In writing memoir, "we can escape the messiness of 'real' dialogue," says tutor Luke Ryan. Ahead of his upcoming workshop, we talked to Luke about why rich character development and dialogue are essential in memoir.
Participants in your upcoming workshop will learn to contend with the limits of memory and fictionalization – would you say this is one of the greatest challenges in writing dialogue in memoir?
Absolutely. No-one remembers the exact details of conversations, only broad shapes. Writing memoir is, almost by definition, a process of fictionalisation. But there's also plenty of opportunity in this effect as well, because we can escape the messiness of "real" dialogue – it's strangeness and hesitation and misspeaking. It gives us the chance to hone and shape it in pursuit of a better character.
What are some of the common mistakes people make when writing dialogue for their characters in memoir?
Uniformity of style is one of the hardest things to overcome, but so vital if you're trying to pull these people and characters off the pages. Finding their point of difference, the tics in the way they speak, their unique phrasing are all the challenges and rewards of writing good dialogue.
Are the techniques you will be addressing in this workshop also applicable to dialogue in fiction writing?
Perhaps even more so. In memoir you're bounded by the basic parameters of your own history, whereas in fiction you're working with a completely untouched canvas. Your character's peculiarities are a question only of your imagination.
Your workshop also covers how to identify master gestures and quirks that can define and enrich your characters and conversation – how important is this, and how is it effected by the ethical considerations of portraying real people in your writing?
I often say that writing memoir is one of the most selfish artistic acts possible. You're taking human history, in all its messy interconnectedness, and reducing it down to a single narrative, dictated by you, the author. All these individual histories and voices, reduced down to a basic, digestible form that may seem completely unrecognisable to the people who were actually there. Every choice you make is an erasure of complexity. Yet at the same time this is pretty much at the heart of writing good story. Even the richest characters in literary history can usually be boiled down to a few impulses and traits. Which ones are you going to choose?
Can you recommend any works of memoir that you feel capture characterisation and dialogue particularly effectively?
I actually think one of the most important characters to nail is your own authorial tone – you're the primary character after all. People like David Sedaris and Bill Bryson have such fully formed narrative voices that their stories can feel like coming home. For someone who really has a lot of fun with character work, I reckon it's worth reading some Terry Pratchett – the guy had such a love of vernacular and accent and it blazes across the page. Pratchett's stuff obviously sits in the realm of parody, but as a reminder of the myriad ways you can write dialogue so that your book doesn't sound like a bunch of English professors chatting at a barbecue, it's invaluable.
About Luke Ryan
Luke Ryan is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and comedian. He is the editor of the Best Australian Comedy Writing series and author of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo’, a comedy memoir about having had cancer a couple of times. His work has appeared in numerous publications including ‘Best Australian Essays’, the ‘Guardian’, ‘Quartz’, ‘Smith Journal’, ‘The Lifted Brow’, ‘Junkee’, ‘Crikey’, ‘Kill Your Darlings’ and many more.
About Amy Adeney
Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.