Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Forgetting

This week I’ve been been thinking about forgetfulness. Memory is so important to storytellers. It’s our lifeblood. Can we actually now recall the details of a story we think we might like to tell? If we forget them in the telling, can we improvise?

Memory is also vital to us in our lives as human beings. (And don’t you love the fastidiousness of the memory-aid pinned onto the old Welsh blanket that’s in my photo this week?) But what about forgetting? And is forgetting something different from forgetfulness?

Forgetfulness, it seems to me at present, is something we may just have to accept as a process that happens as we get older. It certainly seems to happen more and more to me and my contemporaries. Perhaps sometimes the problem in remembering something is just a temporary blip – you remember again a few hours later. At the time it occurs, however, it doesn’t half cause annoyance and frustration.

Forgetting, though: now what is that? Do we perhaps need to realise that forgetting is a natural part of being human? In the same way that storytellers have to put active effort into refreshing their memories of particular stories they like to tell, it may be necessary to put in work in order to refresh our memories of events and people and the feelings in our life that we hold dear.

But could it also be that forgetting is sometimes necessary in order to sort out the past and enable us to move on in our lives? I don’t know any answers on this one. I’m simply embarked on thinking about it and trying to work it out.

Meantime, here’s an excellent poem on forgetfulness by the American poet, Billy Collins.


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusions, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never
   even heard of.

It is as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbour
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Billy Collins

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3 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Forgetting”

  1. Jean Says:

    Thank you for the poem Mary – I posted it to my colleagues working on The Living Voices Project run by the Scottish Poetry Library, with an acknowledgement to yourself and your constantly thought provoking and inspiring website. I’m sad to reflect that storytelling in schools seems to have become something that has mostly slipped to a corner of an archive somewhere and been forgotten.
    Look forward to catching up soon . Jean

  2. Peter Says:

    I’ve thought long and anxiously about this problem.
    My first problem was with performing songs and I found I was spending hours, days, weeks learning words and then when performance time came beginnings,second lines, whole fragments would disappear.
    For a long time I put it down to age, I’m 65 after all and everyone seems to expect it. So I started learning poems just for my own pleasure. I gradually seemed to be improving.The act of memorizing was becoming easier on each poem. Ways of linking sense and sound suggested themselves more and more.My pleasure seemed to increase at each recitation.
    I then saw a really good storyteller and decided this would be my next challenge.After many months of memorizing and practice I presented a fairly lengthy piece on two occasions and all the hard work paid off:I was able to remember everything I’d learned and managed real engagement with the listeners.Howrver on the third occasion I went completely blank and after a few sentences it seemed an impossible task and I had to stop.
    Now I was word perfect at home ,walking the streets ,overcoming insomnia.I started trying to analyse what might have been going on to cause this more than simple memory loss.
    I had a slight cold that was affecting my throat, there were a few strange faces the person performed before me had really thrown me with some wildly out of tune singing and just as I began we were interrupted with an unplanned entrance of a very loud and unaware visitor. I stopped and we all agreed to take a short break.When we restarted I completely fluffed it! At the time I felt sad and blamed myself but as I analyse it today I start to feel better. I’m beginningto think that maybe it’s not just a memory thing.I think as you get older little things can throw you with much greater power.Our ability to ride interruption or the unexpected or most kinds of stress weakens and the first place it shows is in the memory. If we’ve had a stressful day forgetting seems to be like a safety valve almost like scooping water out of a sinking boat to help us stay afloat.So my new approach is going to be to watch out for stressors and try to work out strategies for each one rather than an acceptance of a blanket memory problem.
    Splendid poem I think.
    Billy Collins always hits the nail hard on the head and puts you in good company!

  3. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Hi Peter. I think your blanking out on that story is every storyteller’s greatest nightmare. Or perhaps an even greater nightmare is being shunned as a bad storyteller. What can I say? I saw a sign in the back window of a car some years ago. It said, ‘Downfall of a man is not the end of his life.’ So perhaps blanking out is not the end either, especially for someone like yourself who has spent time and energy thinking about it. The only point I’d make is to ask what memorizing means for you. Memorizing a story is not something I’ve ever done if memorizing means learning a script. My approach is absorption by visualisation (which includes thinking about words and sounds). But there we are … I like your idea that forgetting can be like a safety valve. All the best, Mary.

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