Your Story is Your Life

What do I mean with ‘story’?  I don’t intend to offer tips on how to fine-tine the mechanics of telling stories to enhance the desired effect on listeners.

I wish to examine the most compelling story about storytelling – namely, how we tell stories about ourselves to ourselves. Indeed, the idea of ‘one’s own story’ is so powerful, so native, that I hardly consider it a metaphor, as if it is some new lens through which to look at life.  Your story is your life.  Your life is your story. 

When stories we watch in the movies of Federico Fellini touch us, they do so because they fundamentally remind us of what is most true or possible in life – even when it is a escapist romantic story or fairy tale or myth. If you are human, then you tell yourself stories – positive ones and negative, consciously and, far more than not, subconsciously.  Stories that span a single episode, or a year, or a semester, or a weekend, or a relationship, or a season, or an entire tenure on this planet.

Telling ourselves stories helps us navigate our way through life because they provide structure and direction. We are actually wired to tell stories. The human brain has evolved into a narrative-creating machine that takes whatever it encounters, no matter how apparently random and imposes on it ‘chronology and cause – and – effect logic’.  We automatically and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us and ‘stuff just happens’ is no explanation.

Stories impose meaning on the chaos; they organize and give context to our sensory experiences, which otherwise might seem like no more than a fairly colorless sequence of facts. Facts are meaningless until you create a story arond them.

By ‘story’ I mean those tales we create and tell ourselves and others, and which form the only reality we will ever know in this life.  Our stories may or may not conform to the real world. They may or may not inspire us to take hope – filled action to better our lives. They may or may not take us where we ultimately want to go. But since our destiny follows our stories, it is imperative that we do everything in our power to get our stories right.

For most of us, that means some serious editing.

To rewrite your story, you must first identify it. To do that you must answer the question: In which important areas of my life is it clear that I cannot achieve my goals with the story I have got?  

Only after confronting and satisfactorily answering this question can you expect to build new reality – based stories that will take you where you want to go.

Your life is the most important story you will ever tell, and you are telling it right now, whether you know it or not. From very early on you are spinning and telling multiple stories about your life, publicly and privately, stories that have a theme, a tone, a premise – whether you know it or not.  Some stories are for better, some for worse. No one lacks material. Everyone’s got a story.

And thank goodness. Because our capacity to tell stories is, I believe just about our profoundest gift. Perhaps the true power of the story metaphor is best captured by this seemingly contradiction:  we employ the word ‘story’ to suggest both the wildest of dreams (it is just a story ……) and an unvarnished depiction of reality (okay, what is the story?). How is that for range?

The challenge? Most of us are not writers. That is what I intend to do here in this hero’s journey. First, explore with you how pervasive story is in life, your life, and second, to rewrite it.

The Hero’s Journey in Fellini’s Rome 

In my mind I can see the great Italian film director Federico Fellini, standing motionless in front of the extravagant Grand Hotel Plaza on Via del Corso, and I can imagine the stars of Rome and Hollywood that he would have entertained here during the filming of Roma, his dream-inspired and surrealist magnum opus.

From an early age, Fellini was obsessed with the decadence of world-class hotels: the flash of expensive fabric adorning the glitterati, the sparkle of crystal glasses and lavish chandeliers and the meticulously pressed black suits of clean-shaven porters. The Roman elite, wearing their furs and drinking spumante by the fountains, captivated him. As a fledgling, he endeavoured to reconcile the contrast between their well-bred manners and the darker, profligate lives he knew they lived behind the closed doors of their Piazza Navona apartments

I fell in love with Roma some years ago. The film, shot in 1972, underscores Fellini’s fascination with the chaos of 3000 years of continuous habitation. Rome was the director’s raison d’etre, inspiring and intimidating him in perfect chorus. While many film moguls have derived inspiration from writers, the Eternal City was Fellini’s only muse.

”It’s a kind of jungle,” claims Marcello, the suave protagonist of Fellini’s 1960 hit, La Dolce Vita. ”Tepid and tranquil, where one can hide.”

But if Fellini’s wish was to hide in Rome, it was a dream that wasn’t realised; in and around the Grand Hotel Plaza, I feel the director’s presence everywhere.

I’ve seen every nook and cranny of this spectacle of a city but a recent umpteenth attempt to understand the events – or lack thereof – that transpire in the immensely convoluted Roma leaves me bleary-eyed in my Roman apartment and hardens my resolve to find the man in the creative arena that inspired him.

Negotiating the cobblestones along the narrow Via Margutta, a stone’s throw from Piazza del Popolo, one of Rome’s largest mediaeval squares, I imagine Fellini might have had this laneway in mind when he declared to Charlotte Chandler, the author of his memoirs, I, Fellini, that he lived in a fantasy world. Art galleries and antiques shops, many bequeathed to family for generations, jostle for space beneath opulent residential buildings designed even before Michelangelo was all the rage in the city. Even the wrought-iron lanterns of the 18th century, jutting out in defiance of modernity, seem to scorn the concept of electricity.

At No. 110, the apartment FeFe shared with the love of his life, the legendary Italian actress Giulietta Masina, I easily evoke images of the director turning the key to the heavy door of the peach-hued building and planting a kiss on his soul mate’s lips after hours studying the people of Rome.

The area from Piazza del Popolo to the Spanish Steps – bound roughly by Rome’s historic Via del Corso and Via dei Condotti, Italy’s shrine to haute couture – was the centre of Fellini’s universe and it is here that his presence is most keenly felt.

From Via Margutta I trace his steps to nearby Cafe Canova, a favourite hang-out on Piazza del Popolo. I’ve lived in Rome on and off for years and have never given the haunt more than a fleeting glance. But now I order an espresso – short and strong, the Roman drink of choice – and watch as men whizz past in casual navy suits and brown loafers and women negotiate their mopeds over the bumpy road around the square, their trademark curls flowing freely from dated helmets. I smile. It’s a wonder that Italian movie critics had the gall to condemn last year’s Eat Pray Love to the fires of cinematic hell – not because of its questionable entertainment value but purely because of a perception that its portrayal of Rome was based on tourist-perpetuated cliches.

The view from Cafe Canova hasn’t changed in centuries. Three Roman thoroughfares – Via del Babuino, Via di Ripetta and Via del Corso – converge in a graceful display of baroque elegance. I imagine FeFe contemplating, from this very spot, the twin churches of Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli, built in the mid-17th century at the junction of the three roads.

Fellini was an avid people-watcher. From this spot he whiled away many hours. He scribbled nonsensical words and sketched faces with which he was instantaneously taken. These faces haunted him and were later brought alive in this movie or that.

His fascination with the links between Rome’s multi-layered history and the concept of a Roman identity was born in these mediaeval squares and manifested itself in his cinematic works. Conjuring his analytical eye, I notice, for the first time, the baroque facades of the two churches. They contrast sharply with the Egyptian pillar adorning the middle of Piazza del Popolo and are framed by the mediaeval portals of nearby residential buildings with their 2000-year-old Roman foundations.

The layers of the city’s architecture, from the ancient to the mediaeval to the modern, show its evolution and, as Fellini often contended, are a metaphor for the concept of a Roman identity. He would claim Romans to be a complicated bunch, as friendly and warm as they are aloof and suspecting; as prone to passionate outbursts as they are to silence; their outlook as modern as it is rooted in the pillars of the Colosseum.

From the Pincio, a lookout on the outskirts of Villa Borghese, just above Piazza del Popolo, the terracotta roofs of Rome seem to sizzle under the heat of the afternoon sun. From the perfect cupolas of myriad churches rings a chorus of tolling bells.

The top of the Vittoriano Monument gleams proudly on the skyline above the chaos of Piazza Venezia, one of Fellini’s favourite squares.

I imagine FeFe, swathed in Giulietta’s embrace, enchanted by the scene and I can almost conjure images of the floating statue of Christ above the city in the opening scene of La Dolce Vita.

I follow the imaginary statue south, navigating the cobblestone streets to the 18th-century Trevi Fountain, resolving to ignore the masses hurling coins and contemplate, instead, its status as a symbol of everything Fellini.

No FeFe aficionado could forget that fateful night in La Dolce Vita when Marcello and Sylvia, brilliantly portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, waded alone and uninhibited into the fountain. The scene, so superbly intimate, is not tarnished by the reality of knowing that it was filmed on a bitterly cold night in March when Ekberg tolerated freezing water for hours while her counterpart required the donning of a wet suit beneath his clothes.

Pretending to know an Italian without breaking bread with him is a sin, and my resolve to find Fellini propels me to his treasured Trattoria Al Moro in Vicolo delle Bollette, a minute’s walk east of the fountain. After explaining my quest to the manager, I am ushered towards a meal of crispy goat infused in rosemary oil. With lightning speed, a waiter pours a glass of Montepulciano.

A photograph of the restaurant’s previous owner, Mario Romagnoli, joins me for lunch. Fellini was so entranced by his face that he cast the man as Trimalcione in his 1969 film Satyricon.

There’s no rest for the star-struck, so I’m soon ambling along Via del Babuino, Fellini’s old stamping ground. I imagine the director might have been taken by the flawless window displays of dimly lit shops and perhaps bought a surprise gift for Giulietta. After bantering with shop owners, who held him in high esteem, I imagine he sauntered down the road with a spring in his step and noticed, as I have, Rome’s architectural layers, incongruous yet each woven firmly into the fabric of the city.

Fellini’s fascination was not so much with the tangible evidence of the city’s history as with the Roman ability to live at one with their ancient surroundings, almost uninterested in the presence of grand old landmarks.

Winding my way to the Colosseum, where FeFe sat and observed the women of Rome, I pull up a piece of Roman marble and decide to engage his idea further. In Rome, the locals can be sifted from the tourists by simply watching with a keen eye. It’s not long before I spot my true Roman. She’s well dressed and walks in the shadow of imperial arches with a leisurely but firm sense of direction. Eyes ahead, the epic beauty of the Colosseum has no effect on her.

Fellini would have been fascinated by her reluctance to crane her neck to gaze at the 2000-year-old structure like so many around her; such complacency towards larger-than-life scenery engrossed him.

As the day draws to a close, I board Metro A in the direction of Anagnina and in less than 40 minutes I’m standing outside Cinecitta. The film studios have become tantamount to Fellini himself and he would make the same journey here on Rome’s shabby subways even when he wasn’t in production. Perhaps he fed the studio’s stray cats and gathered his thoughts, ready to put pen to paper.

It’s no surprise FeFe tapped into a well of creative genius to make timeless movies – as he observed, Rome is simply the most delightful movie set in the world.