And unless we’ve kept rigorous private journals over our lifetime—recording the conversations we’ve had with people not long after they took place—we will be “making up” some of what they actually said. Some would say that even with those recorded conversations, we may be “making them up,” in that we are describing what we heard, which is often not the same as what was said.
All of which means that when we include dialogue in our personal stories—and doing so is critical to making them compelling and interesting—we are in some way imagining what was said, i.e., fictionalizing parts of it.
Published memoirists have written much about this issue; in fact, one of the earliest pieces I read on personal narrative was Patricia Hampl’s essay, “Memory and Imagination.” That title pretty much sums up what those of us who write our personal stories must rely on.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that we can make things up that we know didn't happen; it does mean, though, that we have to rely partly on our imagination when reconstructing, i.e., remembering, what happened.
What got me thinking about this was an article in yesterday’s New York Times, about the new Netflix series, The Crown, which is about Queen Elizabeth II’s “unexpected reign” that began in 1952. Interviewed by Roslyn Sulcas for the article was, among others, the series writer, Peter Morgan, who also wrote the 2006 movie, The Queen, and the play, The Audience.
Here’s what Morgan had to say about writing the personal conversations between the historical characters in the series. In this one sentence, he captures the essence of what it means to write true vs. write accurate:
“Of course I have to imagine the private conversations, and those are necessarily fiction, but I try to make everything truthful even if you can’t know whether it’s accurate,” he said.