I’ve Been to Hellnar and Back

A year ago I was in Iceland with a torn-but-healing (but still painful) Achilles tendon, the side-effect of taking the sinister and evil antibiotic, Cipro. The house where my friend and I were staying was nice, but, for me, problematic. It was in the town of Hellnar on the Snæfellsnes peninsula at the foot of the Snæfellsnesjokul, or Snæfellsnes glacier.

The only beds were up these sadistic and space-saving “Norwegian” stairs. Because of my tendon, I could not climb them.


Stairs from Hell

I slept on a makeshift bed I assembled from the lounge end of a sectional sofa and an easy chair.






The plan had been to stay in a comfy house in this national park and ride Icelandic horses and hike.

I pause for a moment of grim laughter.

I discovered I could not mount and dismount the horses and this was required if I were to ride them. I thought I’d just get on in the stable or paddock, ride around and get off when we returned. No. There was a moment when I was in the barn, standing more or less against the back wall, supposedly finding a helmet that fit, when the guide said, “We will be getting on and off the horses several times.” I looked across the crowd of Icelandic horses between me and the exit, wondering if they were as indifferent to the random movements of human beings as I had read. They were.

My friend had a nice ride. I think it was the high point of her journey.

Meanwhile, back at the house, I sat at the kitchen table, watched the sea birds and the wind, and worked on my novel.

My upbringing stood me in good stead in Hellnar. When I was a kid, if I complained, my mom usually answered me with, “You’re going to like it whether you like it or not.” 

All the while we were there, the weather was abysmal — four? Five? days of rain and sleet. The wind blew so hard that the rain “fell” at a 90 degree angle. In this midst of the gray and bleak — which I kind of liked, seeing it as an “authentic Icelandic experience,” I was inspired in a most Herzogian way and decided to make a documentary film. It’s only a minute and a half, but believe me, it seems a LOT longer…


I never saw this volcano or the glacier that covers it except from the airport in Rekjavik as we were leaving. Far, far away, glowing gold and white in the reflected sunlight, the glacier and its mountain laughed at us as we got on the plane to go home.



Voyage to Hellnar

One of the greatest benefits to me of my travel this past spring was two days of horrible weather in Hellnar, Iceland, combined with seldom being able to get my iPad to go online.

I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” I think it’s a bad idea to identify that, and worse to claim it, particularly as writing is (even for people who sell books) pretty much an elective activity, meaning people who don’t write for a living don’t have to write AT ALL and people who do, can go write something else if they find they’re stuck. Nonetheless, I’ve been stuck on the novel I started last year and didn’t know where to go. I didn’t “feel” the characters or like them very much. I wasn’t thrilled about the inevitable trajectory of their story and I couldn’t figure out who the protagonist is/was. I plugged along, but with no inspiration or interest. The only chapter I felt rang true at all was the last chapter, the chapter where their voyage to America… I’m not telling.

Yeah. I think it’s good to know where you’re going.

I had put my novel on my iPad thinking I might find inspiration during the week I spent in Switzerland. I was staying in the valley where the characters in my novels — all except Martin of Gfenn — lived. But, no…

I know some facts about the characters. They are based on my ancestors — loosely because no one really knows anything about them except the bare facts of their lives — name, birthplace, death. That’s really a lot to have already set out for you.

So, in Hellnar, while my friend realized her dream (it was mine, too, but there was no way it was going to happen then or there) of riding Icelandic Horses, I sat at a table beside one of the pretty windows in the pretty cottage on the dramatic peninsula with the fabulous (hidden by fog; see photo above) glacier covered volcanic cone, the very volcano Jules Verne had chosen as the entry point in his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. 

Looking out on the bleak landscape, at the wet and wind-blown clothespins and the futile clothesline, I thought of the widescreen TV up the sadistic stairs/ladder that I could not climb, and I found the whole situation hilariously funny. At that point I opened the file on my iPad and wrote.

There was nothing else to do. 


The thing about writing — art? is that sometimes it’s like a mad infatuation; sometimes it’s slogging through a boring Sunday with someone who (for the moment) sets your teeth on edge; sometimes you need couple’s counseling. I have thought a lot about being a writer and how that’s gone for me. If success means being commercially published and putting out one bestseller after another, I’m no success. If success means doing your best at what you do and not giving up and giving a few people pleasure when they read your novels, I’m a star. 🙂  I started very young — I couldn’t even read when I started writing stories. I scribbled and my dad read. I don’t know why I did that; I think because they read to me a lot and I enjoyed it, I got the idea early that writing a story was a very exciting thing to do.

I wrote a lot of things — poetry, editorials, articles, memoirs — some of it got published and some of it won prizes and one bit got me kicked out of school. In my late 20s, I spent happy snowy Saturdays working on a “novel” which now people would call “creative non-fiction.” I still plug away at that thing. I still love it. Then for a while I essentially transcribed my life; I wrote conversations I had had with people and cut out everything around them to bring the story out of the conversation, like a line drawing in which some of the lines are just implied. I recently found the notebook containing all those “stories” and there are 200 pages in there. I wrote my thoughts, my questions; I kept journals.

At one point in my life — in my 20s — my mom said, “You’re a good writer, but you don’t have a story yet.” It took a long time for me to find “my” story.

To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquility, as if eternity lay before them. Rilke

I’m happy that now this story is coming along. It’s become fun to write.