• Dr Margi Brown Ash

A writers retreat is a way of refocusing especially if it is in Iceland

Iceland, a place of beauty and literature, art and food. A place where the Muse sits close. Coffee shops, hot chocolate, fish, more fish, bookshops, art galleries, waterfalls, lava rocks, hot tubs, chocolate, museums, parks, lakes, ducks, swans, birds, bulbs of daffodils and barest of trees. A place where one wants to write.

We have just finished the Iceland Writers Retreat, a week of readings, workshops, talks, dinners and bus tours. Here are the writers we worked with:

1. GEROUR KRISTNY won the Icelandic Literature Award 2010 for her book of poetry Blóðhófnir. Gerður has published collections of poetry and short stories, novels, books for children and a biography, for which she received the Icelandic Journalism Award in 2005. Workshop: Mythologies

2. ELINA HIRVONEN is a Helsinki-based author, journalist and documentary filmmaker. Her first novel, When I Forgot (2005) was a Finlandia Fiction Prize nominee and has been translated into seven languages. Farthest from Death (2010), her second novel, was born in Lusaka, Zambia, where Hirvonen and her husband spent two years. Workshop: Writing the World

3. VINCENT LAM, did his medical training at the University of Toronto, and works as a physician in Toronto. Dr. Lam’s first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was adapted for television. The Headmaster’s Wager, Dr. Lam’s first novel, about a Chinese compulsive gambler and headmaster of an English school in Saigon during the Vietnam War, was a finalist for the 2012 Governor General’s Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize. Workshop: The Magic of the Inside Story

4. MIRIAM TOEWS is an internationally acclaimed writer whose work has been translated into over twenty languages. She is the author of six bestselling novels and one work of non-fiction. She has won many literary prizes including the Governer General’s Award for Fiction, the Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award for body of work, and the CBA Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year. Her third novel, A Complicated Kindness, was the first book by a female writer to win CBC’s Canada Reads competition. All My Puny Sorrows, her most recent novel, spent over a year on the Canadian bestseller lists and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Workshops: The Life of a Writer

5. ANDREW WESTOLL is an award-winning author, journalist and teacher based in Toronto. A former primatologist-in-training, his first book, The Riverbones, is a travelogue set in the remote jungles of Suriname, where he once spent a year studying wild troops of capuchin monkeys. Westoll’s second book, the national bestselling The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, is the biography of a family of chimpanzees who were rescued from a research laboratory and retired to an animal sanctuary near Montreal. The Chimps won the 2012 RBC-Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and was a finalist for several other major book awards. Workshop: Writing Your Life

One of the things that has fascinated me about Iceland are the stories of the elves. There are many stories about elves actually being real. In fact, more believably, they could be seen as morality tales. In the delightful book The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdottir (Twenty Stories of Elves from Icelandic Folklore (2015) she writes:

Elf stories were like morality tales. yet on a deeper level they might also have reflected people’s yearning to have some control over their lives-something that was cruelly denied them otherwise, in almost every respect. as a peasant in Iceland of old , you had the legal standing of a child. you were required by law to have a fixed place at a farm where you were completely subservient to your employer/master.


To the Icelanders stories of elves and hidden people are an integral part of the cutlural and psychological fabric of our nation. They are a part of our identity, reflection of the struggles, hopes, resilience and endurance of our people. As such, they are very dear to us.

The visual art here is unforgettable with brilliant exhibitions of some of Icelands most famous painters. Reykjavik is the hub. Reykjavik Art Museum- Kjarvalsstadir is an impressive museum dedicated to modern art with a permanent exhibition of Johannes S. Kjarval’s work, one of Iceland’s most beloved painters.

and this motivates me to incorporate all sorts of levels within my writing. I am thinking this is why I am so attracted to mythology as the ground zero of my writing…the myth is there and then the story comes. the myth that is sitting close to me today, and has done so for the last week is the myth of the Seal Woman. A famous myth, here it is from

The Seal’s Skin. Icelandic Folktale

Once in the east of Mýrdalur a man went along the cliffs on the seashore early in the morning. He came to a mouth of a cave and heard the sound of merrymaking and dancing inside. Nearby he saw many seals’ skins. He took one of the skins, brought it home and locked it in a chest. In the daytime he came again to the cave. There sat a young and pretty woman who was naked and cried desperately. She was the seal whose skin the man had taken. He let her dress herself, comforted her and brought her home with him. She has become attached to him, but did not get on with others. She often sat and looked at the sea. Some time later the man married her. They lived in harmony and had children. The farmer kept the seal’s skin locked up in the chest and had the key with him wherever he went. Many years later he once went outdoors and left the key at home, under his pillow. Others say that the farmer went to celebrate Christmas with his men, but his wife was ill and could not go with them. While he changed his clothes, he left the key in a pocket of his everyday wear. When he came back home, the chest was open, and both the woman and the skin disappeared. She had taken the key, looked into the chest out of curiosity and found the skin there. She could not resist the temptation, bade farewell to her children, put on the skin and plunged into the sea. And before she plunged into the sea, they say, she whispered:

Where have I to flee? I’ve seven kids in the sea And seven kids on dry land.

They say the man grieved much for that. Afterwards, when he went fishing, a seal often swam round his boat, and it seemed that tears ran from her eyes. Ever since that man always had good catch and was lucky. When their children went to the shore for a walk, people often saw a seal that swam in the sea not far from them, both when they were on land and near water, and threw motley fish and nice sea shells to them. But their mother never came back.

© 2008 The Viking Rune, translation from Icelandic

It is a beautiful story and probably resonates with many of you. It certainly resonated with me: the pull between the world of the arts (the ocean) and the natural world (the land). The task always at hand is how do we balance both?

#writting #retreat #travel #process #rehearsal #art #creative

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