I’m telling you now, Bali has rarely, if ever, stressed me out. But today it stressed me out two times. Good stress. I think. The first was caused by the mere matter of tippy-tapping out 2,000 words for my new novel. Yes, the novel I do not truly have a clue about at this stage. But, as I say to all my playwrights, you cannot know your story until you tell your story.

I awoke way before dawn thinking about this non-existent story of which I am to produce 2,000 words by midday. There was nothing else for it but to go for a long walk. The bugger of it is that Ubud (or rather Penestanen our ‘Ubud-adjacent’ village) is not walking friendly. I’m used to another part of the isalnd, Sanur, which is full of beach promenade charm and lazily goodness. Footpaths are aplenty in Sanur for a start. Footpaths are a vague concept in Ubud, and walking apparently the pass time of idiots and daredevils. But I did, nonetheless, have time to think a little as I trudged uphill and then downhill with precious little consideration for my personal safety. For some reason I thought about my hapless hero, a boy of 20 or so working in a country town supermarket, looking forlornly at a bag of sugar on the shelves, leaking sugar from its torn paper packet and him thinking about the days of his life being wasted in the same way. I also keep thinking this story must have a measure of magic realism involved. When I got back to the villa I mentioned these two ideas to one of my fellow writers who passed an offhand comment that perhaps the bag of sugar spoke to him as well. That’s magic, isn’t it? In fact it was.

It all kicked off from there.

I sat in a nearby cafe all morning, in a fever dream I think, desperately typing. 2000. Got to get to 2000. As a playwright this is an absurd notion, but suddenly I was obsessed with the word count on my Word document almost as much as being obsessed with squeezing out this story. Four hours passed without me much noticing a damn thing other than the lap top in front of me. Though I do remember the mounting stress of glancing at the top right hand corner of the screen as the time approached 12 midday. Will I make it? another 300 words….keep going. Write on!

I did it. Victorious! And, despite my misgivings about numbers and how counting numbers is crazy when surely this is ART we are wanting here not MATHS, the words are not that bad. I feel like this is a fabulous little adventure.

I came back to the villa. Whacked my document of 2000 words in an email to Jane Cornes, our facilitator, and took a big sigh of relief. Then I realised…I have to do that every day this week. That’s the deal. So this is writing novels?

My two fellow writers in our villa also held aloft the keen blade of victory with their magic 2000. It was time to relax until the 4pm group session. We’d set it up that we should all go to a place called the Pyramid of Chi for a sound bath. A taxi kafuffle ensued like you would not believe, however, again reminded me that Ubud is just not my cuppa tea and falls well short of the easy going Sanur. If you think walking is a rough and tumble idea in Ubud, just try getting a taxi. But luckily a sound bath in a massive pyramid tent was there to sort out that particular stress mess. Quite the gong show, literally and metaphorically.

The 4pm session was a very clever. Jane has such a circuitous way of expressing ideas, very nuanced. After another 10 minute warm up, this time beginning with the phrase I remember the taste of….. (oh, we seem to to working our way through the senses…ahhah!) But then a juicy little exercise. First chose one letter, T or L or H. Write the letter down on paper. If you wrote T you must write the truth. If you wrote L, you must lie. If you went for the H, you must write both truth and lies (a hybrid). We were given 5 minutes to write about our favourite holiday, either the truth or a pack of lies or a mix of both according to which letter we chose. Sounds like a cute game but the purpose was so subtle.

What makes a story authentic and believable? In what circumstances will we suspend our disbelief? When do we reject a story because we don’t believe a word of it? The answers to these questions it would appear are more uniform than you’d think.

We went around the circle and read aloud our short descriptions of ‘my favourite holiday’. One by one we asked ourselves if we were quite believing the story we had been told, if there were false notes or if indeed we rejected it entirely as a pile of BS. Authenticity is conveyed through detail, what Jane referred to as sensual detail (or sensory detail); details that spark a sense of shared truth for the listener/reader. The specificity of a given circumstance is what makes it plausible. Or perhaps even relatable. It strikes me that this idea is limited in particular to prose. Playwriting is about finding the right tone, the right rhythm, the keenest edge, not the right detail so much. Believability in playwriting is about emotion. And here in novel writing it is about context.

God there was other stuff, very good stuff talked about. But again I am tired. Tomorrow has its 2000 words to worry about. The best thing to do would be to rest this brain.

This project was made possible by the Australian Governments Regional Arts Fund, provided through Regional Arts Australia, administered in Queensland by Flying Arts Alliance.

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