Memoir dialogue, to me, is three sins in one: The writer not only lies about what is said but also provides the exact words for that lie and then writes down whatever is accounted as gospel truth.
When I first started graduate school years ago, I instinctively used dialogue during crisis points in my writing. I didn’t know why I was doing it, and I didn’t know why it was important. I just knew that I was giving my audience something they enjoyed, for example, my mother’s fun-loving and chaotic nature in The Lesson.
More times than I can recall, readers have told me that when my mother speaks in my writing she steals the show. I instinctively use her language as a device, like Marlon Brando said, “If you want something from an audience, you give blood to their fantasies. It’s the ultimate hustle.” When my mom says motherfucker, I am giving my audience blood for their fantasies. I am taking the vulgarity that my family members and I are so used to speaking with and using it to characterize us all. Sometimes my dialogue is what I remember us saying. Sometimes my dialogue is what I remember us probably saying.
In another essay I have been working on, I describe my mother telling me a story about an argument she had with a man at a bar. I quote her as saying—“I knew then I needed to show him who’s boss. He thought he was big and bad, but I knew he was just a little sissy. So I turned around, dropped my pants and pointed to my ass and said, ‘Go ahead and kiss it. Kiss my sweet Puerto Rican ass muthafuckah!’”
This may not have been exactly what my mother said when she described a barroom brawl. But many times I have heard my mother say she had to show someone who’s boss. And she has never been shy about saying the word muthafuckah. So I’m not inaccurately characterizing her by showing that she can be overly aggressive when she believes she’s right.
Although using dialogue to characterize is a smart step, I have discovered that I tend to under-utilize dialogue. I had never thought about using dialogue to enhance other craft features beyond characterization. I’ve also discovered that I can create exposition and relay backstory through dialogue.
Am I trading complete legitimacy for “spinning a good yarn” because I don’t remember what I said that day?
I don’t think so. What I do know is that deciding to use the colorful language to characterize people is a conscious decision I am proud of. I am consciously thinking about how dialogue can relay other craft features, further creating art.
When I create a scene that rings true for the reader, and I create a scene where my characters are fully developed, I am creating story truth. I am creating a narrative the reader can become immersed in. Being a good storyteller is another level of truth in and of itself.