Ubud Writer’s Festival a meeting of minds

"ARE you a writer?" It's a good question and one strangers brazenly asked one another upfront at the recent Ubud Readers and Writers Festival.

The four-day literary festival (October 28 - November 1) in the arty belly of Bali was a meeting of great minds, writers and social-political activists from 25 countries.

And true to its founding mission 12 years ago to bring people together, Indonesians and internationals in open dialogue, more than a third of the 168 speakers were Indonesian novelists, journalists and poets.

Happy yellow and white festival flags mounted on tall, arched bamboo poles, like heads bowed in prayer, lined the main festival strip. Motorbike exhaust fumes and cloying incense hung in the still, hot air as aspiring writers and avid readers ignored cries, "Hello, yes, taxi?" to tread the uneven footpath between the three main venues of the festival hub.

With four concurrent panel sessions daily, plus literary dinners, lunches, a poetry slam, comedy club and writing workshops, the choice was as dizzying as a head spin from smoking clove cigarettes.

Some "word nerds" like me confessed to creating a spreadsheet of dog-eared events so as not to miss our personal favourites: Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, Man Booker (2015) nominee Chigozie Obioma, North Korea defector Hyeonsono Lee, Indonesia's rising literary star Eka Kurniawan … the list went on.

I was greatly impressed by how accessible the authors were. I even quelled my fear of public speaking to pose questions to authors at the end of some panel discussions.

The long table dinner.
The long table dinner.

How else could I find out about a Nigerian lyricist's writing habits? Forget Bali paradise, I was living, breathing, word-nerd paradise.

So, getting back to the opening gambit, am I a writer? I write for a living and as a hobby I dabble in creative non-fiction. One of my Sunshine Coast writers' group friends informed me that was my genre. I Googled it when I got home. For a lapsed journalist transitioning to fiction, it's a safe zone where fact and literary affectation happily coexist.

I thought I'd write "the great Australian novel" while nursing my son Van. He's nearly three and weaned and my ideas are still locked away in my mental file. Everyone I met had a story to tell about how their creative journey led them to Bali's acclaimed writer's festival.

Melbournian Athi was exploring her Cypriot heritage through memoir.

Lydia, from Darwin, was inspired by her Indonesian father John Gawa, a revivalist of a dying artform: Pantun, a 15th century Malay love poetry tradition. Lydia said she was really proud her dad was part of an envoy of Indonesian writers from "17,000 Islands of Imagination" honoured at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October.

This theme of diverse voices was also celebrated by UWRF and adopted as its festival tagline.

I kicked off the festival with a three-hour writing workshop: Using Fear as a Tool. When our Iranian-American tutor Porochista Khakpour held up a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book, Big Magic, my heart sank. Oh no, not another Eat, Pray, Love devotee.

Perhaps I belong to a minority of readers who can't stand this bestselling women's bible on personal freedom. Gilbert broke up her marriage to pig out in Italy, navel gaze in India and find a rebound relationship in Bali, which happily worked out for her.


But I didn't walk out. I stayed and listened. Big Magic, in Khakpour's words, is about "how to have fear as a side companion to good things". Writers, she says, are plagued by fear, panic and self-doubt at every stage of their writing. This is normal.

Even Chabon said he was gripped by fear and paralysis by a sizeable publisher's advance.

Khakpour identifies three big hurdles to writing: not having ideas; having ideas but not being able to express them; having the ideas and skill but lacking the courage to write.

Frankly, I'm a coward.

A quote Khakpour shared by the late poet Jack Gilbert (no relation to Elizabeth) resonated with me: "Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you'll say yes".

So "yes", I said to the three-minute 'free writing' exercise in which words poured out unchecked; "yes" to the bullet- point memory exercise in which I jotted down random childhood recollections; "yes" to the point-of-view exercise writing about a fear that's not my own; and finally "yes" to the 'Entire Predicament'. This last exercise breaks down elements of plot into physical, emotional and moral. The first scene I wrote described just the physical.

Next, I added emotion.

Lastly, I combined these two elements of plot and re-wrote it with a moral dimension.

This all adds up to good writing, apparently. After the workshop, I felt like I'd taken a writing enema. Dare I say, I felt free.

A couple of days later, however, I had writer's constipation following the Create Audacious Prose workshop with Chigozie Obioma.

The Nigerian writer lauded by The New York Times as "the heir to Chinua Achebe" is famed for publishing a rant against minimalist prose.

His essay: The Audacity of Prose, went viral after being published online in June.

Obioma's thesis goes like this: "Writers should realise that the novels that are remembered, that become monuments, would in fact be those which err on the part of audacious prose, which occasionally allow excess rather than those which package a story - no matter how affecting - in inadequate prose."

My attempts to embrace this new trend of long-form writing felt unnatural and stilted. I'm drawn to journalists-turned-novelists such as Ernest Hemingway and Australia's Robert Drewe for their brevity; their knack of using fewer words to say more.

India Dreaming Rondji restaurant.
India Dreaming Rondji restaurant.

The class was set the challenge of rewriting a simple character description to "show" rather than tell and to imagine we were in a natural environment and describe, lyrically, what we saw.

Obioma warned us: "When a writer feels constrained, they fall short of having that poetic grace that makes me read and reread a novel. Naturally, I try to rephrase things to see and hear what makes an imprint on a reader's mind. To achieve audacious prose you must revise".

I drew a blank as I surveyed the

stark room. Roaring traffic, loud bantering Bahasa and an untiring rooster's crow had hijacked my senses.

I saw eager faces bent over notepads as fellow 'workshoppers' accessed their imaginations, and I thought enviously, crafted audacious prose.

In the words of festival author Anuradha Roy: "Where your life experiences meet your imagination is where fiction happens".

My novel may just have to simmer on the backburner a little longer.

The thing every wanna-be writer wants to know is: what's the secret to writing?

Khakpour dismissed the idea posited by many authors that you have to write every day to succeed. "It's more important to read every day than to write.

"Reading inspires you to write.

"Reading builds empathy for fellow human beings."

Chabon expanded on this theme saying: "Reading fiction has a double consciousness: the author's mind and character's point-of-view.

"The more you read, the easier it is to stand in someone else's shoes and have understanding and empathy."

There's plenty to interest readers attending the festival, too, and the events are an important part of the writing equation.

"How well a story works depends 50% on the reader. If you throw a ball, they have to catch it. Readers see things in my work that I don't always see," Khakpour said. So, you've written a bestseller and fancy yourself the next Graeme Simsion (a festival author) or Liane Moriarty.

What do you do next?

How do you get noticed?

The short answer from: Making it - How to Get Published, was build a profile on social media, have a by-line, publish an anthology of short stories.

Abigail Ulman, whose collection of short stories: Hot Little Hands published by Penguin Australia this year, recommends submitting stories to literary journals.

Even if your masterpiece is rejected, you sometimes get invaluable feedback from the editor.

Novelist Antonia Hayes has been inside the belly of the beast.

She wrote her first novel Relativity while working as a publicist for Random House.

Hayes said to bare in mind literary agents and publishers have personal tastes and it's worth waiting for the person who gets you.

But is getting an agent critical to success?

"The slush pile at Random House does get read every fortnight over Friday afternoon staff drinks," Hayes laughed.

Ulman said it wasn't always helpful to have the end game in mind when writing.

"When a book's published, it becomes a commodity to be marketed but if you focus too much on this aspect of publishing, you won't write the book you want to - be brave."


Australians take for granted our democratic freedom around self-expression in the arts, but the issue of censorship cast a pall over the festival.

It made my own fears and insecurities around writing very small indeed.

Indonesian authorities threatened to revoke the festival's permit just days before opening if it did not pull three panel sessions discussing the 1965 communist purge in Indonesia, which decimated half-a-million people.

Festival organisers were also forced to cancel a photographic exhibition of women survivors of '65, The Act of Living: the screening of critically acclaimed filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence, plus two book launches: The Crocodile Hole and Bali 1964 -1999.

Festival founder and director, Australian Janet DeNeefe, made this statement after the clamp- down: "The sheer fact that the panels have been stopped will only draw more international attention to them, and rightly so.

"Indonesian writers will surely react to this disappointing news because, after all, they are the outspoken ones who write to be heard, who will stand in the frontline to reveal the truth."

Although gagged by authorities, stories of '65 were already being voiced at the festival. In a discussion: Sinister Side of Paradise, we heard about a Balinese woman who attends temple ceremonies alongside the man who murdered her husband in '65 but it's not spoken of.

Balinese journalist I Wayan Juniarta explained the deep political ambivalence in Indonesia around '65.

"Some political factions are ready for discussion and reconciliation while other factions fear wider social repercussions," Juniarta said.

Novelist Richard Lewis was a nine-year-old eyewitness to Bali's '65 mass murders.

The son of American Christian missionaries he was born and raised in Bali where he currently lives.

His latest nove, Bones of the Dark Moon talks of the effect 1965 had on his friends and neighbours.

With Mt Rinjani on the neigbouring island of Lombok spewing ash clouds, the winds are not favourable to carry me home.

The festival's over and I've been languishing in Bali for six days now. I miss my husband and son but it's very easy to slip into the rhythm of tourist life in Ubud.

Morning yoga, massage, eating, drinking and then the cycle begins again next day.

I have been visiting Indonesia for 25 years and am one of the moaners lamenting Bali's lost soul.

Polo Ralph Lauren has moved in, and fashion boutiques and jewellery stores bare Visa stickers on their polished glass doors.

This morning, I expunged last night's margaritas from every pore in a sweaty 90-minute vinyassa yoga class. A quote read by our yoga teacher spookily encapsulates everything positive I have absorbed.

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness … the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

"Whatever you can do or dream you can. Begin it! Boldness has genius, power and MAGIC in it."

So I Eat, Write, Downward Dog.

Namaste, Bali.

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