We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Katharine Kroeber joined us for our very first Retreat, and has continued to join us every year since!
How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?
Therein lies a tale… Background info: I do not tolerate heat well – and heat, for me, is anything above 65F. I had been to Iceland for a couple brief visits, and really wanted an excuse to return. One summer, I had a week from Hell; I was in a place where it was 110-115F every single day, hardly cooling off at night, and no a/c or pool. I was with my kids, one of whom was also miserable because of the heat, and two people who were having severe executive function issues, so could never decide on anything. It was horrible. One morning I got on Facebook and my friend Alda (Sigmundsdóttir) had *just* that moment posted how two friends of hers were going to try to run a writers’ conference in Iceland, and did what did people think of that idea? I sat there, with my unhappy children and indecisive relatives and the sweat POURING off of me and thought, “ICELAND! In APRIL! Cold, still kind of dark, rain and possibly snow… YESSS!!!!!” I instantly contacted Eliza and Erica and said, “Sign me up, please!” and they had to gently explain that registration wasn’t actually up and running yet… They told me when it would be and I set an alarm on my computer for the day and time.
Thus did I become the first person to sign up for the first ever Iceland Writers Retreat. And I’ve been to every IWR since!
Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit you and/or your writing?
I had attended a few conferences and retreats many years earlier (all in the US), with mixed experiences. Generally the presenters/faculty were informative and helpful, but sometimes not, and a lot of the attendees were, frankly, snobbish without good reason to be so (not that there is really a good reason to be snobbish!), and insular – both culturally and about genres of writing. So I was a bit nervous about what the IWR would be like, but since the worst-case scenario was that I would be in Iceland for a week… oh, eek. help. help…. there seemed to be no real down-side.
What did you most look forward to about the Retreat?
The small size of the workshops. I liked that they didn’t really have a *theme* – it was loosely oriented towards travel and food writing, but, because it was the first one, it was sort of, “well, let’s see who we can get!” I also liked that they were going to have readings by Icelandic authors, and some cultural experiences. Quite apart from my love of Iceland, a writer’s retreat showing its attendees stuff about the unique place they were at seemed a really good idea.
Did it match up to your expectations?
No, it far exceeded them. To me, an important point is that, year after year, the faculty are not just Great Authors, they are good teachers (two potentially quite different skill-sets!). Most of them also like to mingle with the attendees [this has varied from year to year].
Another important point, which I’ve heard others bring up, is the internationality, both of the faculty and the attendees. Most writing retreats don’t get people from 25 different countries. That alone makes it a good experience for writers, not just the workshops, tours, etc.
What was the biggest lesson you took from the retreat? Or perhaps a piece of advice, or writing exercise that had an impact on your writing?
Having been to every IWR, it’s hard for me to pick out just one lesson or advice or exercise, and I do think that will vary from person to person. Something *I* would advise anyone attending IWR – too late for the people this year, everyone pass this along to 2019’s crowd! – is to take a variety of workshops, or at least one out of your comfort zone, not just what you think will be Useful to you, or of Particular Interest. Even if you’re intent on writing a memoir, take, say, a food-writing workshop. You just never know where something that turns out to be helpful or inspirational, or a person who is that, will suddenly appear.
What and/or who do you find inspiring?
Pertinent to the IWR, I got a fun short story, “The Biggest Man in Iceland” out of an off-hand comment by Andri Snær Magnusson when he was doing a reading for the IWR at the house of Halldor Laxness. More generally… I know it sounds hokey, but truly, every person I meet, things I see, books I read, conversations I overhear, food I taste, places I wander, you name it. I don’t understand people who get bored. Being alive is kind of a privilege, and there’s just SO MUCH all around! That said, for me Iceland really is especially inspiring. Among other things, there is a cultural almost *expectation* that people will be creative, or have some creative aspect to their lives, even if it doesn’t make heaps of money, rather than creativity being looked at with suspicion as it is in the States.
How has writing influenced your life?
For me, that’s a bit like asking, “So… how has breathing influenced your life?” I simply wouldn’t exist without it. I was inventing stories before I could write, and I’ve never been able to stop.
What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?
1, Procrastination (which I’ll write more about later, har har har) on specific works (I should be working on X… I’ll work on Q and L instead!) especially on finishing things.
2, Perfectionism. Just put the damn words down on paper, Katharine!! Fix them later if you must.
3, I used to get helpful rejection letters. For the last 2 decades what I’ve gotten over and over is, “Wow! This is really well written! Can’t use it! Good luck sending it somewhere else.”
Maybe I should have trained myself to write trash?? Anyhow, #3, not getting discouraged, no matter what.
What are you working on currently and/or is there anything exciting that has happened in your writing life since the retreat?
The IWR is exhausting but also exhilarating; I come away inspired to put my nose to the grindstone. Right now… as always, I have at least dozen of ideas in various stages of completion, poetry, fantasy, essays, illustrations. I have several friends I’ve made through the IWR or just in Iceland who’ve talked with me about collaborative efforts; my main hope right now is that some of these actually come to fruition. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode!
Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?
I wasted *far* too much of my life being afraid of far too many things. I can’t exactly say, “don’t be afraid!”, but I can urge people to try to push through fears. Some can’t be changed (nothing has altered my acrophobia, for instance, and it’s just common sense to fear the dentist!), but some can – “oh, wow, that wasn’t so scary, after all!” – and it is so very worthwhile to try. On one trip in Iceland the small group I was with went to the lighthouse at Akranes, and of course the thing was to go to the top balcony outside and look around. I was quite terrified of the last ladder, but one fellow traveller kindly and gently and beautifully worked me through getting up. I remained frightened, but I also was, and remain, so grateful to that woman for ensuring that I did actually get to the top and look around, and have an experience I would never have otherwise had. Try for that. But also, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t manage something. Whoever you are, however you are, you have something of unique and therefore of infinite value to offer the world: yourself.
Meowmjá, aka Katharine Kroeber, was born in the 20th century, raised in the 19th century, and is still trying to adjust to the 21st. The daughter of a professor and a sculptor, she grew up surrounded with story-telling and art from around the world, and with a certain amount of travelling. She has lived in large cities with inordinate numbers of people, and small towns with inordinate numbers of cows or grapes. Having an ADHD child and an autistic child has led her on some interesting metaphoric journeys. At age 9, thanks to her eldest brother reading her bits of sagas, she decided Iceland would be the perfect place for her to live. This dream has not yet come to fruition, but she’s working on it. In the meanwhile, she persistently writes, draws, crafts, and makes cakes… and now has added massage to her list of skills.