From Journal to Memoir: Creative Use of Dialogue

Biographile's From Journal to Memoir with Dr. Rita D. Jacobs

Editor's Note: In this multipart series, Signature and Rita Jacobs, PhD, will walk you through finding the inspiration and motivation to start – and keep – a journal, and will later offer some approaches to transforming journal entries into memoir. In part five of this series, Dr. Jacobs moves on to the topic of getting unstuck in your writing in an unconventional way. See earlier posts in the From Journal to Memoir series here.

Sometimes it feels like I need to juice up my journal with more than just my own voice. This does not mean that I hand my journal around and ask other people to scribble in it, but it does mean that I call on the other people in my mind to contribute. No, I am not schizophrenic, even though E.L. Doctorow has famously said, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”

In a way, what he meant is a writer takes on different personalities and creates a variety of characters. Journal writers can do the same thing to a rather different purpose. Face it: We all have committees in our heads and very often the loudest arguments among them come at bedtime, preventing us from falling asleep. You can calm those voices by keeping your journal or a piece of paper on your night table to jot down everything that is running through your head. You’ll be amazed how the act of writing shuts the voices up and lets you sleep.

But that’s just a useful aside. Right now, I’d like to focus on accessing an interior voice to help you write in your journal. What I’m talking about is using your journal for dialoguing. This is a practice first described for journal writers by Ira Progoff in his seminal book, At a Journal Workshop: Writing to Access the Power of the Unconscious and Evoke Creative Ability, where he details the way in which a journal writer can dialogue with almost anything -- a place, an event, even a work of art.

Dialoguing with people we know or parts of ourselves is very useful for the journal writer. It allows us to get in touch with our feelings about other people and by dialoguing with a particular person, especially someone with whom you are having conflicts, you can raise issues and see how much you might be projecting on that person. After all, a truly good conversation has us listening as well as speaking.

One of the terrific things about writing a journal dialogue is the person with whom you are conversing can be alive or dead, near or far, or not even born yet. I have had pregnant mothers dialogue with their bellies. The purpose of a dialogue like this is to see what emerges as you go back and forth, writing first in one voice and then in the other. This practice helps us to clarify our relationship with another person and, for the memoir writer in us, it can also lay the groundwork for the depiction of a dialogue or description of a character in a future piece of writing.

Writing Exercise: Sit quietly and imagine a dialogue partner with whom you want to engage. See him or her clearly in your mind’s eye and allow a question to come up. That will be the first line of dialogue you write. This entire entry should be written like dialogue in a play, first your voice, then the answer as it comes up, and feel free to use initials after the first back and forth. Continue the dialogue for at least ten minutes and don’t censor. You’re not writing a script for a play; you’re having a conversation and saying exactly what comes to mind, whether or not you would be able to speak these words in an actual encounter. You may find that you or your dialogue partner is funnier or kinder than you thought. And you may also find when you read this over that your dialogue partner may surprise you with the more incisive things he or she has to say. Of course, all of this information and insight is coming from you — you’re just allowing yourself to access it in a new way.