Iceland: an island on the edge of my dreams

Michelle Walshe on the writing retreat of a lifetime in a land both familiar and strange

The advertisement showed green Northern Lights streaking across black sky. I had seen this magical phenomenon in Finland so that wasn’t the attraction – it was the country, Iceland, the pull of the north, the draw of the dark, the shared history of monks, Vikings and marginalisation from mainland Europe.

This isolated place with its unfamiliar landscape of sharp lines and jagged rocks on the edge of Europe has always exerted a magnetic influence over me. I am drawn to extreme terrains, their simplicity and honesty. I lived and worked on Skellig Michael, Co Kerry. I completed a month-long writing residency in the Sahara desert.

In 2012, I came tantalisingly close to travelling to Iceland, “the most romantic of deserts”, as William Morris described it. I was taking my students to do work experience in Reykjavik but fell seriously ill and never went. It remained out of my reach until December 2019 when I won a full scholarship to the April 2020 Iceland Writers Retreat. Then, pandemic travel restrictions put a stop to it.

I have waited two years for this opportunity and far longer in my dreams, but I finally got there from April 27th to May 2nd. Iceland did not disappoint. It is alive. Vibrating. Trembling. Flowing.

Fire and water run through it like blood and plasma. The earth gurgles and burbles, expels and explodes, pulses and gushes, gasps and sighs. It is this sense of movement that differentiates it from other tourist destinations with their quiet sceneries, serene vistas and museums where centuries of civilisations are immortalised in stone, slate and marble in static temples, monuments and buildings that stand sentry over history on solid ground.

In Iceland, the ground is always shifting. Nature permits or denies participation by people. It creates Icelandic history, physically altering it every time a volcano erupts or a glacier melts.

For all these reasons it is a stunning location to hold a writing retreat. But this is not any ordinary writing retreat – two inspiring women run it - the First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, and writer, editor and publishing consultant, Erica Green.

The Golden Circle Tour on the first day felt like moving through a dreamscape. Leaving behind brightly coloured Reykjavik, the brown, barren land on either side of the empty road reminded me of Connemara, but then, rounding a corner I saw smoke spiralling from the ground and all thoughts of the west of Ireland disappeared.

Isolated houses stood square and squat against the sky, facing the water, strong and defiant as if defending their place on the Earth. All around the ground smoked. Puffs of air like clouds accumulated close to the earth or rose streaming skywards as if from a chimney buried below ground. Tiny churches with single spires struck solitary poses.

At the church at Skálholt I learnt about Icelandic myths and legends and felt a kinship across the centuries with the feisty, independent Irishwoman, Melkorka, in the Laxdaela saga. We even share a first initial.

Halldór Laxness was an Icelandic writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. His house, Gljúfrasteinn, set back from the road, with a simple exterior, is now a museum that somehow manages to still feel like a home. I sat in the living room as sunbeams threw light onto his writing desk and I happily could have stayed there with my notebook in the beautiful surroundings and settled down to write.

I didn’t want to get back on the bus. But I did, and the tour continued to the magnificent waterfall, Gullfoss, where I watched the water surge forwards over a cliff edge, its force and fury a reminder that nature is in charge here. Its spray created a fine mist and dampened the air. The next stop was the Geysir Centre where I watched geysers pop. The earth coughed, and steam shot skywards as the smell of sulphur settled in my nostrils and lingered on my skin.

On the second and third days, I did settle down to write, at workshops with Patrick Gale, (Mother’s Boy, 2022) Gretchen Rubin (Outer Order, Inner Calm, 2019) and Aminatta Forna (The Window Seat, 2022). I was facing my fears in these sessions, learning about aspects of writing that scare me. But the faculty was bigger than the classes I took, and I would have loved to have gone to all the different workshops with Adam Gopnick, David Chariandy, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, Dan Kois, Elnathan John, Will Ferguson and Kristín Helga Gunnarsdóttir.

To intensify the feeling of moving through a dream, on Friday night, Eliza, First Lady of Iceland, hosted a reception at the presidential residence in Reykjavik. Sun broke through the clouds as we gathered on the lawn, champagne in hand, to admire the view. Cheerful, multicoloured buildings dotted the Reykjavik peninsula, brightening the atmosphere, warming the landscape. Water, flat like glass, reflected the sunlight, sending the rays back into the sky, lightening it so it seemed like a summer’s day at eight o’clock in the evening.

Art and literature are respected and cherished in Iceland and this reception and another at City Hall on Thursday evening, in yet another building which overlooked water, reinforced this feeling.

Rounding off the week was a pub night with readings from Icelandic authors and music from Hera Björk who sang Dana’s All Kinds of Everything, a reminder that even if I felt far from home, I really wasn’t, and that Iceland and Ireland share a love of the Eurovision song contest as well as their common Viking ancestry!

On my final day I visited the Blue Lagoon, a slash of blue on black, a blue so vivid, it looked like a stretch of water in the Caribbean. I immersed myself in the hot, healing liquid and slathered face masks on my skin. The sun reappeared and the blue water reached a new level of vibrancy, mirroring the bright cloudless sky above. I lay my head back against the volcanic rock, gazed upwards and thought about my novel, the book I have always dreamt of writing, Under a Wide Blue Sky, highly commended in the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair 2022, and the words that brought me here, the work that began as memoir and transformed into fiction. Covid changed so much for so many. For me it changed my writing.

Water featured everywhere in Iceland. It was visible at the end of the main street in Reykjavik, from the window of my hotel room, in the hot tubs and public pools. Everywhere I looked I saw the sea and decided I should swim in it so in between workshops I found a beach with a hot tub filled with smiling, happy Icelanders wearing swimsuits and woolly hats.

This land of silvery ethereal light, shadowy grey clouds, and darkness ever-present in the rocks, earth and sky, where the senses are stimulated, the air is clean and the space is wide open, there is room to breathe and think.

After two years of sequestration and isolation, this trip was a gift for my senses, my imagination, my writing and for that, Eliza, Erica, Jessica, Roman, Lisa, Elizabeth, and all at the Iceland Writers Retreat, I thank you.

Read More

Recommended