Before and After the Shutter Clicked: Memoir is Therapy


Love is an unreliable lens through which to look at a person. The same can be said of vacation. The viewer is left with a romantic memory of an experience, bereft of all its glaring imperfections.

Memoir writing has caused me to confront my romantic notions of Ireland and to be brutally honest with myself. I look at the pictures I took during both of my trips and think of some of them – that was such a good day. I wish I could go back there and relive that moment. But then I put pen to paper and I remember that a photo just represents one moment, and it is suspended in a perfect grace in which the before and after are unknown and irrelevant.

I now question the past – before and after the shutter clicked. How happy was I really? Why, when I returned from vacation, did I feel like one of the crumbling ruins scattered across the Irish countryside? Why did I allow myself to travel so far for love only to lose it? Maybe I was looking for something I never really had in the first place; was my experience really as perfect as I remembered? Finding answers to those questions can make for some great writing. However, the process is painful to the writer.

Memoir can be summed up in an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” I am in a perpetual state of Ireland. I don’t want to be, but in order to write about it, I have to continuously think about it and examine every last detail and all of my actions. And I fall in love with the same person, over and over again with the sad knowledge that my heart gets broken. Who, except for a writer, would voluntarily subject themselves to so much pain?

Some people pay for therapists; I write. And through the therapy of memoir I discovered the error of my thinking:  Ireland hurt me because I held onto the microscopic pixels of memory like they were living things.

As I write my first book The Parting Glass, I am learning to be thankful for my Irish experiences and the opportunity to learn from the past instead of wallow in it. I love that I can now view my photo albums with the full color spectrum of reality.

A Picture without a Picture

I’ve been reading Susan Sontag’s essays, “On Photography”.   A few pages into the first essay she writes, “Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.”  She refers to snapshots as souvenirs – and that clicked for me, so to speak.  I don’t buy souvenirs, I take pictures.

However, on my first trip to Ireland I chose not to photograph one beautiful moment.  I felt that capturing it would somehow rob the moment of its magic.  1,000 words could never do it justice, but I attempted to describe for my memoir what didn’t feel right to photograph.  This short piece will be at the end of Chapter 6, about my first day in Dublin.

Lady in the Leaves

In a shaded courtyard somewhere outside the National Gallery, I sat down to rest my feet and lament my insensible choice of footwear. The wind gusted, and a squeal pierced through the sound of rustling leaves, attracting my attention. A few feet away, I saw her.

Alone, she drifted across the courtyard through a sea of autumn color. Arms outstretched, her weathered hands poked out from the tailored ends of her coat as the wind tousled the white curls above her wrinkled face.

Leaves like glowing embers showered from the trees, and she raised her arms to them like a child in the rain, smelling the sweet, earthy fragrance as they tumbled through her hands. Then she kicked through the brittle waves, her scarlet checks touching the gleeful corners of her pale-blue eyes as she watched them rise and fall.

Instinctively, my fingers ran across the buttons of my camera to collect the image before the moment vanished. But as euphoric notes burst forth with each kick of her polished shoes, I began to fear that the sound of my shutter would startle her out of her moment. And even if it didn’t, could I simply click and capture her joy – bringing her home like a cheap souvenir?

No, this flicker in time wasn’t mine.

I picked myself up, a hot pain radiating across my soles, and limped away unnoticed by the lady in the leaves. Her picture still hangs in the only place that it should, living and vibrant in my gallery of memories.