I just spent a valuable morning in a workshop given by Maralys Wills at the Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego. One of the sections was called Plotting Made Easy, a bit nostalgic for me because my first SCWC conference (2002 or 2003) introduced me to Writing for Story, which restates Aristotle’s Poetics — the original 2300-year-old primer on plot.
Toward the end of the workshop Ms. Wills made some comments about memoirs that I hadn’t heard before — not unexpected, because I usually stick to writing fiction and opinion. First, creatively-re imagined dialogue is considered OK in memoirs, and second, time reorganization of life’s events for the sake of the memoir’s plot seems to be acceptable, as well. I’m a little suspicious of both, especially recreated dialogue. I normally wouldn’t be too concerned about the issue, but I’m in a critique situation where I see these devices in use by memoir authors. And it’s been making me cringe.
I don’t want to buck a trend gratuitously, so I have to ask myself: what would make these devices work for me? In both cases, I think, it is a matter of credibility. Do I trust the author’s perspective? Has the author set up their narrative in such a way that I can buy into what they are about to tell me? Are they trustworthy story tellers?
They must earn the right to recreate dialogue if they want to keep me as a reader. They must either convince me that they have total recall, or establish an initial rapport with me that allows me to feel their recollections are authentic, though perhaps not literal. They must have made me ready to accept that these words represented as dialogue, just like a novel, are in fact the essence of what happened. But establishing the trust so the reader accepts the intent of the dialogue comes first, not later as a foot note. If they don’t create this rapport, I’m inclined to mutter something about how can you the author remember what someone said thirty years after the fact! Once I start questioning the author’s intent, I’ve mentally exited your story. You’ve lost me as a reader. You, the writer, don’t want a reader to go there.
The issue of events-out-of-sequence is more complicated. This device can fulfill special authorial intent as well as reader expectation, and it’s one that the reader may not even be aware of. Using this device may allow for improving the plot of the memoir. Real life does not normally lend itself to a convenient, obvious plot arc where something like the hero’s journey unfolds in a clean and satisfying sequence (goal setting, quest, setbacks, achievement and/or failure, then resolution.) But the writer may want to present their personal story that way, and the reader may find such a sequence more satisfying to consume than simply hearing a series of trials and successes (random, episodic plotting.) To make it work in the way familiar to novelists, and tragedians since the Greeks, the memoirist may want to arrange the narrative by bunching events together that did not necessarily happen in sequence. To pull this off, you first need the reader’s trust. If you don’t have it, the reader will again be muttering to themselves — only more so — because they will feel manipulated, even tricked. And you, the memoirist, don’t want to go there.