By Lisa Alber
Jet lag, my friends! I’m living it right now. I returned to Portland from an Ireland novel research trip last night, so I’m really eight hours ahead of myself. It had been thirteen (13!) years since I’d last visited. That shows how long it took me to get my debut novel, Kilmoon, published.
A lot can happen in thirteen years, especially when it comes to our memories. I arrived in County Clare with pictures in my head, with the reality of the place crystal clear, I thought. I ended up driving around for the first few days feeling shell-shocked, disillusioned, disappointed, aghast, and outraged.
Some of the changes to my so-called reality of County Clare were due to what most would refer to as “progress,” which I didn’t like. Not at all. My ideal County Clare ruined by improved infrastructure! I liked it wild, wooly, and rugged. I liked the narrow roads with no painted whites lines on them telling us when we’re allowed to pass. I liked feeling like a race car driver at a whopping 80 km/hour (50 mph). I liked the Neolithic and Medieval ruins sitting in cow fields without any indication of what they were.
And the tourism. Well! Never mind that I’m a tourist—I was appalled that the Cliffs of Moher charged a fee, sported a gigantic parking lot and paved walkways and guard rails along the cliffs. I preferred the slippery dirt paths and rusty little signs that depicted a man falling over the edge and a message that went something like: Warning: Unstable Edge.
I was just, I don’t know, weirded out by the whole thing …
But then I got to thinking about why I’d returned to County Clare. It wasn’t to relive some grand memory, which I’d mistaken for reality. I’d returned to research the novel I’m writing now, the third in the County Clare series. This meant seeing Clare as it really is. It meant yanking the rosy-tinted memory glasses off and taking a look around me with an open heart.
I saw the gravel quarries (those weren’t there before, I knew they weren’t … but was that true or just my memory talking?) and the clear-cutting of the forestry lands and all the new houses along the main roads that diminished distances and the tourist signage that trivialized the wondrous and the new big hotels and the summer homes …
I was thirteen years out of date in my notions of life in County Clare. My books need to reflect some semblance of this reality.
It took a few – three, four, five – days, but I acclimated. I started to see the beauty again. Rolling hills with their drystone walls. Fabulous vistas on the coast. Spring lambs jumping around green velvet fields. Quaint storefronts in a town called Ennistymon. Vibrant yellow furze growing along the roads.
Before I knew it, I was no longer seeing the quarries and the clear cuts. After awhile, they didn’t exist for me anymore, and, I suppose, this is how memory works, doesn’t it? Whatever imprints the most, moves us the most, is what sticks for the long term.
After another little while, I realized that my dissonance wasn’t all due to progress. My brain played its part all on its own.
Memory is a slippery mistress for sure, and the dissonance between reality and memory might be worse when you’re a fiction writer. You go from reality to memory, and then from memory to the imaginative. And let’s face it, we novelists may base our novels in a contemporary world, but we amp it up in different ways to suit our stories.
No wonder I was so disoriented at first. The Clare of my memories had become the Clare of my fiction, another gigantic step removed from real reality.
As the outrage and disorientation dissipated, I fell in love with Clare all over again. I’m already in danger of losing touch with real reality, and I’ve only been home for about twelve hours. Ah well, I expect the next time I travel to Clare, I’ll revisit the same weirdness. On the up side, I’ll rediscover Clare all over again, in a new way.
Have you ever faced the dissonance between reality and memory? I remember
feeling the same disorientation when I visited my first childhood home. Everything about the neighborhood felt so small somehow.