Memoir Writing: Dialogue

Dialogue is an important part of writing a memoir, and problematic for most writers. Unless one is taking a conversation and transcribing it from a recording, letters, or in a journal or diary–the question of how to recreate dialogue is tricky. There is sometimes a slippery slope, because for many writers, recreating dialogue feels like fiction. Memoirist Professor Paul Collins from Portland State University states, “Well, it’s certainly not journalism, but it’s not a novel either. In memoir, your recreation is still bounded by the facts: namely, those facts that you can recall, or that you find through research.”

By research he means interviewing people who may have been part of the conversation, witnessed it, or perhaps was even told the story from someone else. Most people cannot recall a conversation that happened many years ago, but the memoir writer can have a strong sense of the character he or she is writing about and the details of time and setting. For example: the scene is a phone conversation (like in the early part of The Red Parts,) a writer may not know exactly what the telephone looked like, but research would tell him or her what kind of telephone it would have been for the time, what perhaps the room looked like, and could include small details about an object that someone recalls being there. The dialogue, what is said between the two people on the phone, is enhanced by further description.

Memoir is based on one’s memory, or the memories of the people the author is writing about. Readers can’t and don’t usually expect a completely accurate recollection of exact conversations, but readers do expect the writer to be true to the time and place and the mannerisms of the characters. Professor Collins suggests the writer ask questions while recreating dialogue:

  1. What are the turns of phrase that you recall the character making?
  2. What are their mannerisms of speech?
  3. How would your conversations often proceed?
  4. What would they do while they spoke to you; is there anywhere they’d stand or sit?
  5. Anything else they’d be doing?
  6. Is there anything going on in the background?

Obviously if one is writing dialogue from another person’s memory–this is even trickier!

Writer David Mathews says, “Dialogue, sensory details–neither can be recorded faithfully in a memoir, and I’d argue that you shouldn’t even try.” Lucy Grealy, when interviewed about Autobiography of a Face, was asked how she was able to remember complete conversations from her young childhood. “I didn’t,” she answered, “I’m a writer; I wrote it.” Janice Erlbaum states, “You will have to recreate dialogue, but don’t create dialogue. Don’t make people say things they never said, or never would say.”

Recreating dialogue in memoir is challenging, which is probably why there is very little of it in The Red Parts. The dialogue is not rendered traditionally and Maggie Nelson’s approach is interesting. It’s a curious idea to explore further.


The Autobiographer’s Handbook, edited by Jennifer Traig

The Situation and the Story, by Vivian Gornick


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