Writing And Reading In Iceland

IMG_2208Iceland, an island nation of just over 300,000 people, has more writers, more books published, and more books read, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. Let that sink in for a moment.

There is a phrase in Icelandic, “ad ganga med bok I maganum,” which means everyone gives birth to a book, or, literally, everyone “has a book in their stomach.” One in 10 Icelanders will publish a book. This is an astounding statistic.

My husband thinks the reason Icelanders read and write so much is because in bad weather (winter), they are not outside much. When it is dark and cold, the people have nothing else to do, and thanks to the their poetic eddas and medieval sagas, Icelanders have always been surrounded by stories.

But I suspect it is something more, and, from what I can tell, Icelanders seem to be decidedly outdoor people: intrepid, adventurous, and hardy in all kinds of weather.

There is an active and supportive writers’ community here, and appreciation for poetry and literature, and all of the arts, is embedded within the culture. The Icelandic government awards competitive grants and stipends to writers annually, making the dream of working as a full-time professional writer a reality for some. Public benches have barcodes so you listen to a story on your smartphone as you sit. The coffee-shop culture in Reykjavik is bustling, and writers who love frequenting coffee shops with character, charm, and a good cup of joe certainly benefit from it. (NOTE: Starbucks has been knocking on the nation’s door for a while now, but Icelanders adamantly refuse to let the giant coffee chain in.)

My Airbnb host, Alma, who seems to be the Mother of Iceland, encourages me to apply for a grant and return to write. I am thinking of doing just that. Her next door neighbor is the famous Stefan Mane, who writes mysteries, the biggest current boom along with crime stories. Iceland’s black lava riverbeds, steaming, bubbling earth, towering volcanoes, and fairytale streams make it the perfect setting for such stories.

The Iceland Writers Retreat has compiled a list of reasons why every budding author should come to Iceland and experience its extraordinary literary culture firsthand. They include 1) the otherworldly, breathtaking, and inspiring landscapes, 2) being one of the few places in the world where anyone can easily drive out into the wilderness and be truly alone to clear one’s head and write, 3) Icelanders’ love for language, 4) the ease of professional networking here, where everyone knows someone who knows someone who can help bring your project to fruition. (There is apparently a lack of competition among writers here, a true desire to help each other out.)

One of the most wonderful examples of Icelandic love for literature is the jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood, when most books are published. Every household gets a book catalogue through the door. They pore over it like a furniture catalogue. Everyone receives books as Christmas presents, hardback and shrink-wrapped.

“Even now, when I go the hairdressers,” Kristin Vidarsdottir, manager of the Unesco City of Literature project, says, “they do not want celebrity gossip from me but recommendations for Christmas books.”

So here I sit in a campground field near Husavik, one degree from the Arctic Circle, writing. I am wrapped in down and wool, and it is chilly, but I am inspired. It is just hours after France’s World Cup victory, which we watched with an international crew whooping and cheering in the Campgrounds Community room. But outside it’s quiet at 9 PM, and there is no sign of the sun going down anytime soon. It’s time to write.

Last Chances Count.

stephanie IMG_3575As a writer making a “third-chapter” public debut, I say they do.

But as the daughter of writers, I can attest to the fact that there is no final word.

After a lifetime of focusing on other things, I am now looking to the public presentation of my craft. Though composing since preschool, putting it out there—publishing it, doing the work of writing—is a new beginning for me.

The clack of the old Corona typewriter, the whirr and bell of the return carriage was background noise to my childhood. My father, a newspaperman, rode around in the back of cop cars at night for a story. My mother was forever in her pajamas back in the bedroom typing up her tales. It was something we did. We wrote. Words counted. Stringing letters into sentences counted more. Revealing the way you saw life had value. My parents’ models and my mother’s encouragement cheered me on. “Go write about it, Marion!” she would say again and again.

I accumulated boxes full of notebooks and napkins and scraps of paper with dashed-off tidbits about whatever was going on during every phase of my life, plus short stories and novellas.

“There’s gold in those boxes, Marion. Wait five or ten years. Get a little distance from it. Then pull it out. Pure gold.” Her prospector eyes gleamed.

It’s true. I have a new book: A memoir of the last decade of my mother’s life and our relationship, both as a fractious mother/daughter duo and as writers together. It’s called: Shopping with Mama: Write ’til the End, and it will be out in Fall, 2018. I hope you will want to read it. (Here, hyperlink the words Read it and go to the contact page.)

Our lifelong arguments were often about duty versus enjoyment: which should prevail? A placard on the wall of my house reads, ‘Be happy. Happiness is a form of wisdom.’ It’s certainly my inclination, a product of the ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ generation, to choose happiness as often as I can.

But I didn’t escape the grasp of duty either. I wanted to be the best daughter I could be for my mother on her way out, even after decades of disagreements and wildly disparate world views.

What I say is if you’re fortunate enough to have a parent live long enough, and cogently, as I did, so that you can help them into the next experience, last chances count. At least for you. You can go home again. You can rethink the whole experience, help another person, and come home to write about it

What are beginnings and endings anyway? Aren’t they happening every second of every minute on the subatomic level deep within us? We have unlimited chances. Every exit line is also an entry to something else.

Whatever the goal, whatever the time, last chances count, though, truthfully, they are never really final. I still have conversations with my now dead parents and learn something new in the exchange, settle an old hurt, finally understand. Some things are never-ending.

But don’t wait. Do it! Whatever it is you think may be beyond you, or out of reach, or not really gonna’ happen for you in your lifetime.

Don’t die wondering. What if things go right?

Take the leap!

This is mine as I reach for the next trapeze.