The Smell of Elephant Poo (ZR)

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Zoë Robert's picture

“And so I sat on Chicago’s beach and watched the lake. Truly, there is no blue like the blue of Lake Michigan. It is the blue of Navajo turquoise and Norwegian glaciers and that Kool-Aid color you never buy. It is a calming color, and after my frenetic trip from the airport, I was glad for some quiet time by the lake. Above me, a squiggle of white cloud showed off the intensity of the royal sky. A lone fisherman pulled on his line.” 

As National Geographic Traveler’s digital nomad, Andrew Evans is pretty good at creating a sense of place in his writing. The above is an extract from a blog post from his trip to Chicago earlier this year.

In April, I had the chance to attend his workshop ‘The Smell of Elephant Poo: Creating a Strong Sense of Place’ at the inaugural Iceland Writers Retreat, a five-day event featuring small workshops and panels by renowned authors, focusing on the art and craft of writing. 

Organizer Eliza Reid, a Reykjavík-based journalist and former Iceland Review staff writer, had invited me to attend one of the retreat’s workshops. Choosing just one wasn’t easy.

Among the program’s other offerings were ‘Building Better Sentences’ and ‘Learning to Look and Listen’ with New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, ‘The Distance Traveled: From Journalist to Novelist’ with Pulitzer Prize winning Australian Geraldine Brooks, ‘Finding the Story’ and ‘Dialogue in Travel Writing and other Non-Fiction’ with acclaimed travel writer Sarah Wheeler, ‘Nostalgia’ with Man Booker Prize nominee James Scudamore and ‘Have Pen, Will Travel: The Unexpected Adventure of Writing,’ also with Evans.

Although I think I would have needed to attend more than one session to get a proper sense of the Retreat, Evans’ workshop didn’t disappoint and left me thinking that I should have signed up for the entire five days.

Our first exercise was to close our eyes and let our thoughts drift to our favorite place—be it our backyard garden, a deserted beach or our car. After a minute or two it was time to jot down a description, encompassing the visual as well as the scent, sound, taste or feel of the place. Then we were asked to share and give feedback, with Evans reiterating that the workshop was a “safe space” in which participants should feel comfortable to read our their work.

What followed was a series of other examples, tips (his advice is simple: create a stage, learn your colors, make every word count), exercises and feedback. As a side note, I never did find out what elephant poo smells like.

Considered a great success, The Iceland Writers Retreat is back again next year with Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go and one of Granta’s ‘20 Best Young British Writers,’ Adam Gopnik from the New Yorker, Man Booker nominee Alison Pick and Icelandic award-winning author Sjón already having signed up. 

Zoë Robert - zoe@icelandreview.com 

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.