Writing from Memory and Imagination


Upon a request from her friend and Granta Magazine editor to submit a birdwatching article, journalist Lynn Barber instead sent in a piece of memoir.   Well it was published just the same, in the 2003 Spring Issue of Granta… good to have friends in the right places.  But why not, it was an entertaining piece, albeit the name of the article might be a bit of a surprise to the editor:  ‘An Education’.  And who would have known that six years later, the short memoir would evolve into a full length, award-winning film.

In her recent article in Granta, Lynn Barber reminisced on the creative process and the adaptation from print to screen.  I find the article both amusing and enlightening.  Here are some tidbits.

Soon after her memoir was published in Granta, Barber was contacted by film producer Amanda Posey about turning it into film.  (Now that’s quick! But no… don’t think I’ll start writing a memoir, not just yet.)  But Barber was too preoccupied with other personal matters at that time to take it seriously.  Nevertheless she said okay to the proposal.  Months passed, and a contract ‘the size of a phone directory’ arrived.  Then she realized it wasn’t just talk after all.

Now to the screenwriting process.  Barber declined to write the screenplay herself, to the delight of film producer Posey, who had someone in mind already.  That was her then boyfriend and now husband the writer Nick Hornby.  Hornby’s books include About A Boy, Fever Pitch, and High Fidelity, all turned into well-received movies.  But what caught my attention is Barber’s comment:

I found it odd (still find it odd) that this pre-eminently ‘boy’ writer should so completely understand what it felt like to be a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl who was on the one hand very bright but on the other very ignorant about the world but, miraculously, he did. He even seemed to understand my parents, which is more than I could ever say myself.

Do writers always understand their own gender better?  Are they necessarily less equipped to write about their opposite sex?  Barber’s comment mentioned Hornby had grasped an understanding of her parents just as well.  Maybe it’s not so much a gender issue but one of sensitivity, empathy, and observational skills:  A good writer is a good reader of people, regardless of their gender, or age, for that matter.

It took years for the screenplay to evolve, after eight drafts to be exact.  The last one is quite a divergence from the very first.  Herein lies another interesting point.  The first draft is close to the memoir, while the last has taken a life of its own, reality has been altered to fit the screenplay genre.  The ending has also been tailored to elicit intended effects.  It speaks to the creative writing process:  Memories may be the initial springboard, but imagination is the fuel that propels the work to a visual realm.

The adaptation from memoir to screen has been a long process.  Barber notes:

Years passed, draft screenplays came and went, possible backers came and went. I would have given up by year two, but Nick and Amanda and their partner Finola Dwyer persisted and eventually, last year, the film went into production.

Apart from creativity and talent, persistence and diligence could well be the key ingredients in all sorts of production.

And finally, it boils down to memories again.  When asked about her thoughts upon seeing her sixteen-year-old self being portrayed on-screen, Barber, now at sixty-five, has no immediate answer.  She is lost in memory, again.  What exactly was her feeling at sixteen?  Or, for that matter, what had happened at twenty, or thirty?

Poignantly she asks:  Who owns memories after all?

Do memories belong to one’s subjective self?  Or to those around you who had shared your experience?  Is it merely age that has blurred the boundaries between memories and imagination, or is it our creative mind?

Or, does it even matter anyway… as long as you don’t call it non-fiction.


To read my review of the movie An Education, CLICK HERE.

To read Lynn Barber’s personal essay on her memoir, CLICK HERE.

Photo:  Banff, Alberta.  Taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, August, 09.  All Rights Reserved.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

6 thoughts on “Writing from Memory and Imagination”

  1. This post is timely for me, cos I am writing a short story about memory.

    I like the way you pick a topic and write about it so thoroughly.


    Thanks for your kind words. I’m reading Amy Tan’s memoir The Opposite of Fate, it says a lot about memory and imagination. You might find it both amusing and helpful.



  2. I was so taken with this:

    Apart from creativity and talent, persistence and diligence could well be the key ingredients in all sorts of production.

    Stephen Dunn, whose poem Madrugada
    is linked in my current post, was interviewed by the Courtland Review. He speaks there of the importance of what he calls creative tenacity:

    Poetry doesn’t reveal its secrets to the occasional poet. Be as committed as, say, a violinist or a ballerina would be. No shortcuts. Young poets may be the only would-be artists I know who actually believe they might be able to pull something off because they have strong feelings about it and who are not embarrassed when they hit false notes.

    Finally, you must be a little driven, and what you’re doing must be crucial to you in order not to be defeated by the likely neglect that awaits you, the lack of rewards, and the fact that, by and large, your culture doesn’t take you seriously.

    Today, I suspect that applies to every sort of artist. It’s an issue made even more complex in the US by obvious attempts to enlist writers, screenwriters, film makers and visual artists as propagandists for the government. Attention and acceptance are attention and acceptance after all, and they can be heady stuff for people used to living on the cultural fringes.

    As for memory and imagination, I’m not so inclined to use the word “boundary” in relation to them. It seems more likely to me that creation takes place in the space between them.

    How appropriate that the cover for Man on Wire is just here, next to this comment box. That seems to me the truest portrait of the artist, walking that thin wire of creativity strung between memory and imagination.


  3. Linda,

    I’m afraid it’s the perspiration and the plowing through that stops a many inspired would-be artists. Seems that being ‘driven’ is more like a state of mind that’s beyond one’s control. Alas, it’s hard work that pulls one through to achieving anything… something one can control.

    What a wonder to observe Man On Wire being next to your comment… Thanks for the insight!


  4. You write about this so well, Arti, that I can almost slip into a sense of comfort about the writing process you describe. Almost. Imagining the actual, lengthy process of this project – when I can barely stand to revise a short poem (have to after poetry group last night) – is enough to crush me. The challenge would be to have something fresh and exciting at the end result, after working and reworking it all ad nauseum. I often wonder what the X factor is that makes a movie work. You can have all the right elements – luscious cinematography, good screenwriter, elegant costumes, brilliant actors – and the movie can fizzle. I think it must take a certain kind of skill combined with vision that takes a film through to a wondrous, satisfying result.

    I heard EJ Levy read her essay recently titled “Against Talent” – in which she says good writing is not about talent, it is about hard work. Flaubert also taught the same to Maupassant: “Talent is nothing but a long patience. Work.”

    Love how your posts make me coalesce thoughts I am having – so often!


    1. Ruth,

      As the old saying goes: Success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. However, when it comes to artistic and creative endeavors, i do believe there’s something more latent than just hard work, that inherent creative spark.

      Another idea worthy of exploring deeper of course is the definition of ‘Success’. Is it measured by recognition? Or sales? Or box office numbers? Now, that’s another post.

      Thank you for stopping by, Ruth… your comments are always fresh and stimulating.


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