Writing Home: Part 1

0On my sabbatical this spring, I did just what I planned to do in March.  I wrote each day, painted and learned to sail.

But April was a month of surprise and took me to a place I never expected – to Iceland on a Writer’s Retreat.  I arrived four days before the retreat, rented a car, drove through the countryside, and stayed at farmhouses.

And yes, got lost.  Lost many times physically and emotionally.   And in the1282a1 process of finding my way,  discovered so much.

Writing is an important way for me to find my way through challenging experiences.  The advice I learned from my teachers on the retreat, some of the simple wisdom I needed to take the next step in writing.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll share some of my story of what happened in Iceland, and what I learned about finding the way from lost to home.

Lost in Iceland:  Part 1

1 (2)

 Here I am: 6:30 a.m., just off the all-night flight from Seattle to Reykjavik and trying to find my way out of the rental car parking lot.

I follow the little white arrows around the lot that lead me to a little yellow gate with a little yellow box to insert a ticket that I do not have.


This is not what I’m looking for.  There must be another way.

I’m looking for a middle aged Icelandic woman with black hair and a tired expression sitting on a stool in a little glass booth, who will slide open a little window and ask for my “zcarbon zcopy of my zrental zreceipt from zAvis.”  I will hand her my little pink receipt and ask her how to get to downtown Reykjavik.  She will tell me to “zturn zright” and say she “zhopes zI zhave a zgood ztrip.”

Since my imagined Icelandic woman in the little ticket booth is not here, I lurch into reverse.  “Oh yeah, it’s a stick shift”, I remember again, put in the clutch, and follow the little white arrows around and around the parking lot that take me back one more time to the little yellow gate and no way out.


Last month I saw a bright red postcard with a photograph of a black rocky cliff streaked with snow, and words in glacier white, “Icelandic Writers Retreat”.   “Iceland” or a “writer’s retreat” was not on any bucket-list I’d ever had.  But when I saw that little postcard, I wasn’t sure why, but I knew I wanted to be there.


I spent the next week telling everyone who would listen how I really didn’t need to go to Reykjavik to write.  “I just like the music of, ‘I want to write in Reykjavik,'” I explained.  “But I really don’t need to go to Reykjavik to write. ‘Reykjavik’ is just a good metaphor for what I can find here.”

38cAfter talking so much about what I didn’t need to do, I finally heard what I indeed did.  On the last day to register, I found the website, signed up for the retreat and pushed “send”.  All of which seems to have sent me to a parking lot with no way out.

“The place of not-knowing is where all good writing begins”, James Scudamore, one of our teachers at the writing retreat, tells us.  “That’s why I keep my office in a constant state of flux.  Move my desk from one side of the room to the other.  Rearrange the pictures on the wall. Write sitting down, standing up, lying down.  Anything to keep it mixed up.”

805At this point, I wish I’d stuck with re-arranging my office.

Not whoever this “me” was that thought this was a good idea.

Yesterday, my bed piled with rolled winter clothes, plastic quart-sized bags of travel toiletries, and socks stuffed in sneakers, I would have given anything to have stayed home.


Susan Orlean, another teacher, intentionally seeks out new experiences as the way to find her way into writing.

“You need to become a student again in order to write.  Be willing to not know.  In the discovery, the learning, that’s where good writing begins.”

If that’s so, I’m in a perfect place.  Stuck in a parking lot in Iceland.  My life drained this past year of most everything that it used to be and that I depended on for stability – the end of a 28 year relationship with my partner and best friend.  My home now a rented room in somebody else’s house.  An aloneness I’ve never experienced before.

“And vivid description is what propels good writing,” Susan adds.


I wonder if I write all the more descriptively about “the barren brown flat expanse around me, the gray rolling clouds, the cold breeze from glaciers hidden in the fog”, will it help me get out of this parking lot and on my way?


“And details.  Details matter,” historical fiction writer, Geraldine Brooks reminds us.

I hate details.  Which is probably why I didn’t notice until now that on the little yellow box by the gate is a button with a “?”.


I push the button.  Something buzzes.  Buzzes again.


“Hello!  I’m here at the little yellow gate by the little yellow box in the rental car parking lot and I don’t know how to get out.”

“Zyou zdon’t zhave a zticket?”

“Zno.  I was never given one.”

“Hmm.  ZI zwill zbe zright zthere.”

As I sit waiting without my little white ticket in hand, I wonder what other things I didn’t come with.  How about some credentials to start with?  Who am I kidding?  Me, a writer?  I like to write but I’ve never published anything except years ago a couple of short pieces in magazines that no one has ever heard of.  And what was that on the packing list about “Icelandic business attire”?  What’s that?   Designer hiking boots and a down parka?


I can’t believe I didn’t even come with a guidebook or glance at one before I left.  Instead, I read two Icelandic novels and a book of poetry.  What was I thinking?  What am I doing here?


The man in the little yellow box calls back and says he will let me out without the little white ticket I was supposed to have.  The gate rises.


Peter Ilgenfritz



One thought on “Writing Home: Part 1”

  1. Peter, kudos on allowing–and even inviting–your life to be turned upside down. Your post is inspiring for all of us. Sometimes I don’t even know how I feel or what I think about something until I start writing about it!
    And I hear you about being lost in a foreign country! Writing is saving me.
    Carry on, my friend.


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