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Meg Wolitzer, 2019. Photo: Leonardo Cendamo / Getty Images

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What I Learned About Writing from Five Authors at the Iceland Writers Retreat

Our Zed contributor reports on literary tips and tricks from Manchán Magan, Hari Kunzru, Meg Wolitzer, Omar El Akkad and Jeannette Walls / BY Rosemary Counter / May 22nd, 2024


In April, more than 150 aspiring, published and superstar writers from 19 countries arrived at the Iceland Writers Retreat – probably in 150 ways, and for just as many reasons. My route began by interviewing Ottawa journalist-turned-Iceland’s first lady, Eliza Reid; getting a kind and unexpected invitation to the retreat in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik; and enjoying a celebratory party of Reid’s literary baby on its 10th birthday in April. Needless to say, there was champagne.

We gathered at the thousand-year-old settlement of Bessastaðir, the president’s official residence 15 minutes outside Reykjavik, to meet Reid’s husband and the man in charge, Guðni Jóhannesson. Then, Reid – author of the 2022 non-fiction book, Secrets of the Sprakkar – explained how the idea for the IWR began in 2014 when she got together with her American pal, Erica Jacobs Green, a 25-year veteran of the publishing industry.

 

Iceland Retreat
Iceland Writers Retreat founders Erica Jacobs Green (left) and Eliza Reid (right), celebrated the literary event’s 10th anniversary in April. Photo: Erica Jacobs Green

 

“We were drinking wine one evening here in Iceland, where Erica used to live, and I’ve lived here for 21 years,” the first lady told the excited crowd. “Erica had just returned from a writing conference and we got to talking about how it was strange that Iceland doesn’t have something like that, since Icelandic people love reading and writing and there are more books published here per capita than anywhere else.” (One in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime.) By the second glass of vino, Reid was convinced.

For the record, you don’t need to be a published writer to attend the retreat and aspiring writers are just as welcome as those with a dozen books in their oeuvre. So, too, are readers: The concurrent Iceland Readers Retreat caters to the writers’ plus-ones, who tour everything from majestic waterfalls to medieval historical sites to lava shows, while the writers go to workshops. I took in five (of 20 on offer) in two days, and for would-be writers and future retreat attendees, here is a literary lesson I learned from each one.

Meg Wolitzer, American author of The Female Persuasion and The Interestings

Bright and early at my very first class, a surprisingly hilarious Meg Wolitzer hosts a lecture about writing not what you know, but what obsesses you. We go around the room naming current obsessions, each weirder and more wonderful than the last. Mine’s “Lizzie Borden, did she do it?” while prolific Wolitzer’s obsession is “Virginia Woolf.” 

 

Meg Wolitzer

 

How exactly do you know what obsesses you? Look at your Google history – especially in the middle of the night. Even the most random-seeming list of Googleables has overarching themes, and somewhere there is a literary sweet spot where “what you’re thinking about all the time and what’s important to the world overlap,” says Wolitzer. There’s a lesson here about Googling wisely, because the web constantly influences you and vice versa. “Consider your life like you’re marinating in everything you see,” says Wolitzer. “What rises up – what stays with you – is what matters. It becomes the flavour of your life, your way of being in the world.”

Hari Kunzru, British author of Blue Ruin and White Tears

As one of the few non-fiction-writing students in the workroom and the only journalist, I figured I knew everything about research for writers. Well, I was wrong, and totally misguided. “We can all gather a mass of facts and data and be impressed with ourselves for our big file,” said Kunzru, who then impressed us with a photograph of his bulletin board that was scrupulously covered in colour-coded Post-it Notes arranged in a perfect grid. “But this is about how you deploy all of it, especially in fiction.”

“Facts, numbers and dates are for historians,” said Kunzru.  If you are writing about a battle, for example, these are just the foundation for the research you seek. “If you’re a novelist, it’s more important to know how the troops smelled. We’re after feeling, mood and atmosphere.”

 

Hari Kunzru

 

Short of travelling back in time, such research involves getting creative. “There’s a kind of insight you get from ‘doing’ that’s irreplaceable for a writer,” said Kunzru. “If you can hold something in your hand or do the same job as your character for a day, that’s gold.” Here, I’m thrilled to report that, yes, I’ve toured Lizzie Borden’s murder house and sat on the murder couch and wisely taken many, many notes for a future book. “If something interests you, record it in some way, right now,” he said. “Take a picture, write it down, grab it however you can.” 

Omar El Akkad, Egyptian-Canadian author of What Strange Paradise and American War   

One-time Globe and Mail war reporter Omar El Akkad lived the journalist’s dream when he made the usually terrifying leap from non-fiction to fiction, and popped the 2021 Giller Prize win into his pocket for What Strange Paradise. Unlearning journalism’s ubiquitous inverted triangle meant getting creative with style (which Akkad called “the sentence-level DNA”) and structure (“the container the style’s going into”) he said in his workshop, “Style and structure in (mostly) contemporary literature.”

To demonstrate, El Akkad presented his top picks of modern books that play successfully with style and structure in ways a newspaper editor would never allow: Indigenous writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes in the second person in The Accident of Being Lost, alongside run-on sentences and a lack of capital letters. What El Akkad might have called a typo in a previous life, he now hails as “the right wrong note,” and hitting it at the right time can heighten your story, citing Cleanness by Garth Greenwell (who interestingly has a musical background in opera). Use it too often, however, and you’ll ruin the whole song. 

 

Omar El Akkad

 

He makes it look easy, but where should the rest of us start? “Take the idea that you’ve been squirrelling away,” suggested El Akkad. (The room nodded with familiarity; we all know what he means. Mine’s a Lizzie Borden-filled folder on my desktop titled “Crazy Ideas.”) Facts won’t hold you back; you’re free to follow your imagination. “The work will tell you what it wants to be,” he said. 

That’s not to say it’ll be any good. “The first draft of everything is garbage,” he said, but, massaged properly, “the good sentences live under the bad sentences.”

Manchán Magan, Irish author of Thirty-Two Words for Field

Just as Manchán Magan’s book title says, the Irish language has a baffling 32 different ways of describing a field: A gaemhar is full of cordgrass; a reidhlean is especially for games and dancing; tuar is the domain of cattle (but only at night) and cathairins have fairies. It’s an excellent starting point for his lecture on travel writing, which is all about new ways to see familiar places – and the variable is the writer, not the locale. “You’re looking for an intimate connection to any particular place,” Magan said. His craft’s one and only goal is “to bring people together.”

 

Manchan Magan

 

Similar to Kunzru’s take on research, there’s much more to good travel writing than endless facts and observations. One of Magan’s best tips is to skip the advance research altogether and throw yourself into a new place. Once there, talk to everyone and ask questions, but “the right questions, with mindfulness, that are honouring and respectful.” (Any jokes or humour you make, Bill Bryson-style, should be on you rather than whatever culture you’re discovering.)

And then, most writers’ favourite part: creative liberty. Magan’s take is a relief: “Your aim is not the truth. You’re conveying something far more interesting than that,” he said. Don’t lie, obviously, but there’s room within travel writing to streamline your story to its best version. “Think about how you might edit the details to tell a funny story to a friend,” suggested Magan. “It’s not a police report.”

Jeannette Walls, American author of The Glass Castle

I’m lucky that Jeannette Walls’ “Write What Terrifies You” is my final session, since there are no dry eyes or waterproof mascara left after this workshop. Once upon a time, Walls was an on-air entertainment journalist in New York with a big secret: Her parents were homeless, by choice. “I was convinced if everything in The Glass Castle ever came out, my life would be ruined,” she said. She was wrong, and the memoir that sat atop the New York Times bestseller list for eight years was not her ruin but her making. 

 

Jeanette Wells

 

That said, she advised us to “write from a scar, not an open wound,” because time, distance and perspective makes a memoir more than an autobiography. However dramatic, any event without sufficient introspection might be “accurate, but not really truthful” – something readers sense immediately. “Your story is about how you survived, not how hurt or mad you are,” cautioned Walls. To move ever so slightly from the latter to the former, she suggested you “think about what the person you’re up against is up against.”

Of all the inspirational activities at the Iceland Writers Retreat, this one’s a doozy: Walls asked us to spend five minutes writing out our best and worst memory. This is when the tears started, and the room was silent but for the sniffles. Inevitably, a theme emerged when we compared them, and that – as terrifying as it seems – is likely the crux of memoir. “You need to make friends with your demons,” said Walls. “Shine your light in the darkest corner.” 

 

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