Dialogue and Memoir: A Challenge, A Method, and Two Mentors

Like 497, 651 other people, I have “liked” David Sedaris on Facebook. You can too, if you click on his name. You can help his PR people to say he has half a million FB fans. Wow!

Recently an interview with Sedaris appeared on his page that reminded me of something I am struggling with as I write memoir.


Remember picking books from the library when you knew nothing about them and you were craving a really good read? One that took you out of your time, place, maybe even out of your own body for a little while? Did you do what I did in elementary school–look for the white space on the page?

White space= dialogue. Dialogue equals speed of reading and engagement with character.

The interview shared on facebook comes from this story in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Sedaris can sell out a house, not only here in America, but in Europe also. He’s compared to Bruce Springsteen in the article. He himself seems bemused by his success.

Here’s the paragraph that jumped out at me:

Q. Do you think that the performing – that constant reading out loud – has affected the way that you write?

A. Yes, definitely. If you’re reading something in front of an audience, you need to have dialogue in your story and it has to clip along in a way that if it’s just on a page, it doesn’t have to. People can just say, “Oh, that’s nice that he put that word in front of that one. Oh, I always liked that word. Look! That word has seven syllables in it.” But when you’re reading a story in front of an audience it has to move along.

Memoirists treat dialogue in many different ways. Right now I am reading Miriam Toews’ memoir about her father called Swing Low: A Life (recently reviewed in The New York Times.) So I thought I would observe the way the author handles dialogue in this unusual memoir–a daughter writes a narrative pieced together from fragments of information about her bi-polar father’s life.

Since the main character — Mel Toews — is notoriously silent unless he is in school or in church, the dialogue is mostly internal. So the lack of quotation marks makes sense. In general, it makes sense not to use quotation marks in memoir, I think. It takes some of the burden off memory when the reader does not see punctuation as a promise of fundamentalist truth.

However, I also picked up a copy of Toew’s novel, A Complicated Kindness, and I note the absence of quote marks there also. Yet there are more white spaces in the novel because the main character, a teenage girl, is voluble compared to the terse Mel Toews. Toews skillfully uses dialogue, both internal and external, to establish character and bring the reader close in as an observer.

Dear reader, what are your own preferences? Dialogue, description, or philosophic musings? If you are a writer, do you employ the same mix you yourself prefer as a reader? Do you like or dislike quotation marks?

About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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16 Responses to Dialogue and Memoir: A Challenge, A Method, and Two Mentors

  1. friesengroup says:

    Excellent question. I am one who is inclined to read “punctuation as a promise of fundamentalist truth.” I rely on quotation marks to delineate when the written voice moves between speakers. At times, I’ve gone back to the start of a dialogue and counted down quotation marks to see who said what.

    That said, writing that abandons punctuation, loosens structure, and adopts non-linear narrative is becoming commonplace. One could argue that this paradigm shift fits the memoir style well. A style that is, after all, non-technical and from memory.


    • Shirley says:

      Helpful response, Kathleen. You both state your preference and show you understand why some authors choose another way. Your diplomatic skills are showing!

  2. Gutsy Living says:

    Since I’m a fan of contemporary memoirs that are more family and travel oriented, I prefer a balance of dialogue, inner thoughts and narrative. I also prefer quotation marks.

  3. rosie312 says:

    It is fun to see you talking about David Sedaris since I just saw him in Burlington, Vermont, and he was hilarious. His timing is perfect. I asked him to sign my book, “To Rosemary Rawlins, my favorite new author,” and he did!

    I’m currently reading a memoir called, Lit by Mary Karr, and there are no quotation marks. I find it a bit difficult at times. I find myself rereading passages for clarity, although I am loving her ability to create highly original and interesting sentences.

  4. Shirley says:

    Hi, Rosie. Thanks so much for your insight based on experience. We all envy you the chance to hear David Sedaris in person. And I love, love, love your request to him and his response. That kind of confidence and moxie gets a writer far! I’ve written a lot about Mary Karr (I had dinner with her–since we are exchanging famous author stories here). If you want to read past posts, just insert “Mary Karr” into the search box. You’ll find a lot.

  5. Linda Gartz says:

    Your point about including dialogue in memoir is inspiring. Just today I was working on an essay about my mentally ill maternal grandmother living first with my newly-wed parents for 3; then with our whole family, after the kids came, for 10 years. I have the diaries and letters and my mom’s “Case History” documentation — so I have an intimate view of what i couldn’t remember as a child. Creating dialogue out of this history would make it that much more accessible. Thanks! Also, re Rosie’s comment about Lit — it takes a little getting used to, but Karr’s prose is so brilliant and evocative of time, place, emotion, senses (same in The Liar’s Club) we just follow her anywhere. We’re right there with her.

  6. shirleyhs says:

    Linda, you have a treasure trove of info and the challenge of how to make the info live for the reader. I wonder if your book could actually be about the hunt? The archeological digging? And the impact that all this new information has on you, the writer? The piecing together of fragments of fact with fragments of memory. Do any of the “facts” contradict the memories? Are there any current conversations that could become dialogue? You have the opportunity to experiment with form because you have so much “hard” data. Just throwing a few ideas your way. Take only what resonates.

    • Linda Gartz says:

      You’re right about the different possible approaches. I’ve tried many. I’m also working on the favorite bugaboo of non-fiction writers: What is the essay really ABOUT? As Vivian Gornick writes in Situation and the Story — not just the situation of my mentally ill grandmother and what impact it had on my parents’ marriage, but what is the underlying story that will make it resonate with readers beyond the facts. The digging — another approach. Finding the structure and underlying story is the most challenging, but that’s true of all writing! Thanks for your thoughts. All are under consideration.

  7. shirleyhs says:

    I know exactly what you mean.:-)

  8. doradueck says:

    I like a mix of dialogue, description, musings, and I think I try to try to mix it up in my writings. I’ve read stories/books with next to no dialogue, however, and loved them, and also stories comprised largely of dialogue, and thought them clever too. But I think it takes a very skilful writer to do the extremes well, and probably the best bet for most of us is working at the mix. I like your dialogue=white space. That’s helpful for looking at the pages of our work. Sometimes white space can also be created by varying the lengths of the paragraphs. — Thanks for this, Shirley; once more a helpful tip.

    Oh, and a quote that may be relevant from Geoff Dyer. “All that matters is that at some point the book generates a form and style uniquely appropriate to its own needs.” That comes from his article, “How to Write Fiction,” but maybe what he says applies to non-fiction as well. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/14/how-to-write-fiction-geoff-dyer

    • shirleyhs says:

      Thanks, Dora. Your novel writing experience is a gift to the rest of us. I found your comment about the extremes taking more skill very interesting. The dense writer’s challenge is how to maintain forward motion and the dialog-heavy writer has to convey all ideas and sense of place through speech. Would you agree? Fascinating.

  9. Just stumbled upon your blog this morning. I am currently reading Rodney Crowell’s memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks. He uses quotation marks. I’ve also read the trilogies penned by Mary Karr and Frank McCourt, neither of which include quotation marks. Dave Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius includes the punctuation. All of these books have captured my interest and attention. Each on has a distinct, engaging voice, so the reference Dora quotes above (with punctuation 😉 seems appropriate.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Welcome to 100memoirs! When people stumble upon us, we throw a party. And what splendid guests — Karr, McCourt, Eggers — you have chosen to bring along. I recently finished Chinaberry Sidewalks also. I confess I didn’t notice the punctuation as I was reading. It’s interesting that the use (or non use) of quote marks makes relatively little impact on the reading experience. If writers omit commas or periods or question marks, one notices more. The style becomes deliberately “modern” or “postmodern.”

      I thought Rodney Crowell’s book excellent.Except for the title. If you liked it too, you might enjoy two other posts about Rosanne Cash’s memoir Composed: http://100memoirs.com/2010/08/13/rosanne-cash-composed/



      Now I’m off to visit your blog!

      • Thank you, Shirley! I just put a hold on Composed at my library, and loved the photo-montage and father-daughter Cash duet.
        Have you by chance read Surprised By Oxford, by Carolyn Weber (she too is a former professor of English)? That one is on my list — hope to get to it soon.

  10. shirleyhs says:

    No, Richard, I haven’t read Surprised By Oxford.But it sounds promising.

    I wonder if you would like to review Chinaberry Sidewalks for 100 memoirs. You can contact me at Shirley.showalter (at) gmail.com


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