For Annamaria Testa, communications, advertising, teaching and publishing go hand in hand. What links them all? Her tireless exploration of creativity, a quest that has found a home on her new blog Nuovoeutile. Her intense writing practice includes contributing weekly articles for Internazionale and coming up with copy for ParoleOstili.
Her kit of wonders plays with the intangibility of words, giving us a glimpse into the ins and outs of her profession.
“When I started working in ’74 I wrote with this. I pulled it out of the cupboard and took off the cover that it had been under since ‘91, the year when I started using a little Macintosh.
It’s really heavy.
I had totally forgotten about sticking a little life preserver to the back of it, and the Christopher Logue quote stuck to the top of the keyboard: “Come to the edge / – We might fall / Come to the edge / It’s too high! / Come to the edge! / And they came, and he pushed, and they flew”.
When you’re twenty you have to believe that you can come to the edge. That you can always write a more precise, more intense, more careful, more relevant, more memorable, more limpid, more concise line. A line that manages to touch someone somewhere else, in a place that you can’t even picture. And yet, you wrote a thing, and that thing made it’s way there, all by itself.
Typing on this contraption is a nightmare, partly because of the awful racket it makes, but the idea is still the same: to write things that mean something. These white stains aren’t pigeon droppings, they’re Tipp-Ex, because when you use a typewriter you make mistakes, you cover them up and if you get it wrong again or you change your mind, you Tipp-Ex over it again.
If you’re the kind of person who searches tirelessly for a better word, your pages end up so thick that they can hardly fit under the type bar. And the Tipp-Ex goes everywhere.
I wrote my first book, “La parola immaginata”, with this old relic. It’s surprising that a book written in the Eighties – before the internet and social networks- is still studied today. What I’ve realised is that the basic rules are always the same. These days we are always on the look out for tricks that will get us there faster, make us successful, help us to “make it”, and we ignore the underlying rules. There’s this idea of “if I know a trick it doesn’t matter if I stick to the rules”. But that’s not true: rules are everything. And they help you to make anything you write sound decent.
As individuals we use a common language to communicate. But that language, though very similar in terms of meaning, is not identical for everyone, it’s not unequivocal. There are still some areas of ambiguity, of shadow, that enable us to be funny, to write poetry, or to misunderstand each other.
We communicate with individuals who interpret communication much more emotionally than rationally, who look at context way before text, or who read text in the light of context. When faced with a piece of writing we try to find a meaning, we look at the emotions it conveys, taking the characteristics and the emotional nuances of each word into consideration. If, when writing, we forget how fluid and many-sided the language that we’re using is, we won’t get anywhere.
Aromatic tea and dark chocolate
“These two bowls contain aromatic tea and two pieces of dark chocolate. I always write in the afternoon and evening. In the afternoon my go-to is tea, at night it’s chocolate. I write slowly, I re-read a lot, I ask myself a ton of questions, I look for sources and I list them, always.
Writing is like cooking artichokes: first of all you have to cut off the thorns. Then you remove the thick outer leaves, followed by the smaller ones. You have to get to the heart, and then tear it to pieces, and you have to peel the stalk, which is delicious, but if you don’t peel it, it’s hard, spiky and inedible.
Basically it takes ages. I’ve always asked my assistants if they’ve read over the writing they bring me. And the reply is often “Well, yeah, I read it over”. Right, but how many times did you read it? “Once…”.
What do you mean once? If you really want to read something, you have to make changes, adjust, improve, and simplify ten, maybe twenty times. And the amazing thing is that at the end of the process the text betrays no trace of effort.
Working on a computer means that you can change your mind, re-do it, add things, get rid of things, change phrasing and polish a sentence until it flows well. Or rather, until your inner voice, which is reading as your eyes travel across the page, settles into a good pace: the sentences come to a natural end. There is no discordance. No repetition. There’s good balance in length and the whole text is pleasant to read, even if it’s about something horrible or complicated.
Anyone who reads my pieces in Internazionale each week should know that the article they’re reading on Monday has usually been handed in on Sunday night at around 1.30am. And by that time I’ve turned to dark chocolate. It’s partly a way to treat yourself, because while you’re writing on a Sunday night, you always end up asking yourself “What the hell am I doing at this time of night?”. The other night-time question is “Is what I’ve written total rubbish or could it be interesting?”.
I’ve been writing for forty years, but every time I hand in a piece I always wonder if it’s a load of rubbish. Maybe that’s exactly what keeps me from writing too much rubbish.
The newspapers – on paper
“On the subject of daily routine: reading the papers in the morning while having breakfast is fundamental. When my son steals one from me (usually the one I’m just about to open) and reads the news on paper rather than on his phone, I’m happy.
The fact that lots of people are struggling to handle the quantity, the avalanche, the blizzard, the tsunami of news – series of clichés intended – that we are bombarded with, it’s partly because the news comes haphazardly, not laid out on a page. On social media there’s no chronology, no hierarchy, no weight given to things, no sources. On Twitter or Facebook everything appears to have the same import and comes across in the same way: fake/not fake, reliable or unreliable, it all looks the same.
A newspaper page provides a finite space which holds some news items and not others, puts them into a hierarchy and a common frame of reference, a pattern. Right or wrong, it doesn’t matter, it’s an order – which I as a reader can agree or disagree with – but in any case it’s order as opposed to disorder.
Of course we can’t ignore the internet, but, at least in my world, we can read the papers in the morning. The underlying idea is this: to allow disorder to permeate – because if you are impervious to disorder then you have no idea what’s going on around you – but also to maintain, or rather to safeguard some degree of order.
A heart-shaped stone
“The fourth object is taken from my collection of heart-shaped stones.
It all began many years ago: I was on a pebble beach in Greece, which was as picturesque and uncomfortable as pebble beaches tend to be. I was trying to read and kept turning over and getting up all covered in bumps. At a certain point I realised I was holding a perfect heart-shaped stone: white, symmetrical, entrancing. I remembered reading not long before then a – somewhat mediocre – story about a girl who collected heart-shaped stones. So I went all over the beach (after all, how could I ever have got comfortable?) and I collected another 2 or 3 heart-shaped stones.
And this continued on other beaches later on. There are people who have a knack for spotting four-leafed clovers. I can go to a beach or walk along a road and say “huh, a heart-shaped stone”.
A few years go by. I’m with a very dear friend of mine, Elena, and my young son in Santo Domingo. I try to pry my friend away from her book and my son away from his games to go for a walk. They come with me reluctantly and I do my best to drum up some enthusiasm by involving them in the search for heart-shaped stones. Picture the scene: the white beach, blue sea, palm trees, right out of a postcard, plus a grouchy child and my friend saying “Annamaria, enough with these stones”. So I reply “Elena, the search for a heart-shaped stone is a noble and interesting activity, and besides Heart of Stone would be a great title for a collection of stories”.
She freezes, with her feet in the water, looks at me and says “Let’s do it!”.
And Cuore di pietra (Heart of Stone) really did become a book, involving twenty female Italian authors, journalists and writers, the proceeds of which go to a charity that fights against infibulation (also known as female circumcision). That first collection of stories was followed over the years by four more (the latest of which came out just a few months ago and is titled Mariti – Husbands – and it’s really lovely). The proceeds are always put towards a cause that concerns women. The proceeds from the latest collection are going to a small charity that combats premature marriage.
The theme of this story is “chance”. If an Indian girl in a remote village can avoid becoming a child bride and go on to study and have a better life, it’s partly because one day thirty years ago I was wandering about on a beach and found a heart-shaped stone that became a collection of stories, and then a group of friends, who are supporting a charity in the Varanasi area where little girls learn to speak English, sew, and use a computer.
The plea is simple: let’s make the most of what happens by chance.
When young people ask me how to establish a career path, my answer is always the same: there is a dose of chance, and no path is linear. We hold the threads, but the meaning of the narrative becomes clear later. The invitation is this: welcome the unexpected, keep your eyes open, be willing, be curious. Be alive, basically, and say yes rather than no.
The keys to the suitcase
“Let’s get to the final object. I keep the keys to my trolley and my suitcase on my keyring, together with those to my house. This is because I travel a lot, but also because I feel that the idea of travelling really speaks to me: short trips, long trips, travelling for work, travelling for pleasure, travelling for discovery and travelling for a sense of adventure. I travel alone, with friends, and with my son. As I see it, the world is so small that it would be a pity not to explore it. And if we don’t travel now, it will soon become so tiny that it’ll all look the same and travelling will become pointless.
I would ideally hand these keys over to young professionals as a kind of talisman: be open and travel around. The two things go hand in hand. The more open you are, the less scared you are of getting hurt. The less scared you are, the more resources you have. The more resources you have, the more flexible you are. The more flexible you are, the more creative you can be. The more creative you are, the more you want to travel around and be open.
What sentence would you stick on your typewriter today?
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