IWR Alumni Award recipient Megan Ross shares with us her wonderful experience of this year’s Iceland Writers Retreat. Photos by Megan Ross and Roman Gerasymenko
You know a writing retreat is going to be good when it’s in a postcard-pretty setting, snow-capped mountains included. Well, this was my thought process anyway, as I stepped off the airport shuttle bus outside our hotel, and gawked in true tourist-style at the beautiful, thick pelt of snow surrounding the city of Reykjavik. Spurred on by this natural beauty – and still clutching my passport – I almost rushed into the centre of the welcome cocktail party, with my awful tank-like suitcase in tow. Instead, I let myself be gently persuaded to first stop in at my room, where I debriefed a moment before hurrying my veritable mess of a jetlagged self back to join the crowds, drink red wine and mingle with my new writing companions.
Seated at my table were writers from as far afield as New York, Helsinki, and Toronto, who soon treated me to some of the wittiest banter I’ve had in years. Eliza and Erica gave a brilliant welcome speech and once I’d devoured a boatload of salmon and drunk some wine, I was overcome with excitement. I was 11000km away from home. In Reykjavik. And in the front of the room stood Mark Kurlansky, reading a short story about a small girl, a pond, and some frogs. The Iceland Writers Retreat had begun and the magic wouldn’t stop there.
Jump one day forward and into the heart of Iceland. As the sky turned a slick black, and the snow thickened on either side of our tour bus, a fleck of emerald could be seen in the sky. Soon the night became a kaleidoscopic mix of violet and green, as the electric, spangled dance of the Northern Lights began. I was enchanted. Enraptured. It was only day two and I was already watching one of the seven natural wonders of the world! Between hesitant bites of hákar (fermented shark) and sips of creamy hot chocolate, our guide explained that Iceland’s Vikings believed the lights of Aurora Borealis were the souls of animals they had killed. I marveled at this in a schnapps-fueled daze, reflecting on all I’d already taken in thanks to the Alumni Award.
Only that day, I’d attended brilliant writing workshops, including one with Man Booker prize-shortlisted writer, Neel Mukherjee, who shared tales of his wondrous editor who still worked by hand in the margins of his manuscripts. Famed Finnish writer, Elina Hirvonen, happily said she found the process of writing “horrible, difficult and boring” but would be a crazy person if she didn’t do it. And Mark Kurlansky simply told us writing cannot be taught, and then regaled us with his thoughts on Hemingway contracting gonorrhea in the back of a taxi.
Thanks to Erica and Eliza, the casual, relaxed atmosphere of the retreat encouraged an openness in all the workshops. It was a safe space to read and share writing pieces and debate everything from the creation of fictional characters to depicting trauma in fiction. Our workshop leaders fuelled discussions, led us through writing exercises and – if you were lucky enough to take Elina Hirvonen’s class – went on sensory walks through the forest. The result was an enveloping world of literary delight, bathed in a warmth and generosity of spirit I’ve experienced at no other writing event.
And as if it wasn’t enough waking up in a UNESCO City of Literature every morning, each day of the IWR was filled with pinch-yourself moments. Workshops were led by critically-acclaimed, bestselling writers. I got to socialize with artists and writers from as far afield as Singapore, the United States and Finland. And this was all punctuated by world-class events and tours around scenic Iceland. One of my favourite you-should-have-been-there moments happened at Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In something like an echo from the future, Eliza’s husband, Guðni, read to us at the meeting point of two tectonic plates, which is also where Vikings once gathered for ancient parliamentary meetings. Considering Guðni has recently announced his candidacy for the Iceland presidency (and Eliza might soon be the new First Lady), the effect was profound, and now replays in my mind, awash in that deeply historical sense I came to realize is an Icelandic trait. If you were wondering, other Icelandic traits include brilliant food, deadpan humor and a belief in fairies. But don’t let me bore you with my fan-girling.
The IWR earned its stripes as one of the world’s best writing retreats, churning out serendipitous moment after moment. For instance, although I’d requested two workshops with Cheryl Strayed before the retreat, her workshops were (devastatingly) already full. So, when she couldn’t make the retreat due to a bad bout of flu, and a remote Skype session was organized with her, I was actually able to have the workshop I wanted. I was possibly the only person thrilled that Cheryl had flu. And she was wonderful in the Skype session: warm, engaging, kind. Not only is she a sound-bite a minute, which resulted in some pretty impressive Tweets – thanks Cheryl – she’s also one of the most compassionate people I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. I must confess to having reread Wild the instant I got home.
A bus ride took us downtown to Whales of Iceland, a fascinating exhibition and talk. The following day I did the Golden Circle tour, and was lucky enough to see Gullfoss Waterfall, Þingvellir National Park and a real-life geyser. This wasn’t just a geyser, it was the geyser, the one that actually gave all geysers their name. On this tour around Iceland, it became clearer to me that Iceland is not only a nation of coffee-drinking book fiends, it’s a magical place, filled with supernatural elements and the kind of timeless physical beauty where one can still picture the great Icelandic sagas playing out.
And I’m not sure why I haven’t mentioned it yet, since it was one of the highlights of my trip, but I believe the secret to this retreat is the mouthwatering, Icelandic cuisine. I broke my gluten-free diet eating the world’s most delicious doughnuts, little balls of fried dough called kleinur, which was worth every minute of self-loathing and the hours I’ve since had to put in at the gym.
On the last day of workshops, after fueling myself with enough filter coffee to fly a rocket jet (and two plates piled high with salmon salad), it began to snow. I must have cut a strangely manic figure because the second I saw it falling, I ran outside, stuck my tongue out and danced around the parking lot of the Iceland Air Natura hotel. I’d come to expect this kind of divine performance from my host country, but in my snow-starved, South African mind, this was its hat trick performance.
Concluding the retreat was a question and answer session with the faculty, who happily opened up on everything from questions of work life balance, to the perils of finding the right editor. Especially helpful, was the faculty’s honesty concerning the home front: most of the writers, especially those who were mothers, admitted this was difficult and required a very understanding, helpful partner. Later that day, I bumped into historical fiction writer Kate Williams, playing with her daughter on the stairs. “It’s hard,” she admitted, when I asked how on earth she manages such a successful career while mothering a four-year-old. Neel Mukherjee, himself not a parent, offered great insight in this regard: “Writers who are mothers are caught in this terrible societal predicament in which the mother tells herself she is a terrible mother while writing and the writer tells herself she is a terrible writer while mothering.” The highlight though, was surely Adelle Waldman admitting she’d considered herself a 31-year-old tutor with a Microsoft Word document before the phenomenal success of her novel. The abject sense of failure she described resonated across the room, and continued to make me chuckle hours later in the breathtaking Blue Lagoon. Although it was swamped with tourists, I bobbed around the natural pool with glee, gazing out at the crystal blue while enjoying a face mask.
Before I forget, it didn’t taste all that bad. Just saying.
My retreat ended at Harpa, the magnificent, architectural wonder that is Iceland’s concert hall. Seated on the edge of the water, the impressive building overlooks the harbor, with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. And volcanoes, too, I think. Under a mirrored ceiling, something like the inside of a not-so-scary haunted house, I dined like a queen, had stimulating, intellectual conversation – including several debates about Trump – and reflected on what had been a brilliant five days. I realized that alongside some of the best people I’ve ever met, I’d been able to sink my teeth into the realities of a writing career: the loneliness, the hardships, and what it means to write in an increasingly-competitive publishing environment built on the twin peaks of money making and publicity. I also drank the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted, ate my body weight in seafood and watched Icelandic ponies gallop beneath a rainbow. Yes, really.
Six hours after satisfying my gluttonous appetite for Icelandic cuisine, I boarded my flight with the awful tank-case in tow. A heavy heart doesn’t quite come close to the post-retreat depression that set in. I felt a ferocious longing to run down the aisle of the plane and fling myself at all of Iceland: its charming inhabitants, the exquisite capital, and that mesmerizing reverence for the written word. In all my life, I’ve never felt more welcome in a new country, or at a writing event, for that matter. For the duration of the flight, I ate my way through the care package we’d been given on the retreat, stopping only when I got to a lethal-looking bottle of Viking gin.
Between nibbling salted chocolate and casting longing looks out the plane window, I had a good think about what made this Nordic-based writing retreat so special. Could it be Icelandic culture? The piping hot water? Or the really, really good looking men? (It took me little convincing from Elina Hirvonen to consider an Icelandic husband). Or was it the way it impacted both my personal and professional life and helped me to reconcile the aspects of motherhood and writing? It was this, and more. The IWR was not only a world-class writing retreat. It was the chance to be myself again, without the inner-conflict. A chance to cut to the heart of my writing and immerse myself in five glorious days of literary splendor. When I think back to how I felt about winning the Alumni Award, grateful just doesn’t cut it.