Writing Is Fun Again At The Iceland Writers Retreat
“Iceland is like a disease you can’t get rid of.” This from Andrew Evans, National Geographic’s ‘Digital Nomad,’ by way of introducing the locally set travel essay that he’s reading to kick off the first ever Iceland Writers Retreat. It’s clear that he means this in a good way—Andrew first came to Iceland in 1998, has been back “dozens” of times since, and has authored a Bradt travel guide to the island.
Andrew may be more familiar with Iceland than some of the other seven authors attending from Canada, the UK, and the US, but it’s clear from everyone’s introductions that they are all equally intrigued with the idea of spending a week talking craft and literature here in the North Atlantic—particularly those whose experience with Iceland has been limited to touchdowns at Keflavík or short stopovers.
“I came away from Iceland with the sense that it was the kind of place you could hang out and play with a whale,” laughs New Yorker staff writer and author Susan Orlean, who previously visited Iceland to learn more about (failed) efforts to rewild Keiko the whale (of ‘Free Willy’ fame).
“I’ve only been here on layover,” Canadian author and professor Randy Boyagoda remarks. “My great regret is going on to Paris instead of staying here.”
Travel writer Sara Wheeler, who has journeyed extensively around both poles, takes a somewhat longer view. “I have very happy memories of my last stop in Iceland,” she says, recalling impressions made during a research trip around Siberia and the Arctic Circle. “I had just gotten off a Russian icebreaker and it felt like I was in the Deep South. It was so metropolitan…The Antarctic is a symbol of what the world could be; the Arctic is a symbol of what the world is.”
For a workshop event in its first year—let alone one in its first year hosted in a somewhat unlikely Northern island location—the Iceland Writers Retreat already shows a rather remarkable polish. This is owing primarily to the herculean efforts of retreat founders Eliza Reid and Erica Jacobs Green, both full-time professionals—Eliza, as the owner of a marketing company and the editor of Icelandair’s in-flight magazine; Erica as a senior editor of National Geographic’s children’s book division—as well as a troop of plucky volunteers who at any given time are to be found snapping photos, manning overhead projectors, restocking water bottles and pens, giving directions, shuttling authors between events and generally appearing exactly when they’re needed.
It’s a flurry of activity which manifests as an orderly and personable series of events for the retreat participants, both locals and those who have travelled quite a distance—including from Singapore, Chile, Canada and the U.S.—to attend five workshops (no more than 15 participants each) led by such luminaries as Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks.
The size of the workshops, as much as the general openness of the authors, lends an immediate intimacy to the proceedings as can be observed upon entering Geraldine’s session entitled ‘The Distance Travelled: From Journalist to Novelist,’ where the author is chatting with an attendee about the possibility of seeing some Icelandic horses while she’s in town.
One of the only authors to assign “homework”—a personal introduction of 300 words or less—Geraldine starts her session by asking everyone (the group happens to be entirely comprised of women) to read their pieces aloud. After the first rather extensive CV is finished, the next reader pauses, a bit nervously. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Mine’s not that good.”
Geraldine sits up a bit straighter at this: “Don’t apologise,” she says firmly. “This is really important, since we are a room full of women.” She admits that she always feels the need to be self-deprecating, particularly when receiving compliments: “If someone compliments my boots, I feel the need to say, ‘oh, but they’re so scuffed.’” She then reiterates her remonstrance—women, stop apologising for everything—and gently encourages the reader to begin. Very nearly half of the following participants begin their own narrations with the quiet mantra: “I won’t apologise!”
In her soft but no less assertive voice, with its slightly lyrical Australian twang, Geraldine then gives her own quick personal introduction. The daughter of a Sydney newspaper’s proofreader, she was struck with the—at that time—unlikely ambition of becoming a journalist when she was eight years old. Standing in a room full of printing presses, she recalls being handed a freshly printed newspaper. “And it was warm,” she half-whispers, delightedly. “It was hot off the presses!”
She giggles at that literal memory before sharing various useful tips gathered in her years as a journalist, first reporting the results of local horse and dog races and later as a war correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. She stresses the importance of a writer being able to draw from her own life experiences. “You can know a thing from one context,” she says, “and then write about it from another. Any experience that is deeply felt, you can transpose.”
Although Geraldine has no shortage of incisive, quotable and writerly advice, the session takes on the tone of a casual chat with a much more successful, but no less encouraging buddy. Sniffing suspiciously at work that carries what she calls “the whiff of the MFA,” she privileges extensive travelling and life experience over formal university writing programmes, telling everyone to just “buy yourself a backpack, and fill it with books. Live someplace where you can think in your own language, but have to buy your groceries in someone else’s.”
She’s funny and no-nonsense, able to make declarations like “I no more believe in writer’s block than I believe in hairdresser’s block” while also rather generously admitting to how arduous the labour of writing can be for anyone, herself included. “We love two words where one will do,” she sighs, everyone in the room ‘in it together,’ as it were. “We”: the Pulitzer-winning author and, if only for an hour or so, her peers.
One perfect sentence
Each workshop, it’s clear from the coffee-time chit-chat burbling in the hallways, has its own unique character owing, of course, to the various backgrounds and styles of the workshop leaders themselves. Iain Reid, a self-described “non-dramatic memoirist,” starts his ‘Writing Your Life’ session with a reading from one of his own works in order to then break down the actual process of (and his own set of rules for) writing from personal experience. James Scudamore, recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, cheerfully admits that he puts his workshoppers “through their paces,” filling his ‘Nostalgia’ class with writing and peer-editing exercises from start to finish.
Sara Wheeler, rocking back and forth on her heels, a barely contained cyclone of energy, jam-packs her ‘Finding the Story’ session with descriptions of the eight classic models for travel narratives, an extensive book list, readings of exemplary opening paragraphs, her own fabulous travel anecdotes and more good, solid advice—“it’s your book and your voice: be subjective” or “it has to be about something that can be written down in one perfect sentence”—all of which her room of attendees hasten to scribble down as fast as she can share it.
There’s a palpable enthusiasm that buzzes over each day’s lunches, between sessions, and on busses back and forth from special events—the reading at the home of Iceland’s Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness, for instance, or the reception at the Presidential residence during which participants are personally greeted by President Ólafur Ragnar and then invited to poke about the place at their leisure.
Attendees share their “Why Iceland?” stories, swap business cards (and, in one case, mix tapes), commiserate over past rejections and generally talk shop. It’s enlivening and makes the idea of writing seem fun again—less like the romantic, quasi-tragic burden that many writers are conditioned to think they must endure and bear in solitude.
Which is, ideally, how it should be. As Iain Reid remarks at the end of a class, “there’s no reason to become a writer if you don’t love it.”
The second annual Iceland Writers Retreat will take place from April 8-12, 2015 and will feature workshops lead by acclaimed international authors such as Adam Gopni, Taiye Selasi, and Sjón, among others. Writers Retreat Registration opened on July 28, 2014, and space is limited, so attendees, both local and international, are encouraged to to sign up early.