comes to writing. Ask anyone who has ever worked with me. Ever. I’m neurotic and worrisome, so much so that I’ll stall or stop myself from completing a project. At times, I count myself out before I even really get started. I think all writers struggle with this: the fear, the doubt, the second-guessing. It’s a roadblock we all have to find our own way around. More than one person has told me that I wear my heart on my sleeve and “care too much.” It’s a challenge for me to relax with writing, to be patient and faithful in the process because I’m too afraid that I’ll fail. But the only real failure in writing is not writing. I try to remind myself daily that I don’t need to rise to such lofty, unrealistic expectations of myself and my work. Steinbeck said it best: “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

Final Comments

As someone who has had their fair share of artistic heartache, I really want to address anyone and everyone who has ever felt discouraged or rejected. Writing is a challenging but worthwhile way to spend your life. It’s a business of no and not yet, but it’s also a business of hope and inexplicable opportunity. Anything can happen in the wonderful and baffling world of creativity, so write what you want to write. Speak up. Be brave. The world needs unique and passionate voices. If you want to write, then write. Keep trying, even when you fail. Especially when you fail. Take every chance available to you because, even though it’s tough and scary out there, writing takes you to amazing places.

Q&A with Fatin Abbas, Alumni Award Recipient

Q&A with Fatin Abbas, Alumni Award Recipient

This year is the third year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in its entirety by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 11 to 15, 2018 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received over 700 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, starting with Fatin Abbas!

Fatin Abbas was born in Sudan, grew up in New York, and attended university in the UK and US. She is a graduate of the Hunter College (CUNY) MFA in Creative Writing Program, winning during her time there the Bernard Cohen Short Story Prize and the Miriam Weinberg Richter Award. Her fiction has appeared in Freeman’sThe Warwick Review, and Friction, and her non-fiction and review essays have appeared in Le Monde DiplomatiqueThe NationAfrica is a Country, and openDemocracy.net. She is a recipient of the Miles Morland Foundation Writing Scholarship, and is at work on her first novel, The Interventionists.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

I found out about the Retreat through the Aerogramme Writers’ Studio. Spending a week in Iceland writing and engaging with such renowned authors seemed like an amazing opportunity, and I applied immediately. I’m really grateful for the chance to connect with a community of writers in such a beautiful country.

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit your writing?

No, I haven’t participated in a retreat before, so I’m really excited to be taking part in this one!

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

I think what the Iceland Writers Retreat offers is this wonderful combination of location, contact with stellar authors, and community. The combination of location and literary community is especially appealing to me. I really look forward to meeting Icelandic authors and learning more about the country through its writers and its literature.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

In terms of my own writing, there are different streams of inspiration. 19th century novelists — Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Fyodor Dostoevsky — were my gateway into the novel. Postcolonial authors, from Chinua Achebe to Tayeb Salih to Jean Rhys and Arundhati Roy, are very important to me, in the way that they reflect my own relation to the world. Then there are the writers whom I’ve had the privilege to know and learn from: Peter Carey, Colum McCann and Claire Messud, whom I studied with, are all hugely inspiring both as writers and as people. But before all of these writers came along there were my parents. Both are big readers, and they passed on their love of books to me.

How has writing influenced your life?

Writing is the medium through which I’ve always made sense of myself and of the world around me. I became really involved with writing as a child, around the age of nine, when my family first moved from Sudan to the United States. I think it’s no coincidence that I became involved with writing then, because my family was going through so much upheaval. Writing provided a space through which I could make sense of all these changes: new country, new culture, new challenges. As an adult writing continues to play that role in my life. There’s a phrase that Colum McCann, by way of John Berger, uses to describe himself: ‘I’m a patriot of elsewhere.’ That phrase is very apt in terms of capturing my own experience as someone who exists between places and cultures. Writing for me is about figuring out what that ‘elsewhere’ is, what it means to be a citizen or a patriot of that place which is no place and every place. I think it’s the task of writers to think about it, especially given the current political environment, in which there is this buckling down on nationalism and on borders, and when the privileges of citizenship and belonging are distributed so unequally. I like to think of that ‘elsewhere’ as another alternative, a more inclusive, open and equal one, and writing is my way of exploring that place.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

Time is a big challenge, I think it always is for writers. Writing is a slow process, and we live in a world of hurry. You need time to read, think, write, re-write, revise, to grow into your own wisdom as a person and as a writer. It can be challenging to slow down, to take your time for the benefit of the work, when everyone and everything around you is speeding by. But I think this is also why I value writing: for the way that it forces me to confront my own limitations, the limitations that time imposes on me, and to work through them. Writing is humbling, but at the same time it opens me up to my fullest possibilities.

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

Only a quotation from E.L. Doctorow, another writer I love, which has kept me going through my first novel, and which some of the first-time novelists out there may find encouraging: ‘[Writing a novel is] like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’

 

Third Place in the Iceland Writers Retreat and Iceland Travel Writing Contest

Third Place in the Iceland Writers Retreat and Iceland Travel Writing Contest

For the fourth year in a row, we have partnered with Iceland Travel to run a competition to win a spot at the Iceland Writers Retreat. This year’s theme was “Waterfalls” and we received 350 submissions from the around the world.

This year’s third place went to “Two Waterfalls Become One” by Susan Smith of the UK. You can read Susan’s piece below!
Continue reading

Our writing competition winner is announced!

Our writing competition winner is announced!

For the fourth year in a row, we have partnered with Iceland Travel to run a competition to win a spot at the Iceland Writers Retreat. This year’s theme was “Waterfalls” and we received 350 submissions from the around the world.

The winner of the competition is Jackie Taylor from the UK, with her story “The Words Don’t Sit Easily”. Continue reading

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