Society & Culture & Entertainment Writing

Writing Dialogue in ‘Memoir’

Reliable writers justify dialogue in a memoir insisting that they recreate dialogue, but they don't create dialogue. They don't make people say things they would never say.
Use dialogue in memoirs. It took a while to get my head around including unrecorded conversations in my memoir that occurred decades ago. However, 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. And yet, insistence on verifiable accuracy can kill any work of art. 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 hereNor 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.
The writer is €showing' rather than just €telling', giving an insightful dimension to the characters.
Smart readers won't ask for a tape of the conversation between the writer and her old great-grandpa, dead these forty years. Readers do expect the writer to be true to memory, true to remembered speaking styles (if not exact words), true to great-grandpa, the writer and reader alike. It's all about artfulness, and good faith.
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