Marina Gellona: finding one’s own voice in writing

In our I Pedagogical Conference in Paris, Marina Gellona (Scuola Holden), by recreating a metaphor of navigation, explores the relationship between depth and surface, body and sould in storytelling. Gellona supports and guides «the research of a vision» throughout three different storytelling artworks: the book  Unbearable lightness of being by Milan Kundera, Almodóvar’s film The skin I live in and Nan Goldin’s Self portray. One of her key concerns is comprised in this question: «Could the mirror of the page be a space one which to reflect on experience?»



A time for intoxication: finding one’s own voice in writing

Marina Gellona (Italy)

During my workshop on fairy tales (but I noticed it also in other genres of texts), with my collegue Simona Garbarini, I realized that the people’s texts had two kinds of different problems. Either they were very deep (able to meet important issues, putting their experience and empathy in the story) but absolutely not fluent. Or they were very fluent but absolutely superficial. Since we realized it I had the feeling that I had to look for good metaphors, to make people get familiar with the concept of depth and surface in writing.

Here I am presenting some thought, the research of a vision about how to introduce people in understanding the kind of  «movement» they can play in order to keep together a deep insight and meanings and the structure and the style of a story. I don’t want to give people rules, but more to give them  «stars», in the same way that stars can be useful for sailors. Some sailors explained to me that when you are at sea far away from the coast, the earth, you should be able to know where you are (to be conscious of what are you doing) only with the stars. That was so important for the great explorers of the XV and XVI centuries, because only by sailing away from the coasts could they arrive far away.

It is surely more complicated than this, but it is just to say that I would like that people get out of the workshop knowing at least the North and the South of storytelling, which for me is this relationship between depth and surface. The idea is to guarantee a real exploration without losing oneself (too much). I use this metaphor of navigation because my students (here I speak about adults and younger 11-12 year old teen agers) also brought me to this idea.

At the end of a workshop I usually ask three-four questions to understand how people lived through the experience and speak about it. And I ask to write a similitude of the act of storytelling, of writing a story. Everyone, as you can imagine, concentrated on different steps of the creative process. Here come some of them:  «It was a great journey, I discovered things I didn’t know and only by writing; visit a new place; go to the not-yet-found island»;  «It’s like riding a bike, I get inspired»; «Play footbal (lots of metaphors about!)»,  «Play like when I was a child: no votes, nothing wrong». «You can become who you want, you’re the king, you create a parallel word»;  «It’s like creating a sea. You make a sea of words»;  «Tap Dance on a mined field»;  «Daydreaming, night-thinking (dream with open eyes, think with closed eyes)»;  «Be myself, let emotion which are unknown and sleeping expressed»;  «I felt free; I could get some emotions free and communicate them to others». The idea of a travel, of dreaming, of creating a parallel world, of freedom, of being a king are there, keeping together the two aspects of creation: freedom, discovering, giving a structure and the reader.

As Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian writer, says:  «Our duty is to tell the story that comes to us in the most effective way possible. But we do not choose the story: we are drawn into where the feeling is deepest. A work of fiction lives by empathy – the extending of myself into another’s, the willingness to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes. This itself is a political act: empathy is at the heart of much revolutionary action».

The more I reflect on the item, the more I feel I have to find some examples, metaphors, scenes in Arts (literature, and other artistic languages) to find points of view about some questions:

– how to make emotions, stories, questions come out.

– how to work on them in order not to lose their depth but so that they can really communicate to the reader, have a significant surface.

– why is it so difficult to be at the same time superficial and deep?

A text which suddenly seemed to me helpful is Kundera’s Unbearable lightness of being and in particular this part:  «Tereza tried to see herself through her body. That is why, from girlhood on, she would stand before the mirror so often. And because she was afraid her mother would catch her at it, every peek into the mirror had a tinge of secret vice. It was not vanity that drew her to the mirror; it was amazement at seeing her own “I.” She forgot she was looking at the instrument panel of her body mechanisms; she thought she saw her soul shining through the features of her face. She forgot that the nose was merely the nozzle of a hose that took oxygen to the lungs; she saw it as the true expression of her nature. Staring at herself for long stretches of time, she was occasionally upset at the sight of her mother’s features in her face. She would stare all the more doggedly at her image in an attempt to wish them away and keep only what was hers alone. Each time she succeeded was a time of intoxication: her soul would rise to the surface of her body like a crew charging up from the bowels of a ship, spreading out over the deck, waving at the sky and singing in jubilation.» (Kundera, 1984).

If we assume Tereza as a metaphor of a writer, she tells us that the habit of hiding one’s soul can be hard to loose. But… there is a interrogation in there… It’s a question of time; of endurance (here the workshop helps); the mirror of a white page (call them there); her conflict (during the book) between soul and body is so interesting. She falls in love with a surgeon who has so many relationships with women that she falls back to the problem of her childhood and teenage: what makes the difference between her and others, if all the bodies are interesting? If we read the metaphor, we realize that using the body (the action, the landscape, the objects) to tell the  «soul» of our characters is one of the main themes of the workshops. Just think that a student of 12 years wrote to me:  «with some ordinary things like our 5 senses, things that in life we do not give much importance to, or the things we like or we don’t like, my feelings… I can make a story. This is what I learned.»

Kundera writes:  «What is unique about the “I” hides itself exactly in what is unimaginable about a person. All we are able to imagine is what makes everyone like everyone else, what people have in common. The individual “I” is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, what must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered.»

Tereza’s lover / man is Tomas, a surgeon. Also Tomas has a question about identity; he sees different identities in women. What does he tell us about the creative process? His work brings him in contact with the body, he wants to see what is behind. He wants to heal. His conflict is between love for one woman and sex/exploration for all the other women. What does he shows us? Well, lots of things, we do not have time to go through all of them. Maybe the most important things he shows is the image from which he was born. Kundera tell us he was born as a man standing by a window and watching at the wall in the courtyard asking himself if he is taking the right decision. His wish, his deep wish is to see what is behind the surface of things, the world, but on the other side it is the desire to make Tereza happy. And this is the last decision he takes. And eventually love for they two is possible. For the creative process it seems possible to choose one story, following the  «empathic» path.

Another surgeon in other scenes, as in  The skin I live in, Pedro Almodovar’s film, helps us to see a somewhat different approach to  «emotions». A different obsession is that of the surgeon of Almodovar’s film. This doctor tries to synthesize the perfect skin which can withstand burns, cuts or any other kind of damage; but a perfect skin needs a human support to be put on; it will be a kidnapped guinea pig. It is a work against identity, and it seems to tell people who are writing a story that they do not have to work on the skin, but to focus their attention on the identity who wants to be free, to get out.The guinea pig writes all the time on a wall; the wall of a man who cannot hear the person for what she/he is.

Actually wall writing fascinates me, the sentences on the walls are sometimes the  «theme» of stories, or marvelous  «conflict», or wise ones. They bring up question they don’t answer. They are similar to what happens to people in writing, sometimes. But let us come back to other examples of artists who act very near to their own life, and body. It could be interesting to see an example of an artist who uses photography to see herself and her world of people. She can see the soul on the surface of the body of the persons she loves. It’s a question of time, of having always the camera with her (which is something I ask my students to do, both really and metaphorically); writing lots of diary but would never publish them.

This artist is Nan Goldin, see for instance, Self-portrait in hotel Baur au Lac, Zurich, 1998, Matthew Marks Gallery. She says:  «Photography for me is not distance, it is contact, it is like a caress». Another photographer Francesca Woodman seems to tell us that you have to find a way of getting out of the wall to see yourself in the mirror.

Kundera makes Tomas say that earth and life are the planet of in-experience. Could the mirror of the page be a space one which to reflect on experience? To find out the weight, the sense, different signification of experience? The parallel world my students speak about on writing?

I still don’t know how helpful these considerations can be for my students’ research on writing. But as a trainer I just felt the need to elaborate them. Now I’ll see if and how they meet people and if and how they can be helpful for them. To end, a little story. In the cemetery of Pere Lachaise here in Paris there’s Jim Morrison’s grave. There are a lot of chewing-gums there. Why? I asked myself.

Well, maybe there is a true reason I don’t know. The story I imagine is that of a boy who arrived there and was chewing a gum and seeing the photo of Jim Morrison immediately wanted to start singing. And he put the gum on the three. And started to sing  «People are strange, when you’re stranger». The bottom of his soul came up. Just looking at the cold stones with the memory of the song. Then all the people who came later did the same. But the voice which sings does not stay, the written word does. What is she writing? The issue of our work, I think… maybe she’s writing that people are strange?

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