To Dialogue or Not to Dialogue (or The Full Truth vs. Making It Interesting)

To Dialogue or Not to Dialogue (or The Full Truth vs. Making It Interesting)

We’re at the Tucson Festival of Books this weekend – a ragtag group of Phoenix-area authors who belong to a Meetup I organize: Phoenix Publishing & Book Promotion. Seems a good time to write about writing.

My last post touched on my recent foray back onto a college campus – and into the classroom for a writers’ workshop. My goal for the weekend was to study writing, perhaps for the first time in a formal capacity since I completed my undergrad degree in nonfiction writing a long, long time ago. The courses I focused on were related to fiction, as I’ve been struggling to complete a novel for quite a number of years. The instructor’s comment that caught me the most off-guard, however, came in a session about the newish trend of flash-memoir. Flash memoir is generally limited to 1,000 words or less and “…strives to combine the extreme abbreviation of poetry, the narrative tension of fiction, and the truth-telling of creative nonfiction.”

The comment that gave me pause was the assertion that every word of a memoir must be true, including all dialogue. Memoir differs from biography in that it is limited to a particular event, period, or other contained segment of the writer’s life. This blog, while not flash, is no doubt an exercise in memoir writing – my sweet spot as a degreed nonfiction writer. However, I’ll tell you right here that although my memory is pretty good, it’s not photographic. That includes the dialogue I have included (and will continue to include). Perhaps the majority of the dialogue I’ve incorporated into this blog (maybe not the conversation with Ernesto, as reported in my previous post) has been cobbled together from memory – so it captures the gist, as opposed to the actual words spoken by the parties described in said posts.

While I understand the thinking behind the theory, I disagree with this instructor that a memoirist should include only the actual words as they were spoken, because that would essentially leave all memoir without any dialogue at all. In other words: BORING. My husband asked (almost word for word), “What – do they expect you to have carried a tape recorder around with you for your whole life, supposing one day you would write a book?”

While lyrical, highly descriptive writing that paints a vivid word picture is important and nice to read, dialogue is what brings a story to life. It’s the dramatic device through which the author conveys each character’s thoughts and feelings. To simply paraphrase – or hint at what might have been said – seems, in my opinion, to water down the entire message. And if you don’t remember the dialogue word for word enough to include it, doesn’t that make every memory suspect?

There must be some fine line between wandering off into the realm of make-believe – a la James Frey with A Million Little Pieces – and toeing a strict, “precisely as they said it or not at all” policy for dialogue in a memoir.

Would be quite interested to hear your thoughts – especially you, Kathy, as you are perhaps one of the most quoted people in these posts! Please post in the comment section below.

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NOTE: For those who are interested, here’s a really good piece by one author about using dialogue in memoir. Here are another writer’s comments. This post takes a more objective look at both sides of the argument. Just to be clear, my search term was “dialogue in memoir,” so I was not attempting to stack the deck. If you want a crash course in memoir writing, I highly recommend this post, which contains links to many teaching articles and resources.

Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, and consultant who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.

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