I don’t remember who posted the tweet about Iceland Writers Retreat. But I remember the arrow to the heart feeling when I saw it; that breathless half second like the moment between striking a match and seeing the flame.
Set in Iceland, the theme would be “travel and journeys.” Workshops taught by writers like Susan Orlean (the woman wrote a nonfiction bestseller about flowers while I was a horticulture grad student, for crying out loud) and National Geographic’s Digital Nomad Andrew Evans. Of course there would be Icelandic writers – some of them would be acting as tour guides. We would visit the home of Halldór Laxness, an excursion that was cancelled due to hurricane-force winds when I was in Iceland the first time. As we say in my household, “That’s you, Harold.”
I had already committed to attend Eistnaflug next summer, and saved enough money to go. Suddenly I felt like Batman, forced to choose between saving Robin and saving the girl. I hope that, like Batman, I can find a way to manage both against the odds. But if I am forced to choose between them, I have to pick the retreat. As much as I love the bands playing at Eistnaflug, that trip would be one of consumption. Sure, I could interview bands and blog about it, maybe even get a feature into an online, underground magazine, but mostly I would be a consumer of other people’s creativity.
A writing retreat could help me unlock my own. It could be a functional middle path between quitting my job and going back for an MFA (I’ve already used up my “back to school” card, see “horticulture” above) and spending decades as the literary equivalent of singing in the shower.
As an avid reader, I understand structure; I’ve studied storytelling my whole life. Ideas for novels and narrative nonfiction fill my Evernote folders and notebooks scattered throughout my house. I find ideas scribbled on sticky notes in odd places. I write for a living; I’m the office’s resident grammarian, I read style guides for fun and talk about punctuation at staff meetings. But years of technical and policy writing has worn boilerplate grooves in my brain and built retaining walls against imagination. Despite the kind endorsements in “Creative Writing” my friends have made on my LinkedIn page, when I try to write anything less confessional than a blog post and more creative than an ordinance, I hit a retaining wall.
Could a retreat with writers I read and respect, immersed in the creative atmosphere of Reykjavík’s culture and surrounded by Iceland’s energetic geology be enough to chip away years of the wrong sort of mental discipline?
Like Harold, I pulled the trigger. I paid the deposit on a five day course that costs roughly what I lived on for three months in India. That quarter in India cracked me wide open, exposing my heart to the stinging fresh air like one of those Catholic saint candles. If this experience can be even remotely as transformative, it will be worth it. Hell, I’d be satisfied with a few bullet points on how to write dialogue.
All of which in no way implies that hitting “submit” on the registration form was anything other than panic attack-inducing. I was immediately struck with the most intense case of imposter syndrome ever experienced by woman. Images of the moment last season on Whistler when the mist cleared just enough to reveal that I had wandered off the green run onto a black one (I ended up with a season-ending bruise on my tailbone) gave way to the memory of myself at age 7, standing petrified on the diving board as the other kids yelled at me to get out of the way (I jumped, almost drowned, the lifeguards had to fish me out).
So yeah, I feel like I’m in over my head.
I think it was Joan Didion who said, “The drink helps.” So I followed her writerly advice with some Eagle Rare Single Barrel Kentucky Bourbon and reminded myself of another inspiring quote. Warren Miller says, “Just remember, if you don’t do it this year, you’ll be one year older when you do.” Of course, he also says, “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your thing,” but I’m going to stick with the first one.