Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader I Teacher

He said, she said . . . the all-knowing, all-seeing narrator drones on . . . A few years ago, in a creative writing class focussing on autobiography, I was persuaded to use dialogue in a short memoir. It took a while to get my head around including unrecorded conversations that occurred decades ago. However, I was assured that memoirists and writers of creative non-fiction employ dialogue to add depth and drama to their ‘stories’. Memory can be faulty, that’s why truths and non-truths, fiction and fact, overlap in autobiography. This can become a slippery slope for many writers. Unless one is transcribing a conversation from a recording, letter, journal or diary, the question of how to recreate dialogue is tricky.  This problematic issue of the use of dialogue in a memoir was raised during a discussion I had recently with a writer whose work I was editing:

 ‘I think you go overboard with dialogue. You test your reader’s faith in your recall of so many conversations that happened years ago when you were a child.’

 ‘But this isn’t really a memoir, it’s just a collection of funny ‘coming-of-age’ stories based on my childhood.’

 ‘Oh, OK. That’s fine. Fair enough . . .’

 I quickly reminded myself that insistence on verifiable accuracy can kill any work of art. Instead, we discussed issues such as the use of pseudonyms, and the probability that readers may suspect that any ‘coming-of-age’ book is the author’s autobiography.

Yes, it does require a leap of faith from readers to believe that memoirists are able to remember conversations from their childhood. However, avid readers of memoirs probably don’t expect a completely accurate recollection of exact conversations, but they do expect the writer to be true to the time, place, and personality of the characters. Take Bill Henson’s travel memoirs, for example; how enjoyable are his conversations and interactions with the people he meets during his travels? This excerpt is from ‘Neither here Nor there: Travels in Europe’:

My waitress [in Aachen, Germany] spoke no English at all . . . I asked for a beer and she looked at me askance.

‘Wass? Tier?

‘Nein, beer,’ I said, and her puzzlement grew.

‘Fear? Steer? Queer? King Lear?’

‘Nein, nein, beer.’ I pointed at the menu.

‘Ah, beer,’ she said, with a private tut, as if I had been intentionally misleading her.

The dialogue (and her tutting) is not only funny, it gives the reader a good idea of personality. Dialogue also provides ample opportunity for body language cues, which add more clues to character; for example:

‘Don’t mind me,’ quivered Avril as she began to scratch the back of her neck. This was a sign that Avril was about to speak her mind.

In both examples, the writer is ‘showing’ rather than just ‘telling’, giving an insightful dimension to the characters. Many writers of memoirs believe that dialogue in memoir adds a strong pulse, and justify its use by insisting that they recreate dialogue, but they don’t create dialogue. But, writing is subject to fashion and  new memoirs rarely incorporate invented direct speech. Memoirs are categorised as creative non-fiction and inventions come and go.  In the end, it’s all about artfulness, and good faith.

 

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A last word from Bill Roorbach (Contemporary Creative Non-Fiction: The Art of Truth. 2001)

Smart readers don’t expect memoirists to be journalists, won’t ask for a tape of the conversation between the writer and her old great-grandma, dead these thirty years. Readers do expect the writer to be true to something—true to memory, true to remembered speaking styles (if not exact words), true to what I’ll call the encyclopedia of the self, true, most of all, to great-grandma, and thus true to writer and reader alike.

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