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.”
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.