Every Good Storyteller Deserves Favor – Memory and Storytelling by Miriam H. Nadel
“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” – Albert Schweitzer
“I’ve a grand memory for forgetting. “ Robert Louis Stevenson
The most important advice I can give about memorizing stories is not to. Most stories do not need to be told verbatim. But memory still plays a role in learning stories. The teller has to remember the sequence of events and details critical to the sense of the story. It’s also helpful to have certain key phrases memorized. For example, I was once at a party with several other storytellers. Somebody mentioned hesitating to do something and one of the tellers said, “Be bold.” Five of us jumped in with “Be bold but not too bold, lest that your heart’s blood run cold,” leading to a spontaneous tandem telling of “Mr. Fox” (from English Folktales by Joseph Jacobs). That couldn’t have happened if the phrase were so ingrained in our memories from hearing multiple tellers use it when telling that story.
The main thing to know about learning stories is what your personal learning style is. everybody I’ve discussed this with breaks a story down into some sort of pieces and learns the “bones” of it – but everybody does this a little bit differently. Some of the most common techniques are outlining, storyboarding (even to the extent of drawing comic strips in some cases), and creating time lines or maps. What works for you is likely to depend on which is your dominant sense – visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. People with a strong visual sense may be able to see a story as a mental movie. That doesn’t work for an auditory learner like me, who can’t even tell you the color of her carpet without looking. I find it more effective to record the story and play it back several times or at least read it out loud. A kinesthetic learner is likely to find mapping techniques useful. By associating each element of the story with a particular place, the teller can walk from one to the other in order to learn the correct sequence. It’s particularly valuable to use a combination of these techniques as most people can benefit from reinforcement from their less dominant senses. that’s why song lyrics are often the easiest thing to memorize followed by poetry with strong rhythm, with prose the most difficult.
But what about stories that do have to be told verbatim? The most common castegory is the epic poem. How much power would be lost if the teller were to paraphrase Longfellow’s version of Paul Revere’s lines as, “one if by land, two if by sea, and I’ll be standing on theother side of the bay?” there is also some prose where the precise words are vital. If the Kolokolo bird just told the elephant’s child to go to the Limpopo, instead of “the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all st about with fever trees,” many listeners would lose their own “satiable” curiosity about what happens next.
The key to learning this material by heart is to break it into small pieces. when learning a story poem, I find one couplet at a time is a reasonable chunk. for prose, a single sentence is a good goal. Once you’re comfortable with that first chunk, add on another one. I find that I can learn a stanza of poetry (8-12 lines) or a paragraph of prose in one day.
it can be helpful to learn the next piece (stanza or paragraph) as if you hadn’t learned the first. You can put thechunks together later, but being able to start at multiple points is extremely valuable if you do forget something when performing. For example, when learning, “Shrewd Simon Short” a 350+ word tongue twister which takes up 3 pages in the book I found it in, I made a point of starting to practice from the beginning of the second page and the beginning of the third page, instead of always starting from the top. Sometimes you can skip a few lines without the audience even being aware of it, making a more satisfying listening experience than hearing the teller start over from the very beginning. No matter whether you are simply learning a story, memorizing just a few key phrases, or memorizing a lengthy piece, practice and repetition are critical. Each time you practice something, you reinforce the neural pathways that enable you to recall the stored memories. Most scientists who study memory recommend reviewing what you’ve learned at specific intervals – after 10 minutes – after 1 day, after 1 month, and after 1 quarter. The good news is that even if you’ve forgotten part of a piece, it will become easier to relearn each time.
Finally, we’ve all been faced with the dilemma of what to do when we’ve forgotten something in a story while telling. It may be impossible to just ignore the forgotten piece. As long as you don’t panic, audience members who haven’t heard the story before will never notice and those who have will assume you deliberately edited out that part, perhaps to meet a time constraint. If it si something important, you can just fill in the missing detail by saying soemthing like, “I forgot to tell you that the prince was eathly afraid of raspberries” or “now, what you need to know is that Clarilda told her pet hedgehog about her dreams every morning.” In the case of a verbatim piece, you may need to back up and repeat a part to get where you need to go. In general, the audience will be forgiving of this as long as you can remain reasonably calm.
Sometimes, however, no matter what you do, your memory will fail at exactly the wrong time. the best approach is to be honest about it. Tell your audience, “I’m sorry. that story has flown away and doesn’t seem to want me to tell it right now” and move on to something else. Then move on to another story you feel confident about.
“They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you madethem feel.” Carl W. Buechner