The Iceland Writers Retreat: The Work

May 25, 2022 | Travel | 0 comments

Iceland and Literature

Iceland rich literary tradition dates back to when the nation was first settled over 1,000 years ago. The country’s early heroic (and dramatic!) sagas have been the inspiration for many more recent artists popular works, including Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the scant hours of daylight and extreme weather patterns, this small country publishes more books per capita than any other nation. Additionally, Reykjavik is the first non-native English speaking UNESCO City of literature.


I signed up for five diverse workshops. All were led by exceptional, and prolific, authors.

  • Creative Nonfiction: What works and what doesn’t with Gretchen Rubin
  • Travel Writing and the Elements of Fiction with Will Ferguson
  • Your First Five Pages with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
  • Difficult Choices with Yrsa Sigurdardottir
  • Lightness and Weight with Dan Kois

Like a sponge, I absorbed the imparted knowledge of how to become a better writer. It was thrilling to once again have lively conversations    about our “homework” assignments, hear others’ points-of-view on various authors and articles, and do some writing and reading aloud. So much better than sitting in my office staring at a screen! Plus, it was reassuring to discover that, even after the intense isolation and all that’s transpired, I still remember how to be an active learner and group participant.

One of the things I liked most about IWR was it’s focus on the craft and the joys of writing itself, rather than the business aspects-agents, publishers, sales, and platforms. It was like a breath of fresh air! Not only that, but it attracted writers in all genres, including YA urban fantasy, fiction and nonfiction, screenplays and documentaries, and poetry. A timely reminder to continue to broaden my own personal reading list over the summer!

Our grand finale on Sunday was the moderated Q and A panels where attendees could ask the writing faculty questions. It was one of the highlights of the week for me. I’ll share a few questions and responses so you can get a taste of what I mean.

Question: How did the Covid pandemic affect your writing/you as a writer?


I developed a deep distaste for dystopia!

I realized that relying solely on a computer and Zoom doesn’t work for writers. It’s like talking into a dark hole.

I began to wonder, “Do I still know how to be in a room with others?” It sharpened my attention so I began to really look at how we interact with others.

Because it felt like we’d lost a sense of forward momentum in life, I developed a sudden aversion to backstory and fiction, every time I tried to go back and write about the last two years.

Question: Do you ever wonder “Who cares what I think?”


I turned fifty and said to myself, “Just go f*&% it!” (Write what you feel like).

I swim in my own tributary, apart from the mainstream. (In fact) I like to shatter the idea of a mainstream!

As a writer, you need to be willing to tolerate discomfort and disorientation and see what happens when you do.

Question: There are so many concerns about “cancel culture” and cultural appropriation among writers. Any advice for us?


Don’t be afraid! (This was echoed by most of the panelists). Respect the limits of what you know. If you authentically care, enter others’ space as respectfully as possible, and ask for feedback, that’s the best you can do.

Ask yourself, “Am I the person to be writing this?”

Don’t shirk your responsibilities. How dare we not see others? It’s an author’s job to see others!

Other advice along similar lines

Find a balance between absurdity and truth. Something might be true but extreme, (for example, behavior in a religious cult), normal for them but not for outsiders.

Focus on “Is this unusual for this person, but perhaps not for everyone.”

Stereotypes mean you’re too far away from your characters-drill down!

The story we tell may not necessarily be the one other’s want to hear.

People reach for fiction because they want to go somewhere else. Readers are on your side; they want to go with you.



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