This year is the sixth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Awards. 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 26-30th, 2023 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received hundreds of applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high.
These four lucky applicants will be joining three 2020 winners who haven’t been able to attend until now — Chuck Smith from Philippines, Okeke Okechi from Nigeria, and Abak Hussein from Bangladesh.
There is still room to join us, our faculty, and our seven Alumni Award winners in Reykjavik next Spring — sign up now!
Tochukwu Okafor is an MFA Fiction candidate at Emerson College and holds a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University. He is a 2021 – 2023 Book Project Fellow at Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop, a 2022 Ucross Foundation Fellow, a 2022 Kurt Brown Prize for Fiction winner, a 2021 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow, a 2021 – 2022 GrubStreet Emerging Writer Fellow, a 2021 Gish Jen Fiction Fellow, an alumnus of the 2021 Tin House Workshop, and a 2018 Rhodes Scholar finalist. His work has appeared in the 2019 Best Small Fictions, the 2018 Best of the Net, and elsewhere, and he reads for Ploughshares and copy-edits for Redivider. He has received scholarships, fellowships, grants, and residencies from the John Anson Kittredge Fund, Aspen Words, Vermont Studio Center, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Ragdale Foundation, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts (MASS MoCA), Eckerd College, Worcester Arts Council, and elsewhere. He is at work on a story collection and a novel. He lives in Worcester, MA.
Lisa Guenther is a novelist and farm editor based in rural northwestern Saskatchewan, Canada. In 2015, she published her first novel, Friendly Fire, with NeWest Press, and NeWest plans to release her second novel in 2024. Lisa’s fiction deals with themes such as violence, abuse, trauma and survival. She’s also interested in exploring people’s connection to the land in a modern context, both in her fiction and journalism. Lisa is also the first female editor of Canadian Cattlemen magazine, which has been in circulation since 1938.
Shannon Webb-Campbell is a member of Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation. Her books include: Still No Word (Breakwater 2015), I Am A Body of Land (Book*hug 2019), and Lunar Tides (Book*hug 2022). Shannon is a doctoral candidate at the University of New Brunswick in the Department of English, and the editor of Visual Arts News Magazine. She lives and works in Kjipuktuk/ Halifax, Nova Scotia.
April Dobbins is an American writer and filmmaker based in Reykjavík, where she is studying Icelandic. She received her master’s degree in Arts in Education from Harvard University in 2022. Formerly based in Miami, Florida, April has written about arts and culture for various outlets, including Miami New Times and Sugarcane Magazine. Her film work has been supported by Sundance Institute, ITVS, Fork Films, International Documentary Association, and Firelight Media, to name a few. Her work is deeply rooted in the Black experiences of the American South, which she detailed in Home is Where the Heart of the Story Is, her first TEDx talk. For six years, she served as Director of Prestigious Awards and Fellowships at the University of Miami, where she also taught film courses in the School of Communication. She is currently at work on her first book, which is inspired by the history of Liberia.
Our other finalists (in alphabetical order) were:
Thank you to all our generous donors and volunteer readers — the 2023 Alumni Award couldn’t have happened without your support!
Registration is now open for the Iceland Writers Retreat. In addition to general registration, which is currently open to all, we have scholarships slots available for those with financial need. The Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award offers talented writers in need of financial support an opportunity to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat in Reykjavík, Iceland in April, 2023.
Please read these guidelines and click on the link at the end of this article to apply.
Who can apply
Anyone who is aged 18 or over on April 26, 2023 is eligible to apply for an Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award (anyone is welcome to independently register and attend the event without a scholarship). The winning candidate(s) must demonstrate that they do not have the financial means to attend the conference without this award.* Candidates do not need to be professional writers, but should be serious about the craft and interested in developing their skills and contacts. Their writing interests must fit well with the faculty for the 2023 retreat (i.e. literary fiction, non-fiction, memoir).
Family members of the judges and those who have already attended the IWR are not eligible to apply.
What does it cover?
Entrants can apply for either full or partial funding. Full funding covers one participant fee, four nights accommodation at the Retreat hotel (Foss Hotel Reykjavik), and round-trip flights to Iceland.
Partial funding covers the participant fee only, and neither accommodation nor round trip flights.
(Note that there is no scholarship available for the Iceland Readers Retreat.)
Please ensure that you apply for the most suitable category for you, as if you apply for full funding you are very unlikely to be considered for a partial award. (Note that we usually have many more applications for full funding than partial funding.)
The award does not include airport transfers, travel insurance, travel visas (if applicable)**, other incidentals or meals not listed in the itinerary, or the Relax & Write extension.
How are the recipients chosen?
The recipients will be chosen based primarily on two factors: a) The potential they demonstrates (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.)
The applicant should also be available for media interviews before and during the Retreat, and be able to explain how they would help to share their experience with others after the fact. This may include being asked to prepare a short report on their experience to be published on the IWR website.
Applications will be reviewed by a group of IWR alumni. The final decision on the award recipient will be made by the IWR Founding Directors.
Deadline for applications: Monday, 31 October, 2022 (Midnight, PST). We will announce the recipients on 2 December, 2022.
**Please note that we are not responsible for issuing travel visas and cannot guarantee that one will be issued for you. However, we would provide all the required supporting letters and our past recipients who have required visas have had no problem being issued with one.
General Tips for applying:
We receive hundreds of applications for the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. To increase your chances of being selected, please follow the application instructions very carefully.
- Incomplete applications will not be considered.
- It is not possible to make changes to your application once it has been submitted; you will receive email confirmation that your application has been received.
- Level of funding: We receive far more applications for full funding than partial funding, but you need to show that you are unable to afford even the cost of flights to Iceland and accommodation while in the country. Note that you are very unlikely to be considered for partial funding if you have applied for full funding.
- Your background: We welcome applications from people of all backgrounds and with all levels of writing experience. However, we are more likely to rank applications highly from people who have not had the opportunity to attend many other writing retreats or to develop their writing in other ways. The quality of your writing is what is most important, whether you are just starting out, have been working for a while, or are at a mid- or post-career break. We encourage people of all ages (over 18) to apply.
- Why do you want to attend? We all love Iceland. And we all love writing. If you are applying simply to get an opportunity to visit Iceland you are unlikely to be granted an award. Tell us why this particular event and this particular faculty have captured your interest. Show us that you have done some research about the Iceland Writers Retreat. Note especially that our workshops in 2023 focus primarily on literary fiction, non-fiction, and memoir. Your writing samples should also reflect this and should therefore be prose samples.
- Writing samples: Note that the maximum length for each writing sample is 1000 words. We will not consider applications that have longer writing samples.
- Why you need financial assistance: This is one of the most difficult yet important factors to consider for this award. Please be as honest as you can with us in explaining why this event is beyond your means without support. Your answer to the question about applying for additional funding is also important. We know that some countries offer support to writers who attend conferences, and we’d like to see if you have taken any initiative in terms of thinking broadly for ways in which you can attend.
- How will you share your experience with others? We want many people to know about the Iceland Writers Retreat. How will you help us get the word out if you are awarded a scholarship? We know that social media is very popular. Do you have other, more original ideas too?
- References: References should be by people who are familiar with your writing and are not family members. We give higher marks for references that have been written specifically for this event. Applications without appropriate references will not be considered. Please note that due to the number of applications we receive, we cannot accept references that have been sent separately.
About the Iceland Writers Retreat
Held for the first time in April 2014, the Iceland Writers Retreat is an event comprised of a series of small-group writing workshops and cultural tours designed to introduce participants to Iceland’s rich literary heritage. Faculty in 2023 include Tommy Orange, Helen Oyeyemi, Carol Leonnig, Kiley Reid, and more. The Iceland Writers Retreat was named one of the world’s best writers’ retreats by the Sydney Morning Herald, and one of the top 10 “Events to travel for in 2014” by Four Seasons Magazine.
About the IWR Alumni Award
This is the sixth time the IWR Alumni Award has been granted. It is so named because it has been funded by former IWR participants. We are extremely grateful for their generosity.
If you have any questions about your application, or the alumni awards in general, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Megan Ross entered the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award thinking there was no chance on earth she’d get it. But, sure enough, she won, attended, and has gone on to publish her first book as well as a number of other publications. She thinks IWR is ideal for any writer looking to jolt their creative energy. Read on to hear more about author Megan Ross.
Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR): When and why did you choose to attend?
Megan Ross (MR): I entered the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award thinking that there was no chance on earth I’d ever get it. But, I did! This was in 2015 and I went off to Iceland in 2016.
IWR: What was/were the highlights of IWR for you?
MR: The people, exploring Iceland, and immersing myself in the literary culture(s) of a country so far removed from my own.
IWR: What was the most unexpected thing about it?
MR: I was already mesmerized by what I’d seen of Iceland before, but I had not expected to be exposed to such wit and dark, dry humour, or the magic and folklore Icelandic literature is steeped in.
IWR: Did you have any good take-aways/tips/lessons you remember from IWR?
MR: Every writer taught me so much. I’ll never forget Neel Mukherjee telling our workshop about editing and being edited by hand. Cheryl Strayed’s entire workshop was one brilliant tip after another while Miriam Toews, for me, patterned a means of exploring grief, and writing it, without drowning in sorrow. Elina Hirvonen offered a series of writing activities that were more visual in nature, and more stimulating in a way, for the writing process. Mark Kurlansky pushed us to rethink different genres and forms of writing, and the entire event itself was helpful in learning about the business side of publishing as well as writing.
IWR: Had you published a book when you attended?
MR: Not yet.
IWR: What have you published since?
MR: Milk Fever (uHlanga Press, 2018), my first book – a collection of poetry exploring young motherhood, girlhood and sexuality by the seaside. Several essays, poems and short stories that have been critically acclaimed and awarded the Brittle Paper Award for Fiction, included in a Lammy Award-finalist anthology. I am wrapping up my first novel now and am about to start writing my second soon.
IWR: Who do you think would benefit most from the IWR?
MR: Writers who are looking for a sense of community, an adventure, or those who feel like jolting their creative energies again.
IWR: What do you think is most unique or special about this event?
MR: Erica and Eliza are two phenomenal women whose energy and verve permeates the entire event. The pace is fast, there’s so much to see and the energy of Iceland – especially at night, walking through the warmly-lit streets of Reykjavik – is so profound that even the memory of it is enough to inspire me.
Learn more about the incredible Megan Ross:
A Once in A Lifetime Experience
This is possibly the most compelling reason to come to Iceland. I haven’t been to Iceland. Even though I participated in the virtual retreat this past April, I haven’t had the whole immersion experience in Iceland, surrounded by other writers. If you’ve been following this series, then you’ll remember how that immersion aspect of the retreat is key to the whole experience.
Up until now, I’ve based all my feelings about the retreat on research. I’ve written about what I understand about the location, the format, and the writer and the team behind the event. The more I learn about these subjects, the more excited I am.
But the authentic experience of it can only be told by those who have experienced it. Luckily, we have great writers and their experience to go by. If you haven’t read the posts from past alumni award winners, I encourage you to do so. Here are just some of the things that really spoke to me when I read their posts.
Nathan Ramsden also found it “transformative” helping him get a clearer idea of what kind of writer he is. Nathan felt after the retreat that he brought some of Iceland home with him. And he left some of himself there. This sounds like the experience I need in my life. The romantic idea of gifting and receiving from the event is beautiful. I hope that this is not only my experience in Iceland, but in all the monumental experiences of my life.
Puja Changoiwala’s article expanded on this idea that the Iceland Writers Retreat is more than connecting with other writers. It’s about connecting with the literary culture of Iceland. I am excited to meet and attend workshops whose unique perspectives will help deepen that connection.
Sara Letourneau described her time at the Iceland Writers Retreat as “world-shifting” and it helped build her confidence. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t need their confidence built, and I am no exception.
Out of all the essays, I connected most with Audrey Wright. As a writer with a day marketing job, I also sometimes suffer from the “imposter’s syndrome.” The connections and comradery she describes feel like what I need to build my confidence.
This isn’t just a holiday. This is an experience where we all come away from it forever changed if you let it. I, for one, am not going to miss out on this experience.
There are spots still available. Sign up for the 2022 Iceland Writers Retreat next April. I hope to share this experience with you.
Reason 3: The Iceland Saga (This is mine. What’s yours?)
By Jo McClelland Phillips, Alumni Award Recipient; Photo by Roman Gerasymenko
“Why do you want to attend The Iceland Writers Retreat? We all love Iceland. And we all love writing. Tell us why this particular event has captured your interest.”
Before winning the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award at the end of 2019, I applied and answered this question four times.
I wonder if my goal of visiting Iceland got in my way the first three times, I answered this question. Because – of course, I wanted (and still want) to go to Iceland!
My love affair with the Sagas and Iceland writers really began with the Iceland Writers Retreat – as I investigated the Icelandic authors and tour locations mentioned on their website. I realised how closely this tradition reflects my own views and passion for storytelling.
That tracks because we can trace back almost all our modern-day storytelling to the Icelandic tradition.
Sometimes called the “family sagas”, they spoke of the struggles and conflicts in the early generations of Icelandic settlers. Characters like Egil were complex and full of contradictions. Later, sagas like Njáls saga focused more on storytelling than on chronicling history.
It was also through this website that I was first introduced to modern Icelandic writer Kristín Helga Gunnarsdóttir. Her focus is “telling stories that unite and create bridges between generations.” This idea really spoke to me and related to my goals when I tell a story.
My journey to Iceland parallels my journey as a parent, having applied for the first time when my daughter was 6 months old. As a writer, I predominantly teach her what she needs to know by telling her stories. These last two years, I’ve been teaching my daughter about storytelling and creating her own stories. I see how we can deeply relate to the core elements of storytelling and that even today, in our home, we aren’t that different from the ancient Icelandic saga authors.
What’s your Icelandic Saga?
Tag @IcelandWriters @JoMcClellandPhillips (IG and FB) or @JoMcClelland on Twitter and tell us your Iceland stories! And don’t forget to sign up for the 2022 Iceland Writers Retreat next April. I hope to see you there!
Reason 2: Literary vs Commercial Fiction (It’s not a competition.)
By: Jo McClelland Phillips, Alumni Award Recipient
A literary novelist might write genre fiction, and that might even turn some readers off. But not I.
What excited me most about the Iceland Writers Retreat is that it is a place where literary and commercial writers meet in a warm and collaborative setting. Pretense isn’t an issue.
In some circles, literary fiction is held in higher esteem than what is referred to as “popular” or “commercial fiction.”
A common explanation of the two, beyond sales, would be that literary fiction comments on the human condition while popular fiction merely entertains. What about books that do both?
A writing teacher distilled the difference down to how complicated the sentences are written. She pointed out that while Stephen King is very commercial, he writes very sophisticated prose. Yet, no one considers Stephen King literature.
The Iceland Writers Retreat is where we can meet award-winning authors, such as Kamila Shamsie, and popular writers like Maria Semple, both of whom were scheduled to appear in 2020, before the global pandemic. I would say that their novels are both entertaining and comment on the human condition. For me, they are equally valuable. As a writer who wishes to elevate her stories while also keeping in mind the current book market, this is ideal.
At the 2021 Virtual Retreat, I studied with several authors and looked at character, setting, and humour.
Bret Anthony Johnston had us look at character through structure, giving weight to the story with a strong point-of-view. Andrew Evans gave us literary-leaning principles of description without using sight or cliché. I don’t know how to answer Terry Fallis’ question “what’s funny?’ but he defined it as “defying normal conventions with juxtaposition, shock, or surprise.”
A good story is grounded in a sense of place with strong characters. It has a clear point of view. And even a drama or horror is best when the strong feelings are offset by humour.
When I apply these tools and tactics that I learned in these workshops, my work improved. I hope the result will be both artistically appealing and commercially relevant. It doesn’t matter if you’re a genre writer, a satirist, or a poet. It doesn’t matter if you write memoirs or essays or short fiction. We all have something to learn from the writers at the Iceland Writer’s Retreat.
Registration is open for the 2022 retreat. Read about all the fantastic writers who will be in attendance next April.
This is part one of a 4-part series by Jo McClelland Phillips, Alumni Award Recipient
Reason 1: Immersion in Writing
Have you ever gone on holiday, with no other plans but to sit on the beach, or by a fire, or in a cabin in the woods with your favourite book and just read?
Imagine that ideal holiday without interruptions. And that you’re staying with people who just want to read their book as well – and at the end of the day you all come together for beautiful meals and talk about the book you’re reading.
Now imagine that your favourite book hasn’t even been written yet. And you’re going to write it.
Immersion time for writing is powerful and productive in a way that benefits the craft and inspires writers.
Writing is a massive commitment of time and energy. The immersive retreat formula feeds the writer with the connection and support of people going through the same thing. This is what makes it different from just committing yourself to taking time alone.
During the retreat, you will have discouragement, and doubt, and fatigue, so having other writers there who can support you in your commitment is invaluable.
As we suffer yet another lockdown here in Australia, I find my mind wondering about a future time when the borders open and I can finally get to the IWR.
Before I applied for the award for the first time in 2015, I searched Google looking for ways to get to Iceland. But that’s not why I kept applying. The more I grew as an author, and the more I researched this retreat specifically, I realised the value and the power of the complete immersion format of this retreat.
Back in 2019, I wrote as part of my application: “With the immersion format of the Iceland Writers Retreat, I can block out ‘external noise’ and commit my entire focus to writing.”
In 2021 I had the opportunity to attend the virtual retreat . I booked time off work and changed my sleep schedule – with the time difference in Australia, I needed to start at 1 am and go until 8 am.
The result was me alone in my home office in the middle of the night, working through the workshops. Then, as the sun came up, we had chat rooms where I had the opportunity to talk to other writers, like fellow Alumni Winner Michelle Walshe . She shared my views of the retreat in this unique way. And that connection kept me coming back and staying later each day.
I might not have held the commitment without knowing I would see her there, and she’d be looking for me. That accountability is something I wouldn’t have gotten by simply taking the weekend off to write.
She and I also shared our anticipation of meeting in Iceland in person. As wonderful as the virtual retreat was, I do long for the time when the retreat doesn’t pause because the screens are turned off. Also, it would be nice to be in the same time zone as everyone else.
If you haven’t signed up yet, get ready! Registration opens August 25th! And let’s all stay safe and do what we must to make sure the borders open and we can meet again in Iceland.
This year is the fifth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Michelle Walshe.
Michelle Walshe was born in England but raised in Ireland where she resides after living abroad for many years. She worked as a teacher at third level before she began writing in 2017. Her work has been published in print in the national media in Ireland and the UK and in Teachers Who Write: An Anthology, online on Writing.ie, Skelligmichael.com and Silverbirchpress.wordpress.com. She has been shortlisted in short story competitions and won a prize for flash fiction. She has won residencies, a scholarship, and bursaries to the John Hewitt Summer School, The Stinging Fly and The Bronte Parsonage. She volunteers at Roddy Doyle’s Fighting Words, an organisation promoting creative writing for children, and at literary festivals. She is working on a memoir and a children’s book. All her published work can be found on her website www.thesparklyshell.com.
This year is the fifth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Jo McClelland Phillips.
Jo McClelland Phillips was born on the shores of Lake Ontario, then migrated to the mountains of New South Wales. Her work has been published in TIME Magazine, USA Today, Fairfax Media, and Mashable along with several national and independent newspapers and magazines. She is the winner of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award and she has been shortlisted for the Publisher Introduction Program Fellowship with Varuna, the National Writers House in NSW. Her short story, The Glass Slipper, won the Fringe Festival Award at The Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, and received honourable mention in The Glass Woman Prize.
This year is the fifth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Chelsie Bryant.
Chelsie Bryant is an Ohio native currently living in Portland, Maine. In her spare time, she enjoys photographing her cat, har, who spells his name in lowercase because he makes the rules; he doesn’t follow them. Her work has been featured in Willow Springs, Michigan Quarterly Review, Yemassee, Passages North, Word Riot, and other places. She won the Willow Spring Fiction Prize in 2016 and holds a Master of Fine Arts from the Ohio State University.