• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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You Talk Too Much You Never Shut Up

Dear Betsy:

At work yesterday, I flipped quickly through an advance reading copy of somebody’s upcoming memoir and noticed what looked like many pages of dialogue. It’s my guess that most of us don’t really remember conversations well enough to quote them at length (Boswell’s recollections of Dr. Johnson notwithstanding), so whenever I see extensive dialogue in a memoir I have to wonder whether it has been reconstructed and if so whether this is, on the whole, good or bad.

I suppose the answer is the old familiar “It depends.” Personally, I’m suspicious. And I have a personal reason for wondering: I’m writing the first draft of a memoir, with reference to journals, phone logs, and other documents, and in most situations I’m finding little more than a sentence or two I can conscionably quote. Am I too stuck on mere facts?

Sincerely, Name withheld


Why stop at the dialogue? Aren’t most memoirs from memory, and much of what we remember compromised at best? Who is to say whether the wall was burnished gold or piss yellow? Who is to say if he held me tight or let me go? If his eyes were blue grey or slate blue. Yes, I know how I felt, but how am I presenting those feelings to you? So you like me, have sympathy, so you’ll laugh, cry, so you’ll turn the frickin’ page? Where does feeling/memory stop and calcuation begin? I would say at conception.

You know what else? I don’t even care if dialogue is fabricated or embroidered; just please write good dialogue. Dialogue is such a beautiful thing as a tool to enhance, enliven, etc. your prose. But it’s not a toy. You have to know how to use it.

“Kyle, can I ask you something?”


“How many pills does it take to overdose?”

“I dunno, ” he said. “I didn’t exactly succeed.”


Okay. There’s a snippet of dialogue from my ferschluggenah me-moir. Thoughts? Feelings? I kept extensive notebooks when I was hospitalized and believe the dialogue to be accurate — or as accurate as my notebooks were. Tonight, I don’t really care about truth. I want writing that commands all my attention. I think memoirs are true novels. In non-fiction, journalism, etc. I care a great deal about the truth and believe the less you embellish, the greater the truth you will find.

Now, that is enough of me. Except to say that when my mother read my memoir the first thing she said was that it was a pack of lies. I told her she was welcome to write her own pack of lies anytime she liked.

22 Responses

  1. That’s the craft of it, isn’t it? If memoirists transcribed dialogue verbatim, we’d all doze off before page two. Dude, unless you’re Dave Eggers, dude. I kid. But, seriously. As a writer, you KNOW when you’re telling your truth and when you’re not. There’s a rubicon and you either cross it (coughJamesFreycough) or you don’t. Snore. Next topic. (As long as it isn’t how to deal with the wrath of family members when writing a memoir. Snoriest topic EVer.)

    • I have been writing this memoir for 3 years and I agree with taking the sentiment and making it my own. I struggle more with worrying about how I will feel when my family disinherits me.

  2. I was told by someone to create amalgam characters for my memoir because I had too many characters who all served the same purpose. And what’s their purpose? To help move the story forward. It may be a true story, but it’s still needs to move. Otherwise, there’s always my journals, more reliable sources, and incredibly tedious.

  3. Reconstructing a close approximation of what your actual dialogue might have sounded like at the time is a great way to tell the story. I agree with Shanna’s comment that you know when you’re telling your own truth. Absolutely!

  4. Betsy–That was one of my favorite moments in your entire book. Whether or not the words were verbatim or not didn’t matter. It was the way you remembered the scene, and that’s what drove you, and what touched your readers.

    I don’t think memoirs are intended to be an absolutely precise reconstruction. Only a heartfelt retelling.

    And man, did your book nail that.

  5. I think it’s similar to when you write fiction that is inspired by something that ‘really’ happened; the facts themselves don’t matter as much as the truth that ends up on the page.

  6. Awesome.

  7. memoir is fiction, isn’t it?

    btw. that dialogue is fan-fucking-tastic.

  8. My sister once referred to me as “the crazy side of the family.” Oh, man, thanks sis! Now you just freed me from hesitating writing that memoir. Daddy died last year, so again I’m free. I can just imagine what he’d say if I’d told him I were writing a memoir. He once told me about one of my novels – “I want to read a novel, come in the back room and I’ll show you a novel.”
    But you see, this is not at all unique, not different. The world in full of black-booted daddys. I’ve been walking old Pete and thinking: What is it about my life that would appeal to readers? What’s the “new story?” Always when I read my fiction I know I am writing my memoir. The names are changed to protect the cruel, the innocent, and the banal. I know the setting to my memoir would be enthralling- Cajun culture at its height…I am 100% and drenched in oil, my grandparents could not speak English; dialogue….hmmmmm. How many readers would read passages of Cajun dialogue by my four foot dowager- humped granmere?
    To those who have written and published memoirs (Hi Betsy) how did it feel when it was all said and done?
    Gone to walk ol’ Pete. Presidents coming to town to see the end of the world at it inception…I’ve seen this so many times already out at the Rockefeller Wildlife Preserve – which was maintianed by, da da Shell oil.

    • A mentor of mine (a rather well known and beloved memoirist herself) once told me there are no new stories, only new voices.

      I want to read your memoir just based on the above.

  9. I’ve kept journals since I was 19. Not because I’m introspective (oh hell no. I’m only interested in the surface of things.); I’m just curious if writing down key events of a day will trigger a memory of that day when it’s read 50 years in the future. I only have 15 more years to go until I can test that,.

    In the meantime, my journals are a handy place to jot down interesting conversations. I usually have a notebook with me at all times and if someone says something I don’t want to forget, I’ll write it down and transfer it into my journal at the end of the day. So yes, I can quote verbatim.

    When I was 24 I dated a guy who told me, when he broke up with me, “By the way, eveyone thinks your note taking is very pretentious.” He was 24, too. And he smoked a pipe. And only drank Grand Marnier on the rocks. So he knew from pretentious.

    And re-creating dialog is not truth. It’s truthy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  10. Robert Flynn, a fairly successful novelist friend, has a quote I love: “All memoir is fiction.”

    My mantra for 18 years as a newspaper columnist was: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

    My disclaimer in the Forward of my narritive nonfiction is: “If you observed or were party to any of the events described here and have a different recollection, just remember, mine is a better story.”

  11. There are, I say, in the hierarchy of literary liars three ranks: 1. The biggest liar in the autobiographer, who dares to say this is “true” because I experienced it, although the most unreliable of all editors, memory, has already made its thousand alterations. 2. The second in the hierarchy of such liars is the biographer, who dares to claim he/she–anyone!–can ever capture another’s life. (A sub-category would include historians.) 3. Third in the category of literary practitioners is the only honest one–the fiction writer, who claims, “This is a lie, but I’ll do everything I can to convince you it’s true.”
    John Rechy

  12. CJ
    What of narrative non-fiction? Lies, too?

  13. I was JUST talking about this yesterday with a bunch of writers. Lets just change our name to “Liars.” If the story is awesome and the writing *engaging, then I personally could give a rat’s ass who is right.
    *This does not apply to Bill Clegg.

  14. That is a creepy picture. The dialogue is amazing. I can’t imagine it being more perfect. Narrative wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

  15. Okay, the kind of book that contains Betsy’s quoted dialogue is the kind of book I’d like to read. (Only problem is there are so many books I’d like to read.) Although I must say it sounds written as opposed to remembered, it’s written well, with flavor, and rhythm.

    This is another of those posts I’ll have to save as a PDF. Thanks!

  16. Forgot to say that Betsy’s comeback to her mother’s objection is a perfect answer: This is my story; write your own if you disagree.

  17. (Enjoyed this dialogue from “The Sopranos” Sun. a.m.):
    “Did you ever feel like nothing good was ever gonna happen to you?”


    And nothing ever did.

    So what?”

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