When I told people I was going to the Iceland Writers Retreat they mostly looked a) blank or b) puzzled. Why not go somewhere closer? Why Iceland? Why go all that way?
Sure, it was a journey, but it was my big treat after getting through cancer last year. My thinking was that I deserved it. Besides, I’m getting older, more ornery and of a mind to think that if you want to do it, do it now.
So, first, the round-the-world haul to UK and then another hop over the Atlantic. The early morning flight from Edinburgh was packed with young Icelanders whose carry-ons jammed the overhead lockers. They looked like they were homeward bound after a very good weekend. Icelanders seem good at partying – and why not? Reykjavic has plenty of bars and eateries and very good food and lively music, and fun has to be found to enliven those long dark winters.
I was there in spring though. No long darkness for me.
Day and night were evenly split. Daffodils had been everywhere in the UK but in Iceland, only crocuses were struggling out of cold ground and trees were still to show a hint of leaf. Trees are few and far between. In a land where it can snow in summer it’s too cold for all but the hardiest trees. Moss rules, growing in vast green expanses over lava spread between mountains and frigid sea. It’s wild. Brutal. Surreal.
It also has cute, short, hardy horses – a breed so genetically rare that no other horses are allowed. And sheep, too, apparently, though I didn’t lay eyes on one. But the wool’s coming from somewhere for all the excellent handknits in the tourist shops.
Icelanders are few as well – numbering just over 300,000. Reykjavic, its capital, isn’t big. If you’re a New Zealander you’ll kind of get the idea if I say it’s like Queenstown set on the sea, with universities and very good bookshops, Desert Road landscape, touches of Rotorua (smell, hot springs and geysers) and Hamilton (commercial sprawl) thrown in, overlaid with Viking history and a sensibility that’s somewhat Scandi. It’s more quirky than attractive.
One faculty member at the retreat, Danish author Carsten Jensen provoked a shocked little gasp when he dared to say, “Reykjavic is a genuinely ugly city”.
But authors have to be honest, huh. Stories that shrink from honesty don’t make a mark. So, good for Carsten. But Reykjavic’s soul is strong and memorable. That beats pretty any day.
We weren’t there to sightsee anyway (well, only half the time). We were there to be prodded, galvanised and shaken up by some damn good writers. Jensen, for instance – author of We, the Drowned, a saga of the sea with more than 500,000 copies sold. There was Bret Anthony Johnston, director of creative writing at Harvard University, and author of best-selling Remember Me Like This. I’ve just read it – a terrific story.
There were others who’ve been longlisted and shortlisted for heaps of major awards. I loved the time I spent with Canadian Madeleine Thien, who was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize for her book Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Haven’t had time to read that yet but I intend to – and am sorry she’s pulled out of presenting at the upcoming Auckland Writers Festival. I’d go to another of her workshops in a heartbeat. And the prolific Meg Wolitzer, who’s had three novels made into movies, is another powerhouse of a writer. Too many others to mention here.
What did I learn?
I have pages of notes, but really liked these thoughts:
- “Everything you need to know to be a writer you can learn in 7-8 hours. What you really need to know is patience, stubbornness and the discipline to follow your curiosity.” – Bret Anthony Johnston.
- “Things that hold writers back: fear of success, fear of failure, fear of mediocrity, fear of losing community.” – Meg Wolitzer. (That last point is so true. Writing a book is such an odd pursuit that few of your friends will understand your need to do it. Your absence/obsession sometimes means slipping out of previous social circles.)
- “The thing that people most often criticise you for – keep on doing it more intensely.” – a quote from Jean Cocteau. Long dead of course, but his influence lives on in this line repeated by novelist and non-fiction writer Claudia Caspar of Vancouver.
- “The very beginning of a novel is the last page you write because now you finally know what the story is about.” – Carsten Jensen.
- “As a writer, your job is to be slightly creepy. Be treating the whole world as your laboratory – you’re an anthropologist, your job is to understand how they behave and interact.” – Londoner Chris Cleave, author of Everyone Brave is Forgiven and other bestsellers.
- On writer’s block: “Bad writers just blithely bang away. You need to have a certain self-awareness to have writer’s block. Embrace it. It’s an encouraging thing.” – Chris Cleave.
The most memorable quote of the week came at me when we visited the home of Iceland’s only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the late Halldor Laxness. We heard there the line he spoke when he first met the woman who would become his wife: “Will you please light my cigarette with your eyes?” It’s an old-school gambit of course, from the long-ago era when everyone flirted over ciggies. But still, what a line…
Or maybe the strongest thought was contained in what Bret Anthony Johnston said when asked what he would take away from Iceland. “I will leave feeling less alone – that’s the best thing you can take away from a writers conference.”
Ah, the loneliness of the long-form writer… the thing that never goes away but which every writer needs to embrace if they’re ever going to get anything finished.