How waterfalls and the Iceland Writers Retreat restored one writer’s faith in her craft

How waterfalls and the Iceland Writers Retreat restored one writer’s faith in her craft

Sara Letourneau is a poet and speculative fiction writer from Massachusetts, USA. This is her story.

I still remember the moment I learned about the Iceland Writers Retreat. It was an evening in late September 2016, and I was reading an e-newsletter from Grub Street, a Boston-based creative writing non-for-profit. Near the bottom of its “What’s Happening” section was an alert about a scholarship award for a writing retreat – in, of all places, Iceland.

My world shifted in that instant. A writing retreat. In Iceland. What were the chances that I, a speculative fiction writer, would stumble across a literary event that would take her to the very country that had influenced the northern latitudes of her manuscript’s fictional world? I had even put in the story a waterfall inspired by photos of Hraunfossar – a landmark that, I quickly discovered, was a stop on IWR’s Literary Borgarfjörður tour.

Part of me felt as though I’d taken Bilbo Baggins’ place in The Hobbit, and the wizard Gandalf had just told me, “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging.” The other part of me whispered, “Sara, you believe in synchronicity. Go.”

So I did. I started making plans and asking questions about traveling abroad, since IWR would be my first-ever trip overseas. I began saving money and, upon the encouragement of several friends, launched a GoFundMe campaign that eventually raised two-thirds of the trip’s overall costs. My head was spinning, my heart wanted to sing, and I wanted to relish that chaotic stream of bliss and nerves for as long as I could.

But in the final month leading up to IWR, that stream came to an abrupt stop.

During that month, I received feedback on the manuscript I mentioned earlier. Most of the critiquers generally liked the story, but they also pointed out significant plot and worldbuilding issues I’d been blind to – issues that would require major revisions to the story in order for it to work. And despite my best efforts, I couldn’t figure out how I was going to accomplish that.

In some ways, that period was a much-needed reality check regarding that story. But it also brought a debilitating blow to my confidence as a writer – and it didn’t help that other sources of stress in life were exacerbating my feelings. So by the time I left for Iceland, I needed a break. I needed time and distance, physically and emotionally, so I could clear my head and enjoy the adventure I’d been looking forward to.

And now, to say that I came home ready to write again would be an understatement.

IWR isn’t just about writing and literature. It’s also about immersion in the host country’s history and culture. Besides the tours and other excursions on the IWR agenda, we had time to walk (or take a short taxi ride) from the hotel “home base” to downtown Reykjavik to visit art galleries and museums, dine at one of the many restaurants or coffee shops, and admire the statues, architecture, and paintings that make Iceland a true hub of creativity.

Exploring Gljúfrasteinn sml

Let’s not forget the food. Oh my goodness. Mashed fish, other seafood, lamb, skyr (a thick, protein-rich yogurt), kleinur (twisted donuts), barley with tomatoes, cheese, and mustard… I’m not a venturesome diner, but I savored every bite of everything I tried in Iceland.

Then there’s the setting. “Magnificent” doesn’t do justice for describing what I saw during IWR. And what did I see? Craggy lava fields en route from Keflavík International to the hotel. Distant snow-capped mountains from nearly every vantage point in Reykjavík. Soil and rocks as black as charcoal, and grass beginning to turn a rich spring green. Even between stops on the Literary Borgarfjörður tour, we drove past rivers calm and whitewater, basalt rock formations, unexpected screes and waterfalls, and countless more mountains. No wonder I took over 300 photos during the trip!

And what would a writing retreat be without ample time to enjoy the company of your fellow writers? I’ve attended literary conferences in the U.S., and almost all of the attendees at each were American and Canadian. But at IWR, this year’s “student body” represented 20 countries, including Brazil, Australia, Germany, and Kenya. So, not only did we share a common passion, but we had myriad opportunities to learn about cultures and places that are so different from our own and to nurture those rare and beautiful connections.

As much as I relished the entire trip, it’s important for me to highlight two moments of validation that renewed my faith in my craft.

First, Nadifa Mohamed’s “Music and Literature” class struck a deeper chord in me (no pun intended) than I’d expected. As part of our pre-retreat assignment, each of us brought to class a piece of writing influenced by a song or composition. I shared “Elegy,” a published poem I had written while listening to Adele’s “Hometown Glory.” Between playing the song in class, reading the poem aloud, and explaining its inspiration (a means of soothing my feelings after the Boston Marathon bombings), I was fighting back tears. Yet the thoughtful comments and technical insights that Nadifa and my peers offered in response… I still can’t articulate how much I appreciated all of it.

Faculty Q&A_01

Author Question & Answer panel

That, however, doesn’t compare to the moment I reached the overlook across from Hraunfossar. As I stood there, elbows on the wooden safety fence, I let myself give in to the emotions swelling in my throat. Two simple sentences, as resounding as the roar of the waterfall, repeated in my head: “I’m here. I made it.”


Hraunfossar waterfall

It was the culmination of six months of anticipation, and the fruition of a two-year-old dream. And it made me realize that if I had the courage to make this dream come true, I still had it in me to achieve more.

I’ve still had confidence issues with my writing since IWR. But at the same time, I’ve never been more intrinsically inspired and motivated. I’m writing poetry again for the first time in years. And while the manuscript I’d been working on before the retreat is still on hold, I’m drafting a new story now and embracing research for a second. In short, I’m immersed in words, ideas, and other forms of beauty. And I know I have the Iceland Writers Retreat – not just the place, but also Eliza, Erica, Nadifa, the rest of the author faculty, and all the writers I met – to thank for it.

All photos by Sara Letourneau

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