Monday, December 8, 2014

Discovering Reykjavik: A City of Literature

Writer's retreats are a great way to get inspired and buckle down. Workshop leader Willona M. Sloan traveled to Iceland earlier this year and discovered many things on her journey. The retreat is happening again in April, so think about spending your next vacation in this fascinating country that considers writing to be a national pastime.

When we write, our words take us to places both real and imagined. We travel through time. We experience different cultures. When we write, we relive our adventures and re-imagine the people we have encountered along the way. That’s why to keep our writing fresh we must leave home, explore new places, meet new people and collect new stories.

For about 20 years I have had an inexplicable fascination with Iceland—more so the idea of Iceland than the place itself, as I knew very little about the tiny nation. When I heard about the first annual Iceland Writers Retreat, I didn’t know exactly why but I had to visit this magical place.

Co-founded by Eliza Reid and Erica Jacobs Green, the first Iceland Writers Retreat was held in April 2014 and featured workshops led by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks, Guggenheim Fellow Susan Orlean, Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden and many more. I was most excited about the promise of meeting Icelandic authors and poets.

In Iceland, writing is a national pastime. With a population of just 330,000, Iceland boasts an almost perfect literacy rate, and Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world. Who knew?

As a UNESCO-designated City of Literature, Reykjavik is a city that values storytelling. Our delightful literary walking tour brought to life the elves, trolls, and elemental beings of local folktales, as well as the heroes of the ancient Icelandic Sagas, and some pretty chilly characters from crime stories, including Gunnar Gunnarsson’s The Black Cliffs, which even inspired Geraldine Brooks to create a new writing prompt for the next day’s workshops. We were all ingesting parts of Icelandic literature and allowing them to nourish our creative work.

We were treated to private readings by some of Reykjavik’s brightest literary stars: author Sjón,  who also has been known to write songs for Björk; author Ragna Sigurðardóttir  and poet Gerður Kristný. And, if I had any doubt that writers were welcome in the land of fire and ice, President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson set the record straight. He invited our delegation of 60+ writers from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Singapore and more to a private reception at the Presidential Palace at Bessastaðir. President Grímsson shared his pride of the national literary tradition, and he allowed us to explore the house. What an exciting day to be a writer!

Iceland truly is a fascinating place. Within an hour’s drive from Reykjavik, I saw a turquoise geothermal pool, a magnificent waterfall, gushing geysers, snow and ice, sunshine and green pastures, ocean, and off in the distance the ice-covered volcano that was known in the Middle Ages as the “Gateway to Hell.”

My journey to Iceland reinvigorated me. I realized a dream come true. From that experience I have created new dreams; I have told new stories; and I am curious about new things. This is what makes writing so exciting. For me, the best part is figuring out where my words will take me next.

You can learn about the 2015 Iceland Writers Retreat, featuring Barbara Kingsolver here. You can read more about my journey here. (It didn’t get off to a very good start.)

Willona M. Sloan teaches workshops at The Writer’s Center. She has published non-fiction, fiction and poetry in publications including BlazeVOX, Bohemia, Northern Virginia, Publishers Weekly, The University of Virginia magazine and Words Apart.

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