Category Archives: Julian Barnes

Memory, Julian Barnes and how not to apologise

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at

I do not believe in “guilty pleasures” when it comes to art of any kind – but I have one and he is Julian Barnes. The joyously unapologetic dwelling on every aspect of a fictional world, the brazen yet beautiful revisiting of images and phrases over and over again, and the sheer quantity of introspection make a list of everything most writers will never get away with. Literary fiction has the time and space to analyse, to dive the psychological depths, but Barnes manages to survive with fewer oxygen breaks than most. He does exquisitely what almost anyone else would make incomprehensible and/or embarrassing. It is like reading the tide, coming in to the same places and images over and over again yet never repeating exactly, always giving a new and slightly different picture.

“Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.” p1

The Only Story is about memory, so this revisiting is subject as well as form. The book is divided into three sections, and with them three points of view, over the course of the narrator’s life. The “I” of part one is Paul. At nineteen years old, Paul is young enough to feel he knows everything he needs or will need to, and self-centred in all the best and worst ways. He has absolute faith that his relationship with an unhappily married woman twice his age is all the more true and secure for flying in the face of social convention, and for the loveless and abusive marriage it is helping Susan to escape. The second section is narrated in second person. “I” has become “you” as Paul explores the launch and crash of his adult life, much of which is spent trying to deny and support Susan and her decline into alcoholism, age and the guilt or self-hatred that keeps her ties to the violent ex-husband she never wanted to be with in the first place. In part three, “you” has given way to “he” as time brings the self-acknowledged false-clarity of hindsight and Paul revisits his choices and Susan’s words from a greater distance.

“But here’s the first problem. If this is your only story, then it’s the one you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself. The question then is: do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away?” p1

However we choose to answer, The Only Story is a great how-to and how-not-to guide for writing and for life. I truly wished I could throw this book back through time at myself – as is always the way of hindsight – thinking that if I knew what happened when you didn’t leave an unhealthy relationship before it had taken most of you with it, that you wouldn’t make that mistake. But the truth Paul comes to is we will make our mistakes anyway, in our well-meaning arrogance. And we rewrite, and reanalyse, all the way from intentions to results. The stories we tell ourselves are rarely if ever entirely without truth, yet none are quite true.

March writing tip inspired by this month’s author, Julian Barnes

Free Ranting

One of the reasons Julian Barnes’ introspection is greater literature than many of ours will be is the lack of apology I mentioned.

Free Ranting is an exercise I led at Green Ink Writers’ Gym recently when a member of the group had been through something difficult just before the session. I challenged the students to cover the page with everything that had made them feel strongly that week, particularly in what we might consider a negative way. I asked them to let themselves go with the anger, or resentment, or sadness, or frustration, and not to stop the pen moving for five minutes. It’s a “free writing” warm-up (I hate that phrase. Freeing your voice is what all writing is about) with an extra dollop of honesty, and the less you think about it as literature the more articulate, passionate and individual it will be. Which is, of course, a big step closer to literature.

The student in question struggles with dependency on stock phrases (clichés). As soon as the emotional training-wheels were removed by this exercise, all her phrases were individual, full of the voice, information and passions that made her who she is internally.

The lack of apology or editing that happens when the mind is passionately involved is your goal. Aim for that: the conviction to mean what you are saying. Make it till you can fake it, then share it with your characters.

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