Last Week at Gullkistan

It’s Sunday evening and my stay here at Gullkistan is coming to a close. August 2018 has been the most productive month I’ve had to date. One of my goals was to write 31 stories, one for each day in August. As of today, I’ve drafted 25 stories and, if all goes well in the next couple days, I’ll have reached my goal. I suppose it should be no surprise (since this beautiful country has won my heart), that Iceland has found its way into most of the stories I’ve written. I even ended up writing a modern retelling of Guðmundur G. Hagalín’s wonderful tale “The Fox Skin,” which I read last night at the Gullkistan Open House.

Reading and presenting work

Saturday I went to Selfoss to lead a second writing workshop on flash fiction. I led the workshop at Fjöl­braut­ar­skóli Suður­lands a school which is somewhat of an architectural wonder.

The flash fiction workshop was well attended—about 12 participants, all motivated to learn and write. Similar to the first workshop, everyone was very warm and welcoming. Most of the participants were Icelanders, some from Selfoss and a couple from Reykjavík. I was grateful that they were all willing to speak mostly in English out of courtesy to me. Again, I was impressed by all the flash fiction shared in the workshop, though I shouldn’t be surprised because, in my experience, most people here are well read and have creative minds.

One of the participants in the workshop was a book fairy (if you don’t know about these delightful creatures, you can find more information here). Afterward she asked me if I would like to be a book fairy for a day and hide a book in the town. Of course I was honored to do so! By happy coincidence, the book I was hiding was by Guðmundur G. Hagalín, the same author who’d written “The Fox Skin,” the tale which I had been working on retelling just a couple weeks prior. I was pleased to pass along Hagalín’s wonderful book. The fairies must have been working their magic that day! [Read “The Fox Face” in Shirley Magazine. In May 2019, this was featured on the Book Fairy blog.]

As I mentioned, Saturday night was the open house. We had a great turn out and I was impressed with all the work the artists-in-residence accomplished over a month’s time. 

Sylvie Donaire’s gorgeous prints and pop-up books.

Anna Vihra talks about her prints and photos.

The “push-pull” of Sae A. Lee’s abstract paintings

We ended the evening with a lovely celebratory dinner together and talked about our respective creative processes, as well as the challenges and rewards that arose over the past month. It was a delightful evening and we were all so thankful for the opportunity and for the wonderful people at Gullkistan who helped to make it possible.

I have four more days here in Laugarvatn. I’m looking forward to writing and to leading one last workshop at the school here. Then I’m off to Reykjavík! It has been a wonderful stay, but I’m excited to return home on September 1st.

Gullkistan Residency, Week Two

It’s 9:30 AM, misty and gray here in Laugarvatn. Sitting at my desk this morning, I am wondering how I could possibly sum up a week full of writing, revising, and reading, not to mention exploring the breathtaking south coast of this fairy tale island. Instead of trying to share it all, I’ll keep this short and sweet. 


Found in the stream at the end of the dirt path I walk most afternoons.


It’s cloudy today, but yesterday it was clear-skied. My husband and I drove the countryside stopping for a late lunch and then onto Vík.


The countryside along Þjóðvegur.


Driving back to Laugarvatn, we saw two waterfalls. First was the enchanting Skógafoss.




Gullfoss, the second waterfall we experienced, was an absolute wonder. I think my husband summed it up well when he said, “I feel like my soul is too big for my body.”


Gullfoss. Photo: Will Hattman


I’ve felt it too, at Gullfoss especially, but also during the quiet times—walking a dirt path to the stream in the afternoons, or when my husband reads me Raymond Carver poems in bed, or when a new story just flows because I have the time and energy to catch it, or having finally finished a full draft of a manuscript that I’ve been laboring over for a year—it has been sublime. I almost feel undeserving. 


The beautiful built environments of Iceland, or me going crazy trying to organize fragments of a personal essay?


Almost. Then, I remember applying for the residency a year ago (see Entropy as a good resource on writing residencies), teaching extra classes to afford the trip, writing the proposal for professional development funds, and so on. It is no easy thing to try to convince people (let alone yourself) that your project is the one worthy of support. But, I understand why it’s done and at some point in the process, little by little, I have started to feel more confident in what I’m trying to accomplish. 


Icelandic writers to read.


I started writing this entry this morning, but wanted to wait until evening to write the final paragraph. Now, it is 7:45 PM. It will take the sky three and a half more hours to darken. I can hear the other people in the studio collaborating and I feel grateful to be in this communal space with such talented, hard-working artists. There’s a line that I keep coming back to from the poem “Gaze” in Famia Nkansa’s chapbook, Sabbatical, that goes, “The best / dreams / are the / small ones, the sort one / sieves with / busy hands.” I love this idea that our dreams are made up of these small, everyday tasks—something that you can work on and towards, little by little, everyday. 


The black sands of Vík



First Week at Gullkistan Artist Residency


Gullkistan Entrance

Sunday afternoon. It’s relaxing in the studio today and I am relieved. I’ve been busy writing, reading, meeting new people, and teaching at Gullkistan Center for Creativity in Laugarvatn, Iceland. Gullkistan means “chest of gold.” The Center is named after the structure in the mountain that looks like a chest (see photo; see also the art on Gullkistan’s entrance). The name is fitting for this magical place. 

Chest of Gold

Currently, I am sharing the studio space with four other artists—Anna (a visual artist from Finland), Sylvie (a visual artist from France), Sae (a Korean-American painter), and Sheila (an American nonfiction writer).

L to R: Anna, me, Sylvie, and Sae

I have been spending my days writing with the goal of revising two manuscripts and writing 31 flash fiction pieces (one for each day in August). 10 down, 21 to go. I get up early in the morning to this view from the kitchen, make coffee, and spend the day writing and reading, watching the great Hekla volcano in the distance.


Kitchen view

Hekla Volcano

Though I have enjoyed my writing and reading routine, I think the writing workshop that I led on Saturday has been the highlight so far. I regret that I didn’t take a photo of the nine lovely participants. It was a one-hour crash course on flash fiction with a short break and then two hours to write and share. Those who participated were not all Icelanders. We had several visitors from Vienna, one person who recently moved from Denmark, and one person from Norway. I was reassured that leading the workshop in English would be fine, but I could see early on that there were some language barriers. Thankfully, Jón, the person who helped me organize and advertise for the workshops, helped to translate. Everyone was so kind and creative and excited to learn about flash fiction. When it came to writing stories, we all figured it would be best for people to choose which language they would prefer to write, hopeful that with our group we would find a way to translate for each other—and we did!


From the Flash Fiction Workshop

Writing is so solitary, and even when you get a chance to publish your work with others, it feels so removed. Having the opportunity to write together and share our messy, stories-of-the-moment had a more communal feel to it which was beautiful and invigorating.  At the end of the workshop, I was asked by one of the participants to lead a similar workshop at the local school and was invited to dinner by two of the locals, so I will take that as an indicator that it was a success. I was grateful to be welcomed into this community and to meet so many wonderful people.

In the workshop, we talked about how the Icelandic word for home comes from the same root word as worldheim and heimurinn. The Icelandic poet Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir said that: “it means that everywhere is our home and it also means that we are all made of such stuff as our dreams.” 

Laugarvatn Lake

New Blue

Ring: old, borrowed, and blue.

Recently, I attended a short class on memoir led by Scott Korb. Our assignment was to bring objects that were old, borrowed, and blue (Scott provided us with the ‘something new’). The class was mostly generative, but before we started writing we talked about how each person’s individual consciousness shapes their particular voice.

In retrospect, I found it freeing to write a personal essay that focused on specific objects. I learned to give myself over to the thing outside of myself. I followed the threads, allowing for chance comparisons to arise, and trusted that the connections would reveal themselves.

I appreciated that we wrote these pieces in a different order than the wedding rhyme from which this writing prompt is referencing. Below is what I wrote, unedited. I like the idea that this piece will live as a relic of the class.


The ring was passed down to her from another person, I know not who. It is old, though, aged in the way that only items passed down can be. It reminds me of the rings passed down in my family—the ones my great-grandmother made with her bare hands. But this ring is not of my family. It may or may not be my friend’s great grandmother’s ring, I do not know. I can see that it is old because the silver is tarnished. The teeth that grip the blue stone, sunken. I imagine this ring has known many hands, hands that are now of the earth.


These hands that are now of the earth ask after the ring. They ask my friend to pass it down as a type of remembrance. But my friend does not pass down, not today. She slips me the ring—she passes along, passes over. Her sharing is not a type of preserving, but a conversation. With an open palm, she says: “Here, take this.”

New: Post card provided by Scott.


In class, I study a post card. It is a photo of the Aging Cellars at Olympia Brewing Company. There are two rows of white tanks and two long, white hoses that snake over a shiny brick floor. Halogen lights and a grey door in the distance. Half-way down the line, a man, dressed in all white, holds a clipboard and examines a tank. He makes note of what he sees.


My friend has just told me that she can’t hold it all—her many selves and the many people for whom she cares. She cannot store it. I take note. I sit next to her and give her my hand, drawn up from the earth. I say that I love her, but I’m late for a class, and I still need to find items that are old, borrowed, and blue. She slips the ring from her hand and says: “Here. Take this.”