Swimming Through Writer’s Block at an Icelandic Public Pool
Amanda Whiting on a Residency in the Town of Laugarvatn
The middle of nowhere is as seductive a destination as any when you’re lost. I spent a wintry October in Laugarvatn in the south of Iceland, a map dot so small and seemingly inconsequential that you might mistake it for a speck of dust on the screen of your iPhone. The town of 200 is tethered to Reykjavik by a yellow public bus that runs just once a day, meaning you can’t both travel to the city and come home on the same day. There’s no grocery store in Laugarvatn; there are hardly any people. Just a lake, a mountain, and the absence of nearly everything else, which is what I thought I needed.
Crucially, there was also a swimming pool.
I went to Iceland because I had become a professional writer who hated writing. Less than a year earlier, I’d landed my dream job: a full time staff writer at a magazine. But there were downsides. Suddenly, writing, which had long been a private and treasured pursuit, was overwhelmed with the pressures of a job. When a story published, I panicked. Would people read it? Would they like it? Six months in, the anxiety hit me even earlier in the writing process: Is my idea actually, secretly very stupid, and no one is telling me?
The rest is a tale as old as capitalism: I began dreading Sunday nights and alienating my husband with excessive hits of the snooze button. In morning meetings, I’d strategically place myself where I was less likely to be noticed and therefore spoken to; in the evening, I’d patiently explain to my therapist that it’s impossible that every single person who feels this way has imposter syndrome. Some of us will just turn out to be the imposters.
I was emotional and tired and uncomfortable. So when I was accepted for a month-long residency at an art center in Iceland, I fantasized that it might solve my growing problem. I’d work all day on my germ of a novel—no audience, no editors—and I’d sleep beneath the fuzzy, spectral glow of the Northern Lights. Somehow, I told myself, I’d write a way out of this miserable funk.
The short version of the story is: I didn’t. The first morning, I sat at my desk overlooking the lake where the first Icelanders were gently christened in 75 degrees Fahrenheit bathwater a thousand years ago, and recorded every single thing I could see out the window. I willed myself not to judge or change the words as I went. I felt stupid. It took about three hours.
Days—even short, dark days hugging the Arctic Circle—are deceptively long and Netflix in Iceland is cruelly limited. There were four other artists at the center, but they were busy, possibly even making art. So less than a week after I arrived, after calling my husband and watching a subtitled teen film from Norway, I unpacked my bathing suit, zipped my parka, and walked the freezing kilometer to the sundlaug.
There are two places to swim in Laugarvatn. The Fontana is a spa-like series of mineral baths set in long wooden decks on the shore of the lake, with panoramic views and a café that sells brown bread baked overnight in a hole in the hot black sand. The parking lot teems with rental cars and tour buses. A day pass costs 30 US dollars.
But behind the Fontana, outside a low, flat recreation center that any child of suburbia will recognize, sits a public pool: six lanes and 25 meters of sulphuric blue water, naturally maintained at tropical temperatures by the nearby lake. It lacks the Fontana’s cultivated tranquility, but the crowd is thinner and you can visit ten times for the same price as a Fontana day pass and a buttered slice of dug up bread. Plus, the public pool aesthetic was oddly comforting in a land where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language. The floors were covered in the same rubber mats I remembered from the pool where I frittered whole summers as a kid.
Which is not to say everything felt familiar. “You wash?” asked the teenage girl who sold me a strip of ten pool tickets. I nodded uncertainly. She pointed to a large sign taped on the wall behind her, not for lack of English, but because she was a teenager at her afterschool job, and I was an uninteresting adult—the only thing standing between her and the flirting that had been happening in the windowed lifeguard room before I interrupted. She left me to it.
Swimming pools in Iceland are only sparingly chlorinated. The sign was an outline of a sexless, featureless human body with its head, armpits, feet, and absent genitals highlighted in bright yellow. In no fewer than 5 languages, the sign read some version of: “Observe! Every guest is required to wash thoroughly without a swimsuit before entering the pools.” So far, so good. You wash? I wash.
It’s only when I stepped into the locker room that I worried I had overcommitted to the sundlaug. Where I expected to see stalls in which to privately soap up my yellow bits, there was a cinderblock room with shower heads spaced just feet apart. A woman in her sixties was doing the awkward dance of persuading a dry bathing suit up a wet body. I tried not to look, undressing myself lethargically, checking my phone which had no signal, stalling for her to leave so that I could scrub all by myself.
When the door clapped closed behind her, I took the universe’s hastiest shower, hitting all my highlighted regions with ice cold water. I did the dry-suit-wet-body boogie and was dressed just as a mob of kindergarten girls ran in.
The mountains are everywhere you look up in Iceland. Even when you are swimming in a hole in the earth, you are reminded of the volcanic explosions that made this place, that heat it still from below. As soon as Icelanders figured out how to harness geothermal heat to warm their homes, they started building pools. And they kept building them. In Washington, DC, where I’d travelled from, there’s roughly one public pool for every 20,000 people. In Iceland, there’s seven.
If culture is formed by where people go to find connection, then the pool is part of Icelandic culture—a gathering spot, like the pub or the theatre. It attracts young and old, families and friends and people who indicate they want to be left alone in the hot tub by closing their eyes and tilting their heads up to the sky. Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness—perhaps Iceland’s biggest cultural export, after Björk—wrote about life on the tiny island in the 1930s, around the same time that its first sundlaugs were built. “Thus they stood in bogs and pools, in water and in mud, the close-packed clouds about them interminable, the wet grass whistling drearily under the scythe. The scythe grew heavier and heavier, the hours refused to pass, the moments seemed to stick to them as soggily as their sodden garments…”
The sundlaug is a place to rest the scythe and blunt the cold. Once you get in, that is. In Laugarvatn, the walk from the rec center to the pool was about 25 feet. On the coldest days, in the low 30s, it took just long enough for my wet hair to freeze into matted icicles. The cold wasn’t just uncomfortable, it could hurt, like a brain freeze that starts in the body.
But if that’s the penance, here’s what absolution feels like: the delicious sensation of your body being warmed from the outside-in while floating, weightless, in pale, moody water that smells earthy and satisfying, like lighting a match.
I swam back and forth across the pool ten times. The silica made my hair hard and, even after showering, my skin was used and eggy.
The next day the muscles in my back were sore from the unfamiliar motion of reaching, pulling. Again, I wrote in the morning and walked to the pool in the afternoon. The shower was empty so I waited this time for the water to run warm. I swam 22 laps. A rhythm was building: write, sundlaug, sleep.
Apart from my hosts and the cashier at the stopgap grocery that was the gas station mini-mart, the pool was the only place I talked to Icelanders. And the only place I could really eavesdrop. The conversations were mostly in Icelandic, but I didn’t need language to see that the teenage boys were taunting each other and the daughters didn’t want to wait for their moms to be done gossiping and that the ginger-haired lifeguard was the coolest girl in the village.
A few days later, when an Australian photographer at the arts center asked if I’d like to walk down to the pool with her, I said no though I wanted to say yes. If we walked to the pool together, we’d have to undress together and shower together, or I’d have to make some excuse to avoid it. I had come to Laugarvatn to be alone with my writing the way I used to be, but, somehow, I’d packed the audience with me. Would they read it? Would they like it?
Later that evening, in darkness better suited to the dead of night, I swam farther.
It was already approaching mid-October. At the pool each day, time progressed. I’d furtively shower and change, sometimes on my own, sometimes with the elderly women with whom I now traded small nods of acknowledgement. I began to recognize the families who turned up surprisingly late for an after-dinner swim.I spent a month in Laugarvatn, a town so remote that I never figured out exactly how to say it.
One afternoon, I was showering when a pregnant woman joined me. I smiled at her in the instinctive, embarrassing way I smile at all pregnant women now that I’m in my 30s, like I’m actually smiling at a future version of myself. She smiled back. When I splashed into the pool, it occurred to me that I had never seen a naked pregnant body before and that idea felt wrong to me. That, if not for the sundlaug, the first pregnant body I might ever see would have been my own, that I was perhaps expected to get pregnant having never seen the phenomena up close.
I was swimming longer: 24 laps, 26 laps, 30 laps.
I bought a second strip of pool tickets.
Something happened across my weeks in Iceland as my days reorganized themselves; the point was not the writing but the warm slip of the pool. The writing was what I did so I could justify going to the pool. On Saturdays, the pool was closed, and these were the longest days in the bog of my work.
The photographer was using the pool regularly. I avoided her, lingering by the coat racks, finishing a podcast in the lounge. But we had swimming in common now, and it gave us more to talk about at dinner. We both hoped to grow into old ladies who cooked ourselves all afternoon in the hot tubs. We both admired the red-head and her wild, corkscrew curls.
I swam 40 laps. I swam 44. I stopped counting. My arms were always a little sore now. Not painful. More like a reminder that I’d been using them. I found myself rubbing them gently, nursing them. No, appreciating them.
I was stripping down to my yellow bits on an afternoon towards the end of my stay when a gaggle of young ballerinas swarmed in. I tried to imagine what it would have felt like to be a child staring up at the everyday, eggy body of a stranger, but they didn’t stare. I was an uninteresting adult to them, part of the backdrop of their own exciting lives. They screamed amongst themselves, comparing the beads on each other’s bracelets, hurrying into the showers. They left me to it. As I walked the crunching kilometer of snow home, I promised myself that tomorrow, if she asked, I’d walk to the pool with the photographer.
I spent a month in Laugarvatn, a town so remote that I never figured out exactly how to say it. I did not write myself out of my funk. When I got home, I was still very anxious about writing. Will they read it? Will they like it?
But in the shower room of the sundlaug, I figured out how to write through the panic: Just because people are looking at you doesn’t mean they’re judging you. Just because they’re there doesn’t mean they’re even looking. They have their own bodies to worry them, or not. They have the beads in their own bracelets to count, the weight of their own scythes.
I didn’t remember how to love writing in Iceland, but I started to be comfortable with myself again. One of the last things I wrote—as I was packing my swimsuit and feeling guilty that I’d spent the month swimming and reading Halldór Laxness when I was meant to be writing—was the first sentence of this essay.
I hope you like it. But even if you don’t, I like it.