Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 9 of 12: Dialogue--Must You Remember Like Marilu Henner?

Marilu Henner
9. Use dialogue to break up narrative and give authenticity to your stories.

Actress, author, health and beauty adviser Marilu Henner is among a handful of people in the world known to have superior autobiographical memory. She can recall the correct days of the week for holidays in just about any year of her life, what she had for dinner ten years ago, and the date and circumstances of each time she met someone.

Russian journalist Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky (1886–1958) could hear a speech once and recite it word for word.

Memory expert Hideaki Tomoyori holds the world record for memorizing 40,000 digits of pi.

Stage actors memorize long lines of dialogue by associating key words, sentences, sounds, and images.

But how do lifestory writers remember exact words of conversations years after events? Some reviewers criticized Mary Karr for pages of dialogue in her memoir The Liars’ Club, saying they could not tell whether she was remembering or lying.

The whole truth
Truth is, lifestory writers don’t remember exactly. They write the flavor or tenor of conversations that give the results they remember. More important than remembering exactly is remembering the truths and meanings of events.

Consider the Bible, which is top-of-the-food-chain for lifestory writing. Just about everything in the Bible was stories told from generation to generation before it was written. No video cameras, digital voice recorders, or journalists were on hand when events occurred. After the stories were first written they were copied and recopied many times in different languages before a committee assembled them into what we know as the Bible. Influence of the Holy Spirit to the contrary notwithstanding (politicians say that a lot), a friend of mine looks at that scenario this way, “I don’t know whether everything in the Bible happened the way it was written, but I believe it’s true.”

When writing your lifestory get as close as you can to the actual dialogue, but don’t be concerned if you can’t remember exactly. The results of your conversations, your feelings, what you did and learned are much more valuable than exactly.

Simple exercises
Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler, authors of Rosie’s Daughters, suggest practicing your listening skills as a technique for improving your written dialogue: Go to a public place, listen to people talking, and make notes. Think about the meaning of the conversation, not the words, and write a commentary about the conversation.

Creative writing consultant Nancy Strauss: “Writing effective dialogue is a delicate art. You need to sound authentic, capture each character's voice. And you need to cut it at the right moments.” Although you I and often may say please, thank you, uh, I know, yeah, appreciate it, and other trite words and phrases, when written they can make dialogue cluttered and contrived. Strauss lists eight exercises to practice writing dialogue.

Most real-life conversations are boring. Your objective for dialogue in your lifestory is more than accurate quotes. It is relevant dialogue that tells readers important things about persons and story and that keeps readers engaged. If it doesn’t do that, then rewrite until it does.

Photo courtesy Jeff Katz .

What is your toughest challenge in crafting relevant dialogue?

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