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.