Teaching Writing in Bali

Here’s the thing about teaching writing in Bali. From day to day, moment to moment, I never know what we’re going to do. No wonder my pre-planning is useless. I don’t use a set curriculum. Especially not when teaching a group that’s traveling as a community, when writing is just one component of a multi-faceted day. Instead, I respond to the rhythm of the retreat (beginning, middle, end), the dynamics of the group, and the day itself. I watch the group: their moods, questions, energy, concerns. And from that, I assess whether people need to be stretched or reassured, to express or vent, laugh or reveal, learn a piece of craft or drop down a deeper level.

That’s how I decide what we’re going to write. I often change course right in the middle of a class. There are a thousand tools in my tool kit—the possibilities are endless.

The favorite compliment that I’ve ever gotten about my teaching is that I’m nimble. That comes from 30 years of deep practice, a natural gift, and the way I trust my gut and intuition. I am a writing teacher yes, but my true gift is group facilitation, building trust and community.

This morning at 10, we had our third writing class. We gathered after Surya’s morning talk on Balinese traditional medicine. Over breakfast, he told us stories illustrating the difference between authentic Balinese traditional healers—the ones the Balinese go to—and those who market themselves on Instagram as “magical Balinese energy healers.” It was a fascinating talk, a great introduction to our time in Ubud, which starts tomorrow, where we’ll be meeting with both priests and local healers.

We assembled for writing group in our open-air classroom. We spent a few minutes in silence, sitting in our circle, listening to the sounds of birds, ocean waves, and tropical breezes. Feeling the warmth and coolness of the air teasing our skin.

Our first writing class had been introductory: setting the ground rules, building the sanctuary. Setting the foundation for trust and safety. I introduced the idea of collecting sensory details throughout the day and we had discussed the power of observation. The second day we wrote to two short prompts. People read in small groups and if they wanted to, in the bigger group. We practiced listening, witnessing, and being heard.

Today, I sensed they were ready for more. So, I gave them a longer prompt:

“Tell me about a part of your life or history that might surprise us. Bring us into who you were at that time in your life. Paint a vivid picture so we can see a new dimension of who you are or who you used to be.”

I instructed them to find a solitary spot on the property and gave them half an hour to write. Personally, I chose the giant blue sofa by the pool, and I wrote with them: the story about my time as a 25-year-old newly minted baby dyke from Santa Cruz, California taking a job as a radio news reporter in Ketchikan, Alaska, an island where it rained 13 feet a year. It was fun remembering that time in my life.

After we came back together, one by one, we got up and read our stories. They were funny, poignant, sad, revealing, touching, risky, surprising, intriguing, vulnerable, and powerful. Above all, they were honest.

As each person read, I could feel the group knitting together just a little more.

I wasn’t the only one who felt it. At the end of class, I passed around our talking stick and asked each person to find a single word that described how they were feeling. The words came back:

Connected. Touched. Intimate. Grateful. Connected. Amazed.

I closed class with some writing homework:

“Sometime during our outing this afternoon, take 15 minutes to tell me the story of an incident, interaction, or moment you experienced during our first days in Bali that touched you or made an impact on you. Tell me the story of that moment.”

Our afternoon outing was to one of my very favorite places in East Bali: Tirta Gangga Water Palace. I loved watching people’s stunned faces as they walked past the vendors, through the gates, into absolute beauty. The Water Palace is full of remarkable statuary and freshwater pools filled with giant koi—a feast for the eyes everywhere you look.

It’s also a deeply sacred, peaceful place. I felt it as soon as we entered the grounds. The underground spring that feeds the pools is used as a source of holy water for priests throughout Bali. I could feel that grounding sacred vibration everywhere I explored, even though it was a Sunday and there were lots of visitors from around the world, brides and grooms taking pictures, honeymooners, local kids swimming, laughing, and playing.

We had a couple of hours to swim, write, take pictures, wander alone or with a new friend. At dusk, we met in the restaurant overlooking the pools for a fantastic dinner.

Our outing was full of laughter, ease, and silliness—evidence of the deeper connection we were all feeling, a direct result of the intimacy of our morning session.

The group had bonded; that meant I could relax and unwind.

Take a look at the photos and videos of Tirta Gangga that I’ve chosen to share with you today. Photographers: Laura Davis, Susan Cooley, and Julie Bartice.

Tomorrow we head to Ubud, and on the way we’re going to get to witness a cremation.

Bali Fact for Today: Traditional Balinese healers see the central organ of the body as the liver. It has three parts, the base, the middle and the tip. These represents body, mind and spirit and are correlated to the Gods Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu.

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