- Accept the fact that you’ll never remember exactly what someone said. Trust me. You may think you will, but you won’t. The thing said is lost to time; all that remains is the shape you give it as you do your best to call it back.
2. Other people will remember the thing said slightly different than you will remember it. Let them. It may help in the composing process to hear what they remember. They may give you a line better than any you could have written. If it has the ring of truth, go with it. If it doesn’t have the ring of truth, put it away from you.
3. The ring of truth is the feeling memoir writers get when something flips over inside them, and they know they’re in touch with the essence of the experience they’re trying to recreate on the page. Dialogue can take us to the ring of truth. Maybe a father said, as mine did, “Can’t never did nothing.” When did he say it? Often. I may not remember the exact moments when he said that line, but I can recall the feeling of inadequacy it always gave me, the feeling that I’d never be able to please him.
4. What were the things the people in your memoir said with frequency? Those lines are always there for you to use—yes, even if you don’t remember if they said them at the exact time you hear them saying them in the scenes you’re writing.
5. Dialogue should be distinctive. Read enough fiction to catch onto the fact that the reader should be able to identify the speaker without any dialogue attribution simply from the sound of the voice.
6. Cadence, vocabulary, syntax. Mine isn’t yours, and yours isn’t mine.
7. Dialogue should move the narrative forward while also contributing to characterization. In Barry Lopez’s “Murder,” he recalls the time a woman, a stranger, asked him to kill her husband. “I’ve got a gun over there in that car,” she says. “He’s in a garage outside of town, working on his car. All you have to do is walk in there, walk right up to him, and shoot him. He won’t know you. There’s no one else there. No one could hear.” This speech lays out the plan, but it also reveals just how desperate this woman is and how intensely she’s imagined this solution to her problem.
8. Dialogue has subtext. Everything we say doesn’t say everything we want to say. A well-constructed line of dialogue can be interesting for what it doesn’t say. In my essay, “Drunk Man,” I recall the time my father offered to buy a local man with a drinking problem a meal. “C’mon, Odie,” he said. “Let’s get you something to eat.” Odie picked up right away on the thing not said and the judgment it carried. “I don’t need no handout. Let me out of this damn truck.”
9. Miscommunication through dialogue can make a memorable scene. What have you or the people in your life said that was misunderstood, that caused some shift in your relationships?
10. Spoken speech isn’t written speech. Even memoirs require a little shaping when it comes to dialogue. Sometimes we have someone say a line (something we “remember” them saying) even if we’re not sure he or she said it at that exact time. Sometimes we give the line a little something extra by combining things we remember someone saying. Maybe we let a character use a pet name that he or she always had for us. Maybe we make the speech a little less or a little more formal than it might have been. Maybe we take liberties in service of the work a particular scene is trying to do. Maybe we mess things up a bit. Everyday speech usually isn’t without a little mess. We do what we can to convince our readers that our characters said what we say they did even if they really didn’t. Sometimes we rearrange, add, and subtract. We remember that our dialogue has to have the feel of reality, and sometimes to do that, we give ourselves permission to make stuff up—not to the point that we change the essence of who someone was or the experience that we’re recalling. We don’t lie. We shape. There, I’ve said it.