Victor Yang was one of four recipients of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award in 2017. This is the story of his experience at the IWR.
Truth: It’s what you go looking for as a writer, when you dig up facts from a kitchen-table conversation with your father and from an anarchist leaflet from fifty years ago, about men who resemble your main character. But the historical facts are just a blueprint, as Nadifa Mohamed said in her workshop. The facts are a skeleton to flesh out with emotional color and life to a story. “Human memory is fallible, misleading, and selective,” she said. But “it leads to a certain kind of truth,” the highest kind of truth that allows us as writers and readers to access a kind of empathy that doesn’t exist out of the fabricated text of story.
Icicles: As pretty as the things are, I was happy not to see them this week in real life, except in a powerpoint slide by Madeleine Thien when she illustrated how some story forms dip back from the line of present time, like this:
Food: Omnipresent. Salmon as one of many options for breakfast and lunch; lamb steak cooked with a blow-torch; brownies that crumble in some kind of pleasing way that I could never make; eggs boiled by the hot spring on our tour, complete with herring and this crazy good rye bread.
Sunlight: The only thing I wish Erica and Eliza could have arranged more of for this week. To be fair, we did get some on our all-day tour through the Icelandic countryside, about ten minutes’ worth that led the tour guide to say that “I might get sunburned.”
Serendipity: Stumbling across the modern art museum in Reykjavik just before it closed late on Thursdays. Learning about the power and limitations of labor unions (my work in the States) in an Icelandic context from a local and fellow retreat writer. Sitting on the bus next to another Chinese American writer on the retreat, and swapping stories that brought us together. Meeting a nine-year-old kid in the geothermal pools in city centre, who happened to be born in the same province that my family is from in China.
Character development: As Bret Anthony Johnston shared, part of our job as writers is to get our characters to surprise us. It’s not enough to be in the passenger seat while our protagonist drives. She should be at the steering wheel, the rest of the cast in the passenger seat, and you, the writer, in the trunk. When you arise out of that dark and painful place—the metaphorical trunk, not a bad comparison to the process of writing—it may be bright as you see what they’ve come up with. Bret also said that our characters don’t change over the course of our books—they are revealed.
In relation to my own self as a writer, I can’t decide if this retreat has revealed or changed me. I do know that I leave with a keener sense of where I can sharpen my own craft, push myself as a more loving self-editor, and believe further in my potential as a writer. Thank you to everyone who made the IWR Alumni Award possible.
* My best attempt at recreating a writing exercise from Madeleine Thien’s workshop during IWR on the architectural form of fiction. She also introduced us to YouTube videos that animated the replay of Bach fugues. They showed how Bach repeated, mixed, and structured various voices in his piano works, as part of her lesson to us on theme and variation in writing. Unfortunately, I cannot compose Bach-quality masterpieces, nor make music scores sliver on the screen like ribbons. Maybe the award winners for next year…
To contribute to the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award so we can send more deserving writers in 2018, click here.
Tags: Bret Anthony Johnston, Iceland, Iceland Writers Retreat, iwr alumni award, Madeleine Thien, Nadifa Mohamed, victor yang