Two of the biggest changes in my life took place within two days from each other. In fact – within less than 40 hours from each other. On December 8, 2011 I met my future husband. It took me an hour to fall in love (he was faster). On December 10, 2011 I met my first forge that I got to work at.

This is, or was back then, the inside of Sven de Lang Smederij.

The events that led to me hitting hot iron with a hammer for the first time were not pleasant. I suffered a burnout. At that time I was working as a graphic designer…except I actually wasn’t, because just looking at Photoshop made me nauseous. I was attending both regular therapy and seeing a work psychologist, who worked with me on figuring what else I can do. It was both terrifying – I have never had a job that wasn’t graphic design, from assistant to art director – and liberating. Because when you don’t know anything, that means you can pick whatever comes to mind, and you’ll suck at it. Whether it’s a sensible job or following a dream, you’re going to be equally terrible. In this frame of mind I bumped into another graphic designer with a burnout, and while browsing his portfolio I saw a fence he designed for, if I recall correctly, Westin or Sheraton hotel. (Coincidentally I used to work for both as a designer.)

“How interesting,” I said. “So you designed this and a blacksmith made it? I didn’t know blacksmiths existed outside of open air museums.”

“Oh yes,” said the other designer. “He gives short courses, why not try it?”

This was how I found myself on a train to Kampen, over two hours away from where I lived, shaking in excitement and anxiety, on my way to meet a Real Blacksmith.

We worked for six hours, with a lunch break. I was worried whether I would prove to be physically strong enough. That was not a problem. My pink, gentle hands were. First I got blisters. Then the blisters burst. Then the skin came off, replaced by coal dust. To finish things off, I hit my right hand with a hammer I was holding in the aforementioned right hand. I have no clue how exactly I managed that, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. I fell in love for the second time in three days. My hands hurt as hell, even though I didn’t get a single burn (that would change many times in the years to come), I was dirty as hell, my – ahem – work wasn’t top notch. I almost died when Sven handed me a gas torch as if it couldn’t explode any second. But I also knew this was it. Same as with my future husband. It wasn’t me wondering whether the choice would be right. I had firm, unshakeable knowledge that it was. I was right in both instances.

This is not the most brutal photo of my pain and suffering. I’m proud of it.

When I returned home, I was nearly unconscious from excitement. I placed my three works on the sofa next to me, stared at them longingly, then fired up YouTube to look at forging videos. Sound carried in the building where I lived, and my upstairs neighbour was home. I could only imagine what he thought about the bang-bang-bang-clang-clang sounds penetrating through his floor. But I had no time for imagining that, because I was watching the process of forging a rose.

I only wanted one thing: to go back. Immediately. The tiredness, the blisters didn’t count. One of the reasons for my burnout was producing materials that would stop being useless a few days later, or simply files. My computer looked the same before and after. When talking to the work psychologist I said that I loved working on my own, I loved fire, I loved working with my hands, I wanted to produce tangible objects, ones that would last, I wanted to use my muscles. We considered cage fighting, architecture, painting, but it just wasn’t it. Blacksmithing wasn’t even a dream. I seriously had no idea it was possible to do it in the 21st century, and similarly to every other guest at Sven’s forge I asked about shoeing horses. (Answer: very few blacksmiths shoe horses at all. In rare cases when it’s necessary a farrier takes care of that. And indeed, in the 4.5 years that I spent learning, then working I have only seen a horse being shod once. At a blacksmithing convention. All of us crowded around the master smith to see such curiosity. The horse was not happy.)

This proved to be very difficult to reproduce on my own later. So I tried until I made it.

There were two problems on my way to working with Sven. 1) He lived two hours away. Which would be quite a lot of commute. 2) He already had an apprentice. I begged anyway until he got a restraining order against me. Kidding! He just bought a taser. But even as I pleaded to be allowed to ruin my pretty hands and set myself on fire at his forge I knew that there had to be an easier way to do it. I just had to find that way. Every (half-burnt) cell of my body wanted to do this. The work psychologist was delighted – I made her job so much easier when we simply skipped the last four appointments. I found out what I wanted to do. I still received unemployment benefits. It was the perfect time to start learning my future job – in my head there was no way around it, this was it and there was no option I wouldn’t be pursuing that track.

Some of my ex-colleagues met me for drinks, and they confessed they were quite envious, because they had no idea what their dream job would have been. They just did their job because, well, money is nice, mortgages don’t pay themselves, plus it was the time of crisis, when jobs were scarce. This worked both for me (not a lot of people competed to become professional blacksmiths) and against me (not a lot of people had money to spend on handmade ironwork). But both the work psychologist and me agreed there was no point in me trying to do Reasonable Things – too many people were busy trying and failing to do the same Reasonable Things, but they had experience and knowledge I didn’t have. And forging was something I wanted to pursue so much that it seemed very unlikely I’d lose motivation.

There was just one problem. In the course of my life until then I already decided to become a guitarist (when I discovered I had to practice a lot I gave up), photographer (I discovered that I liked snapping a pic or two, but having to actually work on assignments bored me off my tits), painter, writer (I have quite a lot of first halves of first drafts, let me tell you), love and sex coach, and most probably things that I got over so fast I forgot I even tried them in the first place. But none of those things came with a warning I might stop enjoying them two days later. There was a non-zero chance I would get over forging, the same as I got over the idea of being a guitarist and a painter…and there was only one way to find out.

Power hammers are awesome.

To be continued…

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while already. I decided to finally write it when I read – on the fantastic Writing About Writing page by Chris Breechen – the following question a reader asked:

Casey asks:

Why can’t I sell my work? My friends all say it’s great.  I do fine if I submit it to some tiny zine that can’t [sic] promises its writers only exposure and glory, but I always get rejected at the places that pay. Even places that pay just a few cents a word reject me. Help!  This is so frustrating!! Am I just not as good as I think I am?

I am very aware of the fact that my book might not be as good or as life-changing as I like to think it is. There might be no readers interested in what I’m writing. Most people in the world don’t share my obsession with Iceland, its history, Norse Gods, or even (gasp!) blacksmithing. And that’s OK. In fact, I find this thought liberating.

I feel asking my friends to serve as beta-readers was a mistake. Most of our friends can’t find in themselves to tell us our writing sucks. One of them told me she never even read the first sentence, paralysed by the fear she would have to tell me the book is shit. In other words, by asking friends to tell me if they like the book I actually decreased the number of people willing to read it. I like to think (confirmed by the editor I work with) that I’m good at accepting constructive criticism. But I might just be saying that. I might just be deluding myself. I know that there were at least four of my beta readers who wouldn’t have lied to me when they said that they enjoyed the second draft I sent them, then provided me with actual constructive feedback. I thought they were wrong on many counts. A few rewrites later I have incorporated all of their remarks. They were right. All of them said they enjoyed the book. So did my husband. Assuming they were not just being nice, that means five readers interested in its final version, and all of those five will get the book for free. Which means selling 0 copies. I put the purchase a private island filled with Porsches on the backburner for now.

I used to not write anything, because of two fears. Fear of failure is kind of self-explanatory. Fear of success is perhaps less obvious, but a success means inevitable criticism from people who won’t like my writing. And there is no single book universally loved by everyone. Not even my personal favourites.

An international bestseller from last year, whose author is swimming in prizes has been recommended to me by quite a bunch of people whose tastes I trust. I managed about 1/3, suffering from second-hand embarrassment through every page. I decided to stop, despite people telling me “it will get better”. Because I have 300 unread books on my e-reader. Judging by the reviews, this book is exquisite. Judging by my experience…it isn’t. Not for me. I did not leave a negative review, because there was a chance it would have gotten better had I continued. I am sure she wrote the best book she could, as evidenced by all the praise from both critics and readers. That book was not good enough for me to bother reading it, and it takes a lot for me to give up on a book – in the last year it only happened twice, and the second one was also an acclaimed (and very, very, very long) bestseller.

In 2013, 304,912 books were published in the United States. That means 5863 books a week. Even if somehow the NYT bestseller list completely changed every single week, without any book staying in top 100 longer than seven days, it would mean 5763 books A WEEK wouldn’t see the top 100. Average sales of a debut novel published by one of the Big Five (is it Big Four by now?) are between 1,000 and 20,000. Anything over 10,000 is considered a very good result. Smaller press will get 250 to 5000 sales. (Source.) Having spent – so far – almost 18 months writing, researching, interviewing people, writing this blog, trying to get potential readers to notice my existence I had and still have to be aware that in the US alone 304,912 books (perhaps more in 2017) are competing for that attention. That’s excluding many, many books writers slaved over for years that never found a publisher, not even an agent.

The top selling book in 2014 was “50 Shades of Grey” with 8 million sales. The amount of bad reviews that book received was staggering. The amount of $100 notes in which E.L.James rolls daily, cackling (I like to imagine successful writers do that all the time) is also staggering. My fear of success came from believing that I would get the same amount of bad reviews. My fear of failure came from worrying I won’t sell 8 million books. None of those fears are realistic, if only because in order to get so many bad reviews one needs to sell 8 million books first, and none out of the 304,912 books published in 2013 managed to do so. (I’m aware I am comparing 2013 data with 2014 data.) Those both fears can be squashed by a calming thought that my book will never be published, I will never need to worry about any reviews, sales or lack thereof, so I can focus on writing and nothing else.

I happen to love doing research, editing, revising, watching the book turn from a shapeless blog into a sculpture of David. You’d think that’s not a very modest comparison, but truth is – personally I have zero interest in the sculpture of David. Does Michelangelo spend his days turning in his grave because of the fact I can’t be bothered to even look at pictures of his masterpiece? I sure hope not, because that would be a whole new level of creepy.

I have two favourite works of art, both placed in Reykjavik. One is the statue of Leifur Eiríksson, one is the Sun Voyager.

I don’t know how many people would name the statue of Leifur Eiríksson their favourite work of art, especially as it stands in front of the real landmark of Reykjavik, the rocket-shaped church Hallgrímskirkja. Perhaps 250 people? You can review EVERYTHING on the Internet now, and this statue averages 4.0 stars out of five. (Why the hell would anybody feel the need to give a statue a three-star review is beyond me.) I don’t think Alexander Stirling Calder, who designed it 90 years ago worried about his TripAdvisor reviews, or that the number of people wanting to take pictures of it might be smaller than of those in awe with Hallgrímskirkja.

When I look at my brother Leifur here, I realise how little I am actually risking. He got on a ship, fully aware he might never return (this is not something I have to worry about while writing), that he might waste time and resources, discover nothing, become a laughing stock among his peers – if he even makes it back at all. But he had an America to discover, so he went on the journey, and got rewarded. The worst that can happen to me is not a pile of rejections. The worst would be to stop writing. Leifur could have turned and announced “actually I think farming is my true calling”.

Will I ever get paid for my work? No idea. Am I as good as I hope I am? No idea. Does that bother me? Yes, sometimes. I get the “I am the absolute worst writer in the universe ever” thoughts a lot. I wait for them to pass, then – sighing – I go back to my two novels in progress (one nearing completion, one in second draft stage). I read an article recently where a published writer said she gave her book 100 rejections, then almost stopped, but a friend forced her to try a bit longer. The 112th agent signed her. Average time between the first time one starts properly writing and gets published is ten years. Average, not longest. Instead of being paralysed by the “what if I don’t sell eight millions” thought, I look at the e-mail in which the editor praises my work (I printed it out, laminated, then put next to replica of Sun Voyager in the spot where I write). Then I go back to writing. There will be tears at the querying stage, especially after 113th rejection. I’ll have the same thoughts as Casey over and over again. I’ll worry about that when I get there. I’ve got 8.5 years before I need to worry about sales figures.

Chris has this advice for Casey:

Casey, you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re putting your name out there and you’re working to improve your writing.

His advice is not addressed to me, but I’ll take it anyway.

In the first instalment we covered the rock show – time for the part I missed first time around.

We got back in the car, and instead of going back we drove further into Heiðmörk, and discovered one of Iceland’s famous forests…

(My apologies. I will totally do this again.)

The Icelandic Forest Service manages 53 forests, and boasts about the fact some of them are open for public access! This is only funny to people who are used to forests being everywhere. But until really not that long ago (separate post coming) Iceland had no forests, and driftwood was prized possession. (Generally awarded to pastors and bishops.) The foresting is a relatively new thing for the country. Same as public transport outside the cities. (Separate post coming…)

Anyway, because I got completely off-topic… Heiðmörk is one of the places that have forests all of their own.

The interesting thing is that when you walk past the trees and take a closer look, the ones that took guard in the front row are damaged in interesting ways. The branches only grow in one direction. Obviously the winds have either broken the other branches, or just bent them until the tree became completely asymmetrical. Further rows have been protected by the forerunners (“shield wall!”) and look like, well, trees. I haven’t taken any good photos of this phenomenon, and now I’m rather upset with myself. Oh well. I have to go again. See? Perfect reason. My blog readers deserve a good photo of asymmetrical tree! *buys tickets*

As we continued our hike, we saw the Esja mountains. One of the things that blow me away the most about this country is the mix of modern and ancient. You have a lovely view of Esja from Reykjavik’s coast. Specifically, from a quite busy road which also houses, ahem, not very pretty buildings, and the Sun Voyager sculpture. This is what it looks like from a natural reserve most people don’t know exists… but somehow on this particular photo you can see my future house really well:

I’ve been posting a few photos on my brand new 500px page, and I tagged the pictures from the rocky part of Heiðmörk as “another planet”, “alien”, and “magic”. I’m aware that the scale of my obsession with Iceland terrifies half of my friends and makes the other half screen their calls in case I ring, but how can I resist this?

To finish the Heiðmörk section, although I could go on, a photo proving that not only have I visited a forest, but also sat on a bit of it.

Please note that I cleaned and waxed these boots before leaving the house.

*

I mentioned that calendars, photo books, etc. are coming. They are – the book is currently being printed. More about it soon, and in the meantime feel free to take a look at the 500px page with selected photos and galleries. More are coming. I’m not sure if this is a promise or a threat. All this, again, is going to be a subject of a separate post…