#5onFri: Five Reasons to Attend the Iceland Writers Retreat

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Community

A couple weeks ago I attended an absolutely amazing writing retreat – in Iceland. Yes, you read that correctly. The Iceland Writers Retreat held its fourth annual event from April 5th through 9th, and I was utterly thrilled to be part in it. And not only did the trip fulfill a three-year-old dream of visiting the subarctic and geographically stunning European island, but it also surpassed my expectations of how I’d benefit from it both as a writer and as a person.

Want to know more about the Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR)? Here are five reasons why I enjoyed it so much – and why you might want to go in 2018.

1) A Wide Variety of Workshops, Led by Internationally Acclaimed Writers

Whether you write novels or shorter pieces, fiction or nonfiction, you’ll find all kinds of writing workshops at IWR. This year’s offerings balanced technique-strengthening (point of view, characters, research, etc.) with exploratory classes on topics like empathy, slang and dialect, and family narratives. Each attendee took five 2-hour, small-group workshops that blended instructor-led discussions with in-class writing exercises and, in some cases, pre-retreat assignments. My two personal favorites were Esi Edugyan’s “Writers on Artists,” where we practiced the objective and subjective aspects of writing about visual arts, music, and other creative mediums; and Nadifa Mohamed’s “Music and Literature,” where we delved into the influence that music can have on our writing.

Speaking of the instructors: This year’s faculty was impressive long before the workshops were announced. Besides Edugyan and Mohamed, it featured Bret Anthony Johnston, Madeline Thien, Chris Cleave, Meg Wolitzer, and several others. And with the list of past faculty including Barbara Kingsolver, Cheryl Strayed, and staff writers from The New Yorker and National Geographic, it’s clear that IWR’s organizers are intent on bringing high-quality instructors to their event.

2) It’s Smaller Yet More Global Than Most Writing Conferences

Before IWR, I had attended Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC twice and Muse & The Marketplace in Boston once. Both events draw hundreds of writers annually from across the United States, with a handful from Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. This year’s Iceland Writers Retreat, on the other hand, hosted over 100 writers from North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and the Pacific. It’s therefore more global yet more intimate, giving attendees the chance to broaden their worldview while really getting to know their fellow writers. I mean, how often do you have the chance to have dinner with writers from Brazil and Kenya? (I also met a writer who lives about 30 minutes away from me. Go figure!)

3) Excursions in Reykjavik and the Icelandic Countryside

IWR’s “home base” was a hotel within 20-minutes walking distance (or a short taxi ride) from downtown Reykjavik. This made excursions into Iceland’s capital city very convenient. Writers could visit the museums, restaurants, coffee shops, and other attractions in their spare time. And as part of the retreat, we were invited to take a “literary walking tour” of Reykjavik and attend receptions at Reykjavik City Hall, the Whales of Iceland Museum, and even the presidential residence of Bessastaðir. (Fun fact: Eliza Reid, a Canadian-born writer and one of the retreat’s founders, is the wife of Iceland’s current president, Guðni Jóhannesson.)

Another highlight was our choice of two full-day countryside tours. I opted for the Literary Borgarfjörður tour, which shed light on Iceland’s literary roots with visits to the homes of late Nobel Prize winning author Halldór Laxness and 13th century writer Snorri Sturluson (who authored the Prose Edda and the Heimskringla, two of Iceland’s most important historical texts). We also went to the War and Peace Museum, the waterfalls Hraunfossar and Barnafoss, and the hot spring Deildartunguhver. Other attendees went on the popular Golden Circle tour, which included stops at the Geysir geothermals, the waterfall Gullfoss, and Þingvellir National Park.

4) Immersion in Iceland’s History and Culture

When you attend the Iceland Writers Retreat, you aren’t just a writer. You’re also a tourist. And even with the full schedule, participants had lots of time to soak up Iceland’s rich history and unique culture. Reykjavik is home to several art galleries and museums, from the Northern Lights Exhibition to the National Museum of Iceland. The history geek in me especially loved spending 2 hours at the latter’s “Making of a Nation” exhibit, a comprehensive look at Iceland’s heritage and history dating back to the 800s. And the FOOD. Whether you love lamb, seafood, or vegetarian dishes, or have a sweet tooth for kleinur (twisted donuts) or skyr (Icelandic yogurt), you’ll have no trouble finding new dishes to try during your stay.

Let’s not forget about the language, either. Icelandic might be challenging for English speakers to learn because of its diphthongs and certain vowels pronunciations, but it’s fluid and intricate, like listening to one of the country’s waterfalls. I studied basic Icelandic phrases before my trip; and while the only one I used was takk (“thank you”), it still deepened my appreciation for a language that’s actually closer to Old Norse than modern Norwegian or Swedish, despite having the same origins.

5) The Camaraderie and Shared Understanding Between Writers

There’s something magical about attending writing retreats and conferences. Everyone who’s there has something essential in common: a passion for writing. Our backgrounds, preferred genres, and intended paths might differ. Yet that one intrinsic commonality makes it easier for writers to open up to each other and to support one another in our creative endeavors. No wonder I heard my fellow attendees say “It’s so good to be with other writers” or “I feel like I can truly be myself, even though I’ve just met you” over and over again. And I felt very much the same way.

I could go on about other reasons why I loved the Iceland Writers Retreat. But the point is, I came home from this trip inspired, clear-headed, and ready to return to writing after a month where my confidence in my craft had pretty much shattered. And for that, I am profoundly grateful for the IWR experience… and I’m already considering going back in the future. Maybe I’ll see you there? 😉

Have you attended a writing retreat or conference outside your home state or country? If so, which one(s)?


Sara Letourneau is a fantasy writer in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks too much tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blogTwitter, and Goodreads.

  • Okay, that looks so cool. Adding to bucket list…

    • Sara Letourneau

      Nice! 😀 Glad you enjoyed reading about it so much!

  • Leanne Sowul

    The thing that most appeals to me is your point about this retreat being “more global” in its participants. I’d never thought of that. Definitely a benefit to leaving the US for a retreat, and of choosing one where most of the participants don’t come from the same group of writers.

    • Sara Letourneau

      Yes. It’s great to see the same writer friends at conferences you’ve attended before. But there’s something magical and eyeopening about traveling someplace new (let alone overseas) for a writing event that draws other people from all over the world. And even though I had that impression going into the retreat, it still didn’t hit me until I was there, meeting writers from not just the US and Canada, but also Iceland, Norway, Germany, Kenya, Brazil… If I remember correctly, the organizers said that this year’s IWR “student body” represented 20 different countries.

  • I’m so glad you had a lovely time there, Sara! I definitely want to visit Iceland, whether it be for the Writers Retreat or just as a tourist. The landscape that Rogue One used from Iceland is so gorgeous, I can only imagine what it must be like to see firsthand!
    I’m curious, in the last photo what is that boat-shaped object with little tridents sticking up?

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thanks, E.! It was… just… ah, so hard to put into words, except for using the same ones, like “amazing” and “stunning” and “wonderful.” I really want to go. In fact, I know I will. I’d like to go back for next year’s retreat, but might have to settle for 2019 depending on how much money I can save between now and then.

      The sculpture in the final photo is the Sun Voyager. It’s made entirely of stainless steel and sits right by the water in Reykjavik’s Harbor district.

  • I’d absolutely love to do this one day! Iceland is on my bucketlist to go to! It sounds like such an amazing experience!

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

    • Sara Letourneau

      It really is, Tori. I can’t recommend it enough. 😀

  • Faith

    Well this has just convinced me that I must go to Iceland and that I must attend some writing conference soon! Probably wise if I combine the two goals for next year 😉
    Glad to hear that you had such a beautiful time! And thanks for sharing the experience with us! It’s inspiring to hear about it <3

    • Sara Letourneau

      *lol* And IWR is an amazing way to do just that, Faith. You’re very welcome, and I’m glad you enjoyed reading about the retreat!

  • sjhigbee

    Thank you so much for pointing me towards this article Sara – it’s a delight to read:). I can only imagine how it must have felt to undertake such a journey and mingle with other writers in such a way… Thank you for taking the time and effort to share your experience so generously and I’m delighted you feel the impact has been so beneficial.

    • Sara Letourneau

      You’re welcome, Sarah! If I had to boil down the journey to Iceland and overall experience there in one phrase, “the time of my life” would be most accurate… and even then, I’m not sure the idiom still quite covers it. 🙂

      • sjhigbee

        And that came across loud and clear… I’m sure you are still assimilating your experiences and it will continue to affect you and seep into your life and soul, probably to come out in your writing in years to come.

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