Birthing Books in Bali

5 days. 8 women. writers are born.

joanne fedlerJoanne Fedler

I did not go to Bali because of Eat, Pray, Love. Good on Elizabeth Gilbert and all that, but I have love in my life and didn’t need to go to Bali to find it.

From everything people say about it (discounting Schapelle Corby), Bali sounded like a friendly, warm – and very cheap – tropical paradise. A perfect place for me to help eight women birth their books. ‘You’re gonna love Bali,’ everyone said. ‘Oh, you’re gonna love it!’

But loving Bali did not come easy. I did not love the unhappiness of being a pedestrian on roads with no sidewalks. I did not love the stray dog misery or the traffic terror. I felt smothered by the weather. I got lost in a forest of scooters, and must have offended plenty of gods by treading in offerings I mistook for litter. Bali is a place where the mosquitoes are the size of flies and as cheeky as puppies. I was unnerved by the staggering opulence of villas alongside such poverty. The air stuck to me like flystrips. I had to pretend not to see the broken dogs and starving cats that slunk past me as I dodged beeping taxis. I truly did not understand the meaning of ‘sweat’ until I had to peel my sundress off me. I do not love places where I’m constantly ‘getting a bargain.’ At some point, I begin to feel like a taker, not a giver. The feminist in me frothed at the sign outside a Hindu Temple that declared, ‘Your attetion please: during menstruation, ladies are strickly not allowed to enter the Temple, thank you’. I made the bold assumption that this was an honour system and at no point would I be ‘checked’ by an official for signs of menstruation.

For five days, I tried to forget the social, political and economic realities outside the walls of our luxury villas while I focused on the task of running a writing retreat. Eight women joined me, each with a story inside her to birth her book – some at first too ashamed to even call it a ‘book,’ as if that word is reserved for literary royalty.

944569_550941511615842_526559838_nOver five sweltering days, around a table strewn with coloured paper and textas, index cards and notebooks, the writers started with a diagnosis: where was she with her book? Early mulling and random exploration? More focused mulling? Was the idea clear? Was it still playing hard-to-get? How much research had she done? How much did she have to do? Who was the audience? Who were they writing for?

That night, at our first shared reading, there was a litany of apologies. ‘I’m not very creative,’ one writer announced. ‘Not like you others.’ ‘This is just a rough draft,’ and ‘I don’t think this is very good, but…’ With tentative voices, the writers read. We learned what each one was writing about. We began to see the textures of grief and heartache and loss and love and upheaval each was wrestling with. Kindness overtook embarrassment. ‘I loved that,’ the writers said to each other. ‘That was beautiful.’

On day two, we explored the characters in each story and whether the writers cared enough about them. Was there enough conflict and drama to make a reader care about them? Were they active enough or just victims of circumstance?

We then traipsed the terrains of plot and structure, pace and setting, point of view and genre. The writers unearthed embedded themes and subtle symbols in their stories. They allowed the setting to absorb some of the ‘meaning.’

On day four, while we explored ‘voice,’ I ask everyone to take a risk, ‘the step you don’t want to take,’ in the poet David Whyte’s words. One writer agreed to read a piece of her writing, one that took her far beyond her comfort zone. Its honesty shocked us. The courage it took to read it aloud, emboldened us. ‘And I was nervous to read out my pathetic contribution…’ one woman said. ‘I understand now how much deeper I can go.’

IMG_4091One woman began her week saying ‘this book is to honour my mother and father.’ By the end of the week, she was saying, ‘It’s to honour me.’ After the first session, one of the writers told me in tears, ‘I don’t think this retreat is for me.’ On day four she bounded into my room, swirling with excitement, ‘I found my voice!!!’ I took a photograph of her face, just to remember that moment.

And so it went. Women wrote. They became writers. Their stories moved from idea to strategy; from fantasy into action.

I have always thought that what I do is play ‘games’ to bring out peoples’ creativity. For me it’s about catching people off-guard, surprising them with what is inside them. I love to witness the transformations – both textual and personal, that happen in a safe space. But all that we touch, touches us back. By the end of the five days, despite the exhaustion, and intensity of holding the space for eight writers through the labour of their writing in the most unfriendly of climactic conditions, I had my own awakening. Writing is a lonely business and I’ve had ten years of accumulative loneliness. In Bali, I finally understood that solitude is essential for writing, but so is sharing. A retreat is a creative ‘sangha’ of love and support so we can take the steps we don’t want to take; so we can write boldly into the places we are too afraid to go into alone.

I was glad to leave the chaos and the heat of Bali behind. It is a place of too many contradictions and inequalities.

But around a table with eight women, magic happened.

And so I love, I cherish what happened in Bali.

Joanne Fedler offers writing retreats for groups of up to 10 women. Her next retreat will be in Fiji in February 2014. For more information please email Katrina at . For further details or early bird specials, you can sign up for her newsletter here: 

Joanne Fedler –  Women’s Voices
Joanne is the author of six books including the international bestseller Secret Mothers’ Business. During her years as a women’s rights advocate, she was made Asshole of the Month by Hustler magazine (one of her proudest achievements). She is a motivational speaker, writing mentor and facilitator and takes women on writing adventures to Bali and Tuscany with Womens Own Adventures. Joanne can be contacted at:
Life Balance = Exercise. Solitude. Cuddles.