Painting Iceland

Icelandic View by Judy DarleyIf you know me, or if you’re a regular visit to SkyLightRain.com, you’re probably aware that my obsession with art is growing increasingly consuming. I’ve even begun creating artworks of my own, attempting to capture my responses to the views around me.

My trip to Iceland earlier this month was particularly rich in visual fuel – snow, skies, rocks and unfamiliar textures abounded. I came home with a headful of impressions, and rather than simply translate these into words, as I usually do, I have made efforts to churn some of it out in the form of art.

After carrying out a few sketches, and watching a wonderful ‘wet-on-wet’ Windsor & Newton watercolour masterclass, this is what I came up with.

It’s not quite what I see in my head, but it’s far closer than I expected to get, which makes me very happy.

Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2017 Short Story Competition

Beautiful skies, Victoria Park cr Judy DarleyThis annual competition is one of my favourites on the literary calendar, and well worth entering. Unlike previous years, there’s no theme for you to base your story on – all you have to do is make sure you’re registered with the website www.writersandartists.co.uk, that the subject line of your email reads ‘W&A Short Story Competition 2017‘ and that you send it to competition@bloomsbury.com.

Your story must be no more than 2,000 words long. The closing date for entries is midnight on Monday 13th February, 2017.

Entry is free, but don’t forget to register before submitting your story. Continue reading

Reykjavik 10 Top Experiences

Reykjavik waterfront photo by Judy DarleyWhen better to visit Iceland than in January? Limited daylight hours, freezing conditions and plenty of snow make for an otherworldly adventure. The city is full of hipster cafes, galleries, bookstores and record shops (including the famous 12 Tónar), while the surrounding countryside is elemental like nowhere else I’ve encountered.

Here are my top ten recommendations for Reykjavik.

1 Seek out some culture

The Culture House Reykjavik photo by Judy Darley

Capital city Reykjavik is a cultural hotspot, with museums and galleries galore, including philosophically enriching and aptly named The Culture House, (shown above) where we spent a morning exploring some of the elements that make up the Icelandic outlook.

The elegant building at Hverfisgata 15, 101 Reykjavík was built between 1906 and 1908 to house the national library and archives and still has a decidedly academic air.

Fishes of the Sea and me photo by Judy DarleyThe exhibition Points of View covers a breadth of aspects of local culture and history, with artwork and artefacts, including a room dedicated to the extinction of the Great Auk, and including a taxidermy of the bird purchased at auction in London using public fundraising at the same cost as a three-bedroom apartment.

I particularly liked the probing questions for children (but equally engaging for adults), inviting you to consider your responses to different things. And this painting, Fishes of the Sea by Helgi Þorgils Friðjónsson, made me smile.

Entry costs 1.200 ISK but is free for under 18s or with the Reykjavik City Card.

2 Head to the penis museum

The Icelandic Phallological Museum photo by Judy Darley

The Icelandic Phallological Museum contains an abundance of willies, mostly harvested from sea creatures such as whales, walruses and dolphins, plus a fine selection from birds and land mammals including a growing number of human specimens. Look out for the one from “a rogue polar bear” (guess that showed him!) and 23 intriguing folklore specimens. There are also lovingly shaped sculptures and homewares such as lamps and “artistic oddments”, plus jewellery made using teeny delicate penis bones that were truly exquisite. Good for a giggle as well as, um, eye-opening.

Find the Icelandic Philological Museum at Laugavegur 116, 105 Reykjavik. Entry costs 1500 ISK for adults. Children under 13 years old in company of parents are free.

3 Gaze on the crater

Kerid Crater, Iceland photo by Judy Darley

There are plenty of trips heading out of the city to take in Iceland’s dramatic countryside. Our first stop on the Golden Circle Tour was Kerið, a 55m-deep volcanic crater about 3,000 years old. In summer it is filled with topaz-blue water; in winter, when we were there, it is iced over and filled with the sense of ghosts. Or maybe that was just the snow-storm weaving about us.

4 Sample skyr and whey

Skyr and whey photo by Judy Darley

You’ll see skyr advertised all over Reykjavik. A protein-rich, calcium-packed yoghurt, it’s a tart, healthy snack that the Icelanders are crazy about. It was a staple long before ice cream made it to these shores, and is best served with a shot of whey.

We were served ours at a farm where the owner was lamenting her children’s preference for pizza over boiled sheep’s head, and our group’s feelings about skyr and whey was equally conflicted. Personally I found it invigoratingly sharp in flavour. I’m pretty sure that this is what Miss Muffet was really tucking into when that big ol’ spider sat down beside her, but at the time we were in Iceland there were no arachnids to be found, scared off by the chilly weather.

5 Respect the supernatural

Iceland National Park photo by Judy Darley

There’s a strong belief in elves, trolls and other creatures in Iceland – as our guide to the Golden Circle says, “10% believe, 10% don’t believe and 80% haven’t made their minds up either way but don’t want to risk upsetting them.”

The road we were on weaved rather more than necessary to avoid destroying three elven churches, while one field on the farm we visited is left unploughed so as not to upset the little folk. The rocks shown above are in the National Park and at certain angles in certain lights you can see the faces of trolls unlucky enough to still be outside when the sun rose and turned them to stone.

6 Feed carniverous horses

Icelandic horses photo by Judy Darley

These hardy little horses (don’t you dare call them ponies in front of an Icelander!) spend all winter outside and have long hairy coats to keep them from freezing. Legend has it that they’re extra small just like the local sheep because the vikings who brought them needed as much space as possible on their ships for wine.

Our tour guide had brought bread for us to feed them, and the moment they saw us their noses began waggling. Things got a bit rowdy as one made a lunge forwards and took my shoulder, then my wrist, in its jaws in search of treats. It’s possible he was ravenous rather than carnivorous, but I’m just glad I was wearing so much clothing! The horse on the left was the leader for this particular herd, hence his prime feeding position. They put up with a bit of petting, but really it’s all about the food, and with temperatures so low and no fresh grass to munch on, who can blame them?

7 Witness the geyser

Strokkur geyser, Iceland photo by Judy Darley

This was one of my favourite stops on our Golden Circle tour. Geysir, the famous phenomenon from which every geyser worldwide takes its name, is somewhat sleepy these days, erupting only every eight hours or so, and instead we visited his sibling, the far more active Strokkur.

From the carpark we strolled along paths surrounded by snow and geothermal springs, with vegetation flourishing in an abundance of vivid colours around boiling mud pools. Ahead we could see people gathering, and we upped our pace to join them as the geyser bubbled thoughtfully for a moment or two before leaping skywards and subsiding.

We were told that it would erupt every five to eight minutes, but the reality was more like three, so we stayed to watch it happen once more – in truth I could have remained for half an hour watching this spectacle! The best moment is when the water begins to heave as though some huge creature is ascending from the depths, and you know the drama is about to uncoil.

8 Admire the waterfalls

Gullfoss Falls Iceland photo by Judy Darley

Fissures in Iceland’s landmass allow for rivers to pour down in immense crescendoes. The most renowned is Gullfoss, Golden Falls, on the glacial river Hvítá. The roar of them, coupled with the glory of all that water thrashing down a 32-metre deep crevice almost numbs the senses. To grasp the scale of it, notice the tiny figures on the left of the picture above.

9 Take a dip in a thermal pool

Judy in the thermal baths, Reykjavik Iceland 2017 photo by Kirsten Darley

Of course, there are the famous ones (which shall not be named here), but these are really pricey and the only patronised by tourists. Instead, I recommend making like a local and heading to the city’s many thermal pools, which are wonderful. We opted for Sundhöllin, which was just a few minute’s walk from Hallgrímskirkja church and features a large, very deep pool, a sauna and two open air hot pools, one at 39°C and one at 42°C.

My lovely cousin Kirsten took this pic of me at Sundhöllin. We swam, lounged and quietly cooked in the steaming waters as snowflakes drifting from above while the locals met for their daily dip and chat. Lovely. In fact, it suited us so well, we returned the very next afternoon.

10 Ascend the tower

Hallgrímskirkja church, Reykjavik photo by Judy Darley

You can’t miss Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran (Church of Iceland) parish church, because at 73 metres high, it’s the tallest man-madestructure in the city. On the day we visited they’d closed the church for the morning to fit new carpets, making this one of the comfiest churches I’ve strolled through. The interior is all clean lines and glowing light, but the tower is the real attraction.

We were fortunate to ascend (via lift – so civilised) when not too many people were there, and had a pleasant time discovering the outstanding city views from little windows all around the top, just above the clock. Once we’d drunk in our fill of the sites, we travelled back down, and found a queue of people waiting to take our place.

And that’s the trick with Iceland – tourism is growing increasingly vital to their economy, but much of this wilderness is best experienced with as few people as possible. See out the pastimes the locals enjoy and, with care, tread away from the most beaten paths, and who knows what wonders you will discover?

Reykjavik from Hallgrimskirkja church photo by Judy Darley

Discover more about Reykjavik at www.visitreykjavik.is.

Find full details and buy the Reykjavik City Card.

Discover Bilbao.
Discover Brescia.
Discover Budapest.
Discover Bath.
Discover Barcelona.
Discover Laugharne.

Writing prompt – close encounter

Westonbirt close encounter cr Judy DarleyI took this photo at Westonbirt Arboretum‘s Winter Wonderland. What an exquisite display of light and shadow. To me it resembles the moment in a movie or sci-fi show when the characters spy something unearthly in the woods.

What might be happening here? Could it be an alien encounter, or something far more inexplicable?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Reykjavik street art

Reykjavik street art_Elle with Ulfur Ulfur, photo by Judy DarleyResiding in Bristol, I’m an ardent admirer of street art, providing it’s done well. A recent visit to Reykjavik revealed the capital of Iceland to be riddled with the stuff – and rather fabulous it is too.

Much of the best of it appears on Laugavegur, one of the city’s oldest shopping streets. My favourite was the one above, of the wolf family, but this squiggly fellow below on another street took my fancy too.

Reykjavik street art photo by James Hainsworth

According to the excellent website www.iheartreykjavik.net, the artwork below is titled Caratoes and Ylja, inspired by the song Óður til móður by Ylja. Much of it seems to be inspired by local folklore – well worth a gander!

Reykjavik street art Caratoes and Ylja photo by Judy Darley

If you happen upon this beautiful city, I recommend you wind your way through the central network of roads, looking out for the exceptional street art for a taste of the locals’ wild side.

I’ll be posting a full travel feature about this amazing trip on Thursday. In the meantime, find out more at www.visitreykjavik.is

Submit to The Mechanics’ Institute

London Millennium Footbridge by Judy DarleyThe Mechanics’ Institute Review (MIR), Birkbeck, University of London’s annual short story anthology, is inviting submissions for its next issue from writers across the UK.

MIR is a literary print and ebook publication that champions the short story as an art form, promoting diversity and opportunity for all while publishing new work of the highest possible standard. With Issue 14, thanks to funding from Arts Council England, MIR widening its reach to find and develop talent from throughout the country.

They’re seeking unpublished short stories of up to 6,000 words from both new and established authors. The deadline for submission is midnight on Friday 10 February 2017.

The publication date is September 2017.

Submission Guidelines

  • Send short stories of up to 6,000 words. Flash fiction is welcome – there is no minimum word limit. While the upper limit is 6,000 words, be aware that space is limited; the longer the stories, the lower the overall number that can be included.
  • You may submit once per issue. If you are submitting only flash fiction to an issue, your submission may comprise one, two or three (the maximum) flash-fiction pieces, to a combined total per issue of 2,250 words.
  • The work must be previously unpublished. If you are submitting it elsewhere at the same time as to MIR and it is accepted by a publication with an issue date earlier than September 2017, please let MIR know immediately by emailing editor@mironline.org.
  • Any UK resident is eligible to submit.

Find full details and submit by midnight on Friday 10 February 2017 at mironline.org/mir14-call-for-submissions/

Exercise your creativity

Arnos Vale sky by Judy DarleyIn today’s guest post, writer Nina Wells urges us to get up off our backsides and dash out into the world to beat writer’s block.

Every author from Stephen King to Dan Brown has come nose-to-nose with writer’s block at some point in their career. Even casual writers know the frustration all too well; staring at a blank computer screen, feeling hopeless in progressing their work…

Susan Reynolds from Psychology Today explains that writer’s block is only a phenomenon that has existed since the early 19th century, where it was described by English Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as “indefinite indescribable horror.” Writers at the time believed it to be a reflection of a poor relationship with their deities. They literally felt cursed to struggle in their work.

While that explanation might be a bit outdated, people still struggle with writer’s block today. What’s an aspiring author to do? Sure, we could become caricatures of historical writers by turning to drugs and alcohol for encouragement, but what if you could get your fix of chemical-inspiration without the theatrics?

Reynolds explains that writer’s block is a result of mental exertion because of the immense amount of focus required to write for long periods of time, and that even simple activities like mowing the lawn or showering can help give writers’ a much-needed breakthrough. So, taking breaks to relax can help clear up writer’s block, but what else can be done to stimulate ideas?

Arnos Vale path by Judy Darley

For years, experts around the world have praised exercise as a means of mental stimulation, but just how much can your noggin benefit from working up a sweat?

When you exercise, your brain produces chemicals called endorphins, which provide relief from pain and boost a sense of contentment- colloquially referred to as the “runner’s high.” WebMD reports that regular exercise has been proven to: reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, improve self-esteem, and make you healthier all-around.

But what does this have to do with writer’s block?

A study from the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience has shown that regular exercise boosts creativity by improving “convergent” and “divergent” thought processes, which are responsible for creative thinking. Convergent thinking can be defined as thinking of a single, “correct” solution for a proposed issue, while divergent thinking is the ability to think of multiple solutions for a single problem.

In their study, researchers tested the convergent and divergent task-completing abilities of two groups of people; 48 being athletes, and another forty-eight being non-athletes. Both groups were subject to “intense physical exercise,” which yielded some interesting information.

As it turns out, the non-athlete group showed convergent impairment with exercise, while the athletic group showed “a benefit that approached significance.” According to the researchers, this is because the less-active group experienced a greater amount of “ego-depletion”, or in other words, they used up all of their will-power on the exertion. Meanwhile, the athletic group can capitalise on the cognitive benefits because their bodies are already accustomed to the exercise.

Arnos Vale leafy path by Judy Darley

Chapter four of the book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write by Alice Weaver Flaherty goes into detail discussing the neuroscientific reasons that people struggle with their writing. Flaherty breaks writer’s block into two groups: low-energy and high-energy. The former is pronounced by symptoms of depression and lethargy, while the latter is likened to anxiety.

According to Flaherty, depressed, low-energy writers who become sedentary to save energy, or anxious, high-energy writers turn to caffeine or other stimulants to stay on-task are both exacerbating their problems.

Both of these groups, however, benefit from regular physical activity. The endorphins that are released don’t only have an effect on your current mood, but also have the potential to treat long-term issues that can affect your entire outlook on life.

In short:

  • Writer’s block can emerge for a few reasons (all of which relate to your brain’s chemical processes)
  • Exercise and creative (convergent and divergent) thinking go hand-in-hand.
  • Writer’s block can be divided into two groups: high-energy and low-energy (anxious and depressed)
  • Regular exercise will help in both the short and the long term by activating endorphins, sparking creative thought processes, and giving relief from the paralyzing symptoms of depression and anxiety

Whether you write novels or blog posts, regular exercise will not only help you conquer writer’s block when it appears, but will also help you stay happier and healthier in general. Maybe now’s a good time to start running with a notepad, eh?

About the author

Nina WellsThis article was written by Nina Wells from Clearwells. She has more than 10 years of experience in writing health related topics and specializes in the health benefits of saunas and hydrotherapy.

I welcome guest posts. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find me on Twitter @JudyDarley, or send me an email at judy(at)SocketCreative.com

Writing prompt – moth

Atlas Moth at National Botanic Garden of Wales cr Judy DarleyI encountered this rather exceptional Atlas Moth in the Butterfly House at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. It’s not only his snakehead markings on each wing that are impressive. This beauty is the female, with a wingspan of more than 25cm (9.8in).

I asked a horticulturalist what they eat, and he told me they don’t. After metamorphosis they’re re-born without mouthparts, with their only motivator the drive to mate and reproduce in their five-day lifespan.

January seems the perfect time for a metamorphic tale. This week imagine your protagonist has been a joyful glutton, feasting their way through their youth until strange urge to tuck up and sleep takes them over. After a series of strange and painful dreams they wake to find themselves transformed, sans mouth and an overwhelming desire to fly, seduce and procreate.

Not a bad premise for a Kafka-esque nightmare!

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

This week I’m reading…

Christmas 2016 haul by Judy DarleyI got a rather excellent haul of books this Christmas, including Kate Atkinson’s beautiful companion book to Life After Life, A God in Ruins, and Rainbow Rowell’s gritty nostalgic Eleanor and Park.

The latter of these I devoured in less than a week, the former I’m mid-way through, but being away this week (in Iceland) I opted to bring the three slimmer volumes with me – The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (thanks, Emerald Street, for the suggestion), Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, and Tales from Nowhere (Lonely Planet Travel Literature).

So far, each is providing me with moments of magic, immersion and intrigue, and each could not be more different from the others. The perfect travel reads.

What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Flash Frontier wants your flash fiction

MINE grotto skylightFlash Frontier is a marvellous online journal of short fiction. Every month the editors invite submissions on a particular theme designed to get your creative nodes firing.  You can, as they say, “use the theme in any way you desire. Follow it as closely or broadly as you desire – the only stipulation is that your tale should “evoke the idea.”

Previous themes have included Science and Sky (my story Altitude appeared in the latter, along with some wonderful pieces from other writers.

The current call for submissions is for the February issue, and is on the theme Remnants. The deadline is January 31st 2017.

Now the important stuff. Your story must be no more than 250 words in length. This is crucial: 251 words will disqualify you.

Submissions are due by the last day of the month for the following month’s issue. Each issue will appear mid-month.

For full guidelines, themes and to read previous issues, visit www.flash-frontier.com.