I started thinking about my memoir a year before I sat down to write it. First, I made a list in no particular order of all the topics and incidents I thought I might include. When I could think of nothing else to add, I put my jottings in an order that seemed to make some sort of sense. Looking at my list, I realised that I had three stories to tell, or perhaps three facets of the same story:
1. The Donegal glen where I was born and how it has changed during my lifetime;
2. The changes that have occurred in my own life over the past sixty years;
3. My changing relationship with my native glen.
Since everything I had jotted down in my first list would not fit into my scheme, I dropped those items I considered to be irrelevant.
Nevertheless, I soon discovered that writing a memoir is not as straightforward as I had imagined. Life as we all live it from day to day doesn’t seem to have much structure, shape or direction. Most of the time it is just one thing after another. Some philosophers say life lacks meaning, yet in reflecting on the past and in writing a memoir you inevitably impose on it some shape and meaning. This you do willy-nilly by selecting those incidents in your life that seem to you to be important.
In other words memoir writing must inevitably result in condensation. In making sense of your life and in identifying causes and their effects, the danger is that you will falsify the true relationship of events. Since you cannot set down every tittle-tattle and fiddle-faddle that has ever happened to you, you are obliged to do a spot of editing. If you are not scrupulously careful, you will find yourself telling the story you most wish to hear. Since direction and shape are necessary components of every story, what you choose to put in and what you choose to leave out will determine the drift of the narrative.
In your memoir there will be references to people you have known and who have influenced the course of your life. In describing these people, you may resort to a mixture of narrative and dialogue. It is easy to condense straightforward narrative. The advantage of reported dialogue, however, is that it gives the reader a sense of being present as the events unfold, but it needs to be used sparingly to avoid giving an impression of long-windedness.
In my memoir That Unearthly Valley, I chose to make the landscape a living presence in the book. It would make no sense, of course, to include landscape descriptions just for the sake of it. I included descriptions of landscape because they arise naturally out of the story. There are several references to rock fishing, which provided an opportunity for descriptions of some of the wilder places along the Glencolmcille coast, not to mention the sea itself in its many moods.
The temptation to let rip with purple passages must be resisted; it is best to confine descriptions to things a reader can visualise in the mind’s eye. Admittedly, in my book I wished to convey a sense of the ‘spiritual’ element in landscape, something more than a geologist would see as his province. Certain landscape features can have a powerful effect on the human spirit, depending, of course, on the eye of the beholder. They may appeal to our aesthetic sense, or they may excite our sense of wonder at the shapes that wind and water erosion have carved out of solid rock over countless millennia.
As a final word, I would say that a simple, straightforward linear narrative is the easiest to handle. Keeping two or three narrative strands going simultaneously can be tricky unless they are closely related. However, the nature of the story you have to tell will dictate the narrative strategy. Obviously, it is advisable not to allow the tail to wag the dog.