Thursday, August 12, 2010

Can we write the *right* dialogue in creative nonfiction?

In my Rutgers class this week, we're discussing writing dialogue in creative nonfiction pieces. One topic is how to deal with the issue of whether you've gotten the words right -- especially someone else's words which appear between quote marks -- and how to define what right means in creative nonfiction dialogue. Sometimes my writing life and my teaching life dovetail in unexpected ways.

Last night I was doing research for an essay in which I wanted to quote a celebrity. It was something he had once said while on stage and the clip has been shown numerous times on TV, as well as on YouTube and zillion websites. I thought it would take me only 2 minutes, and at first, it did.

I pulled up the video footage from the original broadcast, on an official YouTube channel, wrote down what I heard and figured that was that. Then I wondered. What I'd written just seemed a little too grammatically correct. What he'd said was clearly not scripted, and what I'd transcribed didn't sound as spontaneous as he appeared to have delivered the lines. I listened a few more times, but I still *heard* it the same way.

So I went searching for a written transcript of the event, which took longer, but finally found three different, credible sources. Guess what? All three had a slightly different version of what he'd said. One matched mine, the other two did not. Yet all conveyed exactly the same gist of his words, the meaning was clear and identical in all three versions...but the exact words were not.

Did it matter?

It made me think about how we creative nonfiction writers (not media reporters) record and then later write dialogue. We strive hard to get it "right". We agonize. We use everything at our disposal to not only get the words onto the paper we believe others said, but to be sure the meaning is clear too. Sometimes, the latter trumps the former. But in the end, we usually have only our faulty memories to fall back on. And even when we have more, it's still not an exact science.

Consider my little investigation. There was a video and audio recording. Those who had first transcribed it to written words were experienced reporters. And yet, who was "right"? The audio, even on the original clip from the broadcaster who first aired it, was just the slightest bit fuzzy. Maybe because when performers speak into the mic instead of singing, they hold it at a slightly different angle. Also, he was rushed and sounded out of breath after just finishing a long song and dance routine and was wiping his face with a towel. I'll bet if I asked someone who had been in the audience what he'd said, I'd get a different "quote"too.

All the time, I learn something new about writing and about how we nonfiction writers go about reconciling the need to be truthful with the human error built-in to the enterprise.

I used the version which I felt most matched the tenor of the performer's message. That's often the best we can do.


Alyssa C. said...

This is a really great post, Lisa.

One thing that I both hate and love doing is to, when memory fails me a bit, use a sort of disclaimer.

"I imagine he said something along the lines of..."

"...." is the way I recall him reacting.

Thoughts on using these tactics? I'd love to know what you think of falling back on these methods. Sometimes, they concern me :) But then again, my memory is not great. And it's also a fun way to play with how you remember something vs. how it happened? Not sure if that's good or bad though.


Lisa Romeo said...

Hi Alyssa,
Yes sometimes those disclaimer/constructions do get in the way.
But I seem to just as frequently find that it's far more interesting in terms of the overall story and reader experience, to let the reader into the narrator's mind with an open admission of not being quite sure. I think this works best when one can then go on to speculate on the page, in a well-written way, about WHY the memory might be foggy or faulty. If that exploration can help further develop the narrator's character and/or add to the story, then I'm all for going on the record as being "wrong".

Josh Healy said...
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