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Monday, March 30, 2009

Annie's Ghosts: Introductions

I suspect the world can survive without another blog, but perhaps there's room for one more place to discuss writing, reporting, books and the issues that interest the readers of books.

As the author of Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, a new nonfiction book that is part memoir and part history, I was drawn to the following question when it came up in a recent online discussion: How far should memoir writers go in reconstructing scenes and dialogue?

The answer might seem obvious, but I suspect it confounds most writers who don't want to just pretend that we all have infallible memories. Some writers have gone beyond reconstructed dialogue, arguing that invention (based on memory, of course) is legitimate—because truth, in a sense, is in the eye of the beholder anyway.

I draw a harder line than most. I favor the rough edges of memory over neat and pretty reconstructions. (More interesting, usually.) Invention? As I wrote in the online discussion, that's why we have novels.

Readers, I think, are smart. They know that most writers don't have notes or documents to back up dialogue from long ago. So what's the problem? In a word: Credibility. As a writer, I want readers to grant me some license to tell my story. But if I present lengthy dialogue as fact, I risk losing their trust—and their interest. Bad deal for me.

I'll be back here every few days over the coming months to write new posts. Please feel free to share your thoughts here, or at the Family Secrets Forum (where you can discuss the power of family secrets), or by sending me an e-mail through the Contacts page. I'll be reading your comments, in whatever form that appear.

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