April 14

The Iceland Writers Retreat


Last night I returned to Calgary after spending a week as an instructor at the Iceland Writers Retreat. The event, in only its second year, is a marvelous bringing-together of featured authors from around the world with about 80 workshop participants for a week of writing, reading, eating, drinking and – because it is in Iceland – a fair bit of weather. At the risk of namedropping, the highlights for me included dining on elaborate tasting menus alongside Ruth Reichl (and having Icelandic author Sjón wag his finger at me for eating whale.) Soaking in a hot spring-fed river with John Valliant. Talking about hockey with Adam Gopnik, and about Ghanaian food with Taiye Selassie. And singing “Happy Birthday” to Barbara Kingsolver. Reading from my own work in front of all of these authors, along with the workshop participants and the general public, was a great honour.

The workshop participants themselves were a far more mature group of writers than at other such events that I’ve been part of. Many, if not most, were already professional writers. I am pretty sure a few have published more books than I have, and I wondered what side of the lectern I really belonged. The best thing about this group, though, was their enthusiasm for writing. When ‘career’ writers meet socially, our conversations almost always drift into the business-side of writing. We talk about agents and editors. Publishers and royalties. We bemoan shrinking advances and publicity budgets. What we rarely talk about, at least in my experience, is about the work itself. I don’t ever recall sitting with a fellow writer over beers and chatting about writing beautiful paragraphs. But the lack of cynicism among the workshop participants, and their sincere desire to become better writers, made me recall why I started writing in the first place and why I still do it: because I love to write. So thank you to everyone for this important reminder.

Thanks, too, to all the volunteers especially Björn – who led us into a valley of hot rivers, waterfalls, and boiling puddles of mud – and Stefanía who managed to find me some traditional Icelandic wrestling to see. Most importantly, thanks to Eliza and Erica for putting on such a well-organized and enjoyable event. The warmth of your generosity and welcome will linger with me long after I’ve put away the mittens Eliza’s mother-in-law knit for all of us.