What I Learned at the Iceland Writers Retreat

What I Learned at the Iceland Writers Retreat

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 an Iceland

Once Upon an Iceland

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.

Snow.
I had never seen snow before.
Iceland is unyielding, stark, cold, sublime.

Skálholt.
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.

Geysirs.
The sublime threatens one’s existence and is a delightful horror.

Gullfoss Waterfall.
Iceland is a mythical mistress, forcing one to face beauty, tragedy, and catharsis.

Þingvellir.
Oddities reveal the truth. Staircases and landings. The senses are the strings of an instrument. Rubbish. Dogs and cats and old people and children.

Gljúfrasstein.
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
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/ .

IWR on Authors Electric

IWR on Authors Electric

Jonaki Ray is a 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award winner, receiving a partial scholarship to attend the Retreat. Her work has been published, both online and in print, in India, the US, the UK, Ireland, Italy, and Singapore. She was nominated by Zoetic Press for the 2018 Pushcart Prize for short fiction; and by Oxford Brookes Poetry Center for the 2018 Forward Prize for the Best Single Poem and was the winner of their 2017 International Poetry Contest, ESL. She has been shortlisted for multiple other awards including the 2018 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and the 2016 Writers’ HQ International Fiction Contest.

Jonaki wrote a guest blog about her experience at IWR for Authors Electric. Read more about what she learned at IWR 2019, and what she took from the experience, here.

To help writers like Jonaki attend the Retreat in 2020, you can donate to the Alumni Award fund here. Registration for IWR 2020 opens on July 9th. To learn more about the Retreat, and our brand new Iceland Readers Retreat, check out our website.

2019 Alumni Award Recipient Daniel Musgrave’s Experience

2019 Alumni Award Recipient Daniel Musgrave’s Experience

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.

GeysirThe 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

2019 Alumni Award Recipient Lola Opatayo’s Experience

2019 Alumni Award Recipient Lola Opatayo’s Experience

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?

Welcome dinnerI 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?

Snowy MountainsIf 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.

A Q&A with IWR 2019 Participant Stephanie Olivieri Bourbon

A Q&A with IWR 2019 Participant Stephanie Olivieri Bourbon

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally? 

I was searching for a writing event in Iceland because I wanted an excuse to visit and this one popped up. I have wanted to go ever since then. (2015)

Stephanie with friendsWhat were you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

Being in Iceland and meeting writers from all over the world. I feel like international writing events always bring something extra special to the table because we come from every corner of the globe with this one common thing—storytelling.

How has writing influenced your life?

It’s everything to me in so many ways that it’s hard to pinpoint. I wrote my first novel at age 13 after becoming best friends with Ponyboy Curtis and Holden Caufield. I think it was then when I realized that I could escape in any book, whether I was writing it or reading it. It’s made me a storyteller for even the most basic of things.

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

Time management.

What was your favourite part of the Retreat?

Meeting so many amazing writers. I have lifelong friends now. Of course, all the workshops were amazing too, and the outings, and the pub night, and the Golden Circle Tour—so EVERYTHING!

stephanie at pub nightAre there any exercises or bits of wisdom you heard at the Retreat that you look forward to using in your writing going forward?

Pretty much everything was useful in some way. The thing about craft is that I always find new ways into things that help me right when I need them too. All the workshops I happened to be in really helped me with going deeper into my novels. I also realized that I’m not half bad at descriptions as I thought I was.

Were there any other highlights to your time in Iceland?

Well, I got to see the Northern Lights TWICE. On the recommendation of another writer I signed up for a tour by bus and it was pure magic! I was already booked on the boat tour. I have heard that it’s not common to see them and I saw them two times, that was magical.

I loved the city too and being in the crisp cold weather.

Is there anything else you think would be relevant to share with our followers?

Yes, if you are thinking about going to this, you MUST. It’s beyond amazing in so many ways. I learned so much, had such a magical time that I can’t even put into words, and feel so lucky that I got to experience it. A month later and I’m still on a high from everything there. It’s truly one of the best retreats that I have even been on and I go to at least one writing conference or retreat every month.

Stephanie with CarienStephanie’s bio:

I have been writing for more than 20 years in many areas including; film, TV, novels (mainstream fiction), short stories, graphic novels, picture books, work-for-hire and am now focusing on young adult contemporary fiction. I also work as a writing consultant and am launching my signature course, Story Concierge, this fall. www.judaniebean.com The name of my company is a combination of my mother’s name, my name & my first Westie’s nickname-so they can always be with me. 

IWR: What happened, Or, IWR 2019 Participant Rachel Weld’s Story

IWR: What happened, Or, IWR 2019 Participant Rachel Weld’s Story

Here’s the thing. I was an emotionally exhausted, overstretched, under-creative workhorse, fast-drifting along. I couldn’t see a window, not one that wasn’t opaque with frustration. I dreamed of a clear glass pane onto another world, where fewer demands were placed upon me and I could stop and stare into space. I know, as writers know, about windows onto other worlds, the multi-faceted ones of the imagination and of reality, or a fusion of both, and I wanted to step through.

I went to Iceland, a special treat of a holiday, to celebrate a multitude of milestones. I felt my soul expand in the bleak February landscape, its spare, unflinching reality wild and achingly beautiful in such an unapologetic way. Even the rocks seemed expressive, although old and wise and solid. I saw that I needed the remoteness, the wind blowing through me, wild and supercharged, the deep black sand and the incredible blue ice.

That ice placed itself before me, with its tiny bubbles thwarted in ascent, trapped motionless in a layered frame. How great, to fizz for so many hundreds of years, like being immortal (in a good way), with clarity and support, transparency and black depth, a freedom and a soul. I wanted to preserve them and release them, those bubbles, and with the black gritty layer in myself, transform them into words. I wanted the fizz and the grounding, the black ash like the settled firebrand I want to be, I was, I can be, I am inside. I craved a glacial, wild simplicity, the frank rawness and smoothness of the thing, the ice.

Rachel JanesThen I started to find it. In conversations, slippery as poetry, yet concrete as a glacier, it was all there for the mind to grasp: questions of people and ice – like is it possible to be transparent and mysterious, unknown or unknowable? Here’s how the springboard happened.

IWR came to me, somehow, a random google from the hidden corners and desires of my mind, from when I used to write. Unaccountable really. I signed up only two weeks before, having never done anything so rash, so last minute, so out of my normal sphere. It’s lucky I am well practised at going with the flow because the process took on a life of its own, aided and abetted by Eliza, and I found myself back in Iceland in April. Those conversations:  giving, listening and receiving, laughter, insights, random exchanges with people, writers, whose names and backgrounds I didn’t even know –  it was a fizz of bubbles not trapped, but visibly starting to move, in ice that never felt cold. What I could see, I could now begin to touch and feel. I could be brave enough to be my former me and spark and laugh, a lot. I was part of a wonderfully diverse range of the written word. And I could write, of course, into an opening window, stepping through into remembered pleasure.

I listened, I talked, I’m writing.  Thanks IWR, for the unlocking.

 

2019 Alumni Award Recipient Jonaki Ray’s Experience

2019 Alumni Award Recipient Jonaki Ray’s Experience

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.

A Q&A with IWR 2019 Participant Jenn Morson

A Q&A with IWR 2019 Participant Jenn Morson

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?Jenn Morson

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.

Phoebe and JennWere 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.

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