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.

An Education (2009)


UPDATE Feb. 21:  Carey Mulligan just won Best Actress at the BAFTA (British Academy of Films and Television Arts) Awards. CLICK HERE to read more. 

UPDATE Feb. 2, 2010 OSCAR NOMINATIONS: An Education receives a nomination for Best Picture in the coming 82nd Academy Awards.  Carey Mulligan gets a nod in the Best Actress category, and Nick Hornby gets a nom for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Update Jan. 23, 2010:  Carey Mulligan is a Best Actress nominee and a presenter at the Screen Actors Guild Award tonight.

Update Dec. 16:  Carey Mulligan has been nominated for a Golden Globe Best Actress Award.

Now is the time of the year that’s most gratifying. The awards season is coming up in just a few months. So this is when possible contenders are released, albeit some with just limited screening, and they aren’t likely to be your Hollywood blockbusters that might stay on for a while. That’s why I opted for ‘An Education’ over the weekend. ‘A Christmas Carol’ can wait.

An Education is the little British film that comes with high acclaim. The coming-of-age story is based on the memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber.  It first appeared in Granta magazine, later published by Penguin. The screenplay is written by Nick Hornby, the popular writer who gave us About A Boy, Fever Pitch, and High Fidelity, all turned into movies.

An Education won the Audience and Cinematography Awards at Sundance earlier this year.  And it might well propel Carey Mulligan to an Oscar nomination, which she so deserves. She has been noted as the young, modern Audrey Hepburn. But my impression of her is one fresh acting talent, sweet and extremely amiable. I’ve enjoyed her role in the BBC TV drama Bleak House as Ada Carstone. She’s Kitty Bennet in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, and has a small role in the memorable When Did You Last See Your Father (2007). An Education is her first major role in a feature film.

Carey Mulligan plays 16 year-old Jenny convincingly. Jenny is a top high school student aiming for Oxford as she graduates in a few months, an aspiration directed by her protective yet gullible father (Alfred Molina). Oxford is certainly within reach. Jenny is smart, talented, and self-assured. She has all the potentials needed to excel academically and to launch a successful future in life. She loves art, foreign films, classical music, and French pop culture.  The city of her dream is, naturally, Paris.


In the cloister of 1961 Twickenham, a suburb of London, all a girl needs is just a little door opened for her and she’ll leap right out. This door to the adult world and high culture seems to have swung wide open as she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man in his 30’s who offers her a ride home from school in the rain one day. That fateful afternoon marks the beginning of a dramatic turn in her life.

David brings her to art auctions, concerts, fancy restaurants and ultimately, Paris. Yet he remains secretive regarding his work. No, he did not go to Oxford, but he has graduated with flying colors from the University of Life. Thinking her new-found friend is their daughter’s ticket to higher society, Jenny’s parents gladly give their consent to their friendship, but not without some suave persuasion from David.

David also introduces Jenny to his friend and business partner Danny (Dominic Cooper, Mamma Mia!, 2008; Sense and Sensibility 2008) and his girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike, Jane Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, 2005)  They are to Jenny the mesmerizing and glamorous circle of adult sophistication.

Cheered on by her peers, Jenny is only frowned upon by two people, her hard-nosed headmistress (effectively played by Emma Thompson) and her English teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams, who plays Jane Austen in Miss Austen Regrets, 2008), whose devotion to her student turns out to be extremely valuable. And then there’s her school mate Graham (Matthew Beard, When Did You Last See Your Father, 2007) who has a crush on her but is no match in front of towering David.

An Education is a film of revealing. Danish director Lone Scherfig takes her time in telling the story, leading the audience through passages of beautiful cinematography and fine acting, suspenseful scenes and memorable interludes. David does not at all appear to be the nasty predator. And Jenny, on her part, also attempts to test the limit. She’s not vain, but honestly dazzled and bewildered. The consent of her naive parents passes the ball back to her court, she must learn to make choices for herself.

And so the story leads the audience through twists and turns to a gratifying end. After the ordeal, Jenny said: “I feel old, but not very wise.”  It could well be the sign of maturity itself.  There’s no short cut to adulthood after all. Great cast, impressive performance, entertaining story, enjoyable education.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


CLICK HERE to read Lynn Barber’s essay in Granta magazine, chronicling the process of writing from memory, and transporting print onto screen.

AFTER you’ve watched the movie, you might like to CLICK HERE to read an excerpt of Lynn Barber’s memoir.  I urge you NOT to read it if you don’t want SPOILERS before watching the movie.