Personal Journey: A Writer’s Retreat to Iceland

Michelle at the geysers, the sound made me jump
Michelle Walshe

I won a writing scholarship to the Iceland Writers Retreat 2020. It was postponed, like so many events during the pandemic, but finally took place this year from April 27th to May 1st.

The scholarship included flights, accommodation, a day tour of the island, two days of workshops on dialogue with Patrick Gale, (Mother’s Boy, 2022) creative non-fiction with Gretchen Rubin (Outer Order, Inner Calm, 2019) and perspective with Aminatta Forna (The Window Seat, 2022).

The faculty comprised world famous writers Adam Gopnick, David Chariandy, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, Dan Kois, Elnathan John, Will Ferguson, and Kristín Helga Gunnarsdóttir but I chose my workshops based on what I needed to work on in my writing.

I began writing in 2017 without a background in English literature or any creative writing qualifications and first applied for the retreat in 2018 and shortlisted. I reapplied in 2019 and won. It was a huge win early in my writing career. I was afraid after such a long wait and build up that the trip might disappoint. It did not.

I have travelled far and wide. I worked as a guide in the nineties on Skellig Michael. I wrote part of my first novel in the Sahara Desert at a month-long writing retreat in 2020 just before the pandemic broke. I lived in Australia and America and travelled through Asia, but I had never been to Iceland.

It shares a common history and geography with Ireland, an outer lying island, monks, Vikings, and a shared love of Eurovision! But it is a place apart. I realised that as soon as I landed.

Iceland has an extra-terrestrial feel – the spurting ground, the erupting rocks, the gushing falls, everywhere nature is showing off.

Reykjavik was my first stop, prettier and larger than I expected. Colourful buildings lined the main street and warmed the landscape. My hotel overlooked water which is a feature everywhere. Coming from an island and already aware of the presence of water, I noticed in Iceland how visible water is as if the buildings are designed to always keep it in view.

Water features in homes and hotels and public spaces – hot tubs and saunas and steam rooms abound.

The retreat took place in the new Edition hotel next to the stunning Harpa concert hall whose exterior looks like it is covered in fish scales. It glitters in the light like a swishing mermaid’s tail.

My first day was spent on the Golden Circle Tour where I saw Gullfoss waterfall and had to put up my hood to prevent getting drenched by the spray. It was a magnificent and noisy sight.

At Skáholt church I learnt about Icelandic myths and legends and the story of an Irishwoman, Melkorka in the saga Laxdaela.

At the Geysir centre, I saw geysers pop, the sound made me jump as pure white streams of clouds shot into the air.

At Thingvellir, the giant fissure that split the tectonic plates in two is home to The Wall from Game of Thrones. I stood at the foot of it, gazing upwards, amazed to see in reality what I had watched for years on television.

I visited the house of Halldór Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel Laureate and tried to soak in the atmosphere in the hope of taking in some of his skill by osmosis!

The second and third days were spent at workshops, two hours at a time of expert tuition from established, experienced authors. On the second day there was a two-hour break and I dragged fellow scholarship winner, Lon Kirkop, from Malta to the sea where we swam in the freezing water and sat in a long, heated tub afterwards with smiling Icelanders decked out in woolly hats and swimsuits. I noticed quite a few dry robes too!

The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Presidential residence on Friday April 29th. The sun shone and illuminated the peninsula. Water glittered as the champagne popped and we stood on the lawn admiring the spectacular view of Reykjavik. We were meant to meet the President Jóhannesson, but he caught Covid, so the First Lady hosted the reception.

On the final day after a Q&A session with the faculty I visited the Blue Lagoon. The morning was dark, overcast, the sky was black but by the time I had immersed myself in the water, the sun had come out and turned the blue water even bluer.

There are several lagoons to visit in Iceland, the Sky Lagoon just outside Reykjavik becoming popular but the Blue Lagoon is the original with its thermal water and healing salts.

Iceland gave me five days of sights and sounds, vistas, and views, so many swims and lots of inspiration. I have a notebook full of ideas and am strongly considering setting my second novel there!