Making Up Dialogue in Memoir

I thought today I’d address an issue students and memoir ghostwriting clients ask me about often: the use of made-up dialogue in memoir. (This is part of a blogging series on memoir tips)

I’ve had people look askance at me when I pitch an interesting book as a memoir. Yeah. They think a memoir is, by nature, boring, because it has to be true. Yet, my memoirs have action, introspection, and all the elements of a good novel. There’s also dialogue in memoir, when it’s well written. The way I do it is easy, actually.

Dialogue in Memoir: Of Course You Don’t Remember It Exactly

The technique for inserting dialogue in memoir involves stepping outside whatever staid notion of “how books are written” is stuck in your head. Whenever I write something that isn’t an exact memory (and no, you don’t ever remember the exact words of an entire conversation, let’s be real) I just speak directly to the reader. I say, “This was the gist of the conversation,” or “Jim said something that sounded a lot like the following,” or “Here’s the conversation as I remember it.” It’s that easy.

Remember that books are creative enterprises, and you don’t have to stick with the “memoir” formula you’ve heard about. As long as you admit that mistakes might have been made, you can get pretty close to the truth and call it good. This is one way of inserting dialogue in memoir without really lying.

I would, of course, be careful if I were quoting a famous person who might sue for slander … but then again, I’m always careful. This type of phrasing is one way of being accurate about the fact that you’re not being accurate.

Your Memory Doesn’t Have to be Perfect to Write a Memoir

Tell the reader directly that this memory might not be exactly perfect but it’s pretty close. That’s actually a more honest way of writing a remembered conversation than how many people approach dialogue in memoir. If you’re dead-set on getting every memory perfect, you usually end up lying about the parts you half-remember while claiming everything is exactly right. (Here are some tips for adding accuracy to your memories)

Truth is, every memory is filtered through one person’s mind, so it’s always an interpretation. I say just be honest about that fact, and it makes life, and memoir writing, a whole lot easier.

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