This summer marks 10 years since my sister and I went on an epic backpacking journey on the Ring Road of Iceland. We carried with us only the essentials which included camping gear, winter coats, hiking boots, bathing suits, travel journals, and the allotted 6kg of food per person as we’d been warned about astronomical prices at the grocery store. On our quintessential coming-of-age sister adventure, we also brought with us our hopes and dreams for the future.
Our visit to the land of fire and ice was well timed. We arrived in the capital of Reykjavik at its warmest and brightest – the average daily temperature reached a high of 45 degrees Fahrenheit and the sunset at 11:30pm and rose at 1am. Though it got downright blustery at times, we were amazed at just how lush and green the summer landscape could be under such conditions – especially at the Akureyri botanical garden, which sits just below the Arctic circle.
Every town we stopped in had a local “hot pot” or public pool system fed by geothermal springs, which helped take the bite off of particularly chilly days. Our favorite was the misty Blue Lagoon.
“Saga” is the Icelandic word for a long, descriptive story, and it’s been said that ten percent of modern Icelanders will publish a book in his or her lifetime. As a writer with aspirations of honing my writing hobby/compulsion into a well-practiced craft, marketable art, and career, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Þjóðmeningarhúsid, a museum displaying original text from sagas and Icelandic settlement records from the time of the Viking colonization of the island. I felt an instant kinship with the Icelanders who throughout the centuries detailed their lives, their land, and their stories. I was amazed to see a tiny folded up “book of spells”, which in ancient times women would clench with their bent knees during childbirth. Some years later I wasn’t surprised to find a BBC article quoting the common Icelandic proverb: ad ganga med bok I magnum or “everyone gives birth to a book”.
As we ventured on a bus around the Ring Road with other tourists stopping at hostels along the way, I marveled at the wild landscapes – stark mountains, arctic desert moonscapes, grassy green meadows, glaciers, and black sand beaches. Moby and Björk provided the perfect soundtrack to take in this enchantingly bewildering world roughly the size of Ohio and home to just 300,000 souls. Every so often along the Ring Road there was a “cairn” – a pile of rocks, some of them ancient, which according to one travel book were used as path markers across the mist in olden times. Other sources claimed that the ancient Icelanders used cairns to mark the tombs of witches and that to add a rock to the pile was to help keep the evil spirits from floating up from the ground (like the other scary things prone to burst from the Icelandic landscape like lava and geysers, I presume).
I could see how such a world would lend itself to never-ending inspiration for storytelling of sagas and myths. I also imagined how storytelling must have been as essential as food and shelter for surviving the driving ice storms and days with only 4 hours of light with one’s family in the middle of Icelandic winter.
Iceland is on my mind today because this weekend I will travel to New York City to attend the annual Writer’s Digest Conference and pitch my own fictional family saga during a pitch fest. In preparing for this conference and condensing my 90,000 word manuscript into a single sentence “log line”, I had to dig deeply into my creativity process and ultimately, my soul. These past few months I’ve hunkered down (not unlike an Icelander in the winter, I imagine) to be alone with my characters and create a contemplative space for refining my plot, strengthening my subplots, and incorporating the suggestions of my editor and beta readers. Writing can often be a lonely endeavor and is about the closest thing to the opposite of instant gratification that I can imagine. But I am just not complete if I’m not writing. My heart has always been at the core of my words on the page, and I am determined to keep writing and expressing what I imagine, feel, see, and know until I get it right. To harken back to my glimpse into the psyche of a culture where “one in ten people will publish a book” gives me the sense that I am not alone in my quest and the validation that storytelling is a most worthy art that is timeless, universal, and essential to who we all are.