Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Memory Work 1

What better time for thinking about memory than the start of a new year. And thinking about memory is what I plan to do in this blog over the next few weeks. I want to write about it in a descriptive way, paying account to how different kinds of remembering interconnect with each other. I hope you might respond with points from your own experience. Maybe they’ll tally with mine, maybe not.

Getting ready

As National Storytelling Week comes closer at the end of this month (details at, there’ll be people all over the UK engaged in work on remembering stories. Some may be nervously planning to tell a story for the very first time. Others will be old hands at both remembering and telling. Yet, though well-practised in the techniques, they too will be engaged in memory work – perhaps preparing a new story for one or other of the week’s events or maybe ‘re-remembering’, namely revisiting a story that they already know in preparation for retelling.

Some of my most fascinating chats about how memory works have been with a concert-pianist friend of mine who used to be my piano teacher. He has dozens of large-scale pieces of music literally at his finger-tips. If he was so disposed, he could sit down and play any or all of them straight off. Poor me, in contrast, I’m daunted at the prospect of memorising even one single page of music. How on earth do pianists do it?

Getting acquainted

Cows, music, stories – it’s all a matter of getting acquainted.

My friend describes a variety of techniques that complement each other. Some are not especially different from how you get to remember a story. One which sounds deceptively simple is comparable with learning a story. It involves becoming incredibly familiar with the piece you want to perform, getting to know it by going over it again and again. This is the same in learning a story whether it’s one that you’ve heard or read. Yet when you’re trying to remember one that you’ve read, it’s my experience that you put the book aside much sooner than if you’re trying to learn a piece of music.

Storytelling generally involves recreating, not accurately remembering a script. A piece of music, like a play-script, has to be strictly and accurately memorised. Another of my friend’s techniques involves remembering the look of the actual score. During a performance, when the piece is no longer propped up in front of you, it can be an invaluable aid to remember how it’s set out on the page. This is quite different from storytelling. Yet even storytelling relies on you having previously created some kind of mental story-board which can then act a bit like a background score during the process of telling.

Getting it into your body

Physical memory is important in music. During the repeated hours of practice, the pianist’s memory is taking in muscle movements – the actions of fingers, arms and body that are made in the course of playing the piece. A body memory is forged which can almost then act on auto-pilot. This, too, compares in some ways with my experience in remembering stories. Especially when you’re retelling a story you know (and each time you’re preparing to retell it, you have to do some amount of re-remembeing in order to be prepared) how it feels in your body – light or heavy, quick or slow – is a vital part of the experience. Your whole being, especially your voice, is revisiting an emotional journey.

Seeing pattern

Finally and probably most important, an essential part of memory for a pianist is understanding the structure of a piece of music. This includes recognising how it was put together and how it relates to other pieces of music.

All in all, it’s a fascinating business and in subsequent weeks, I’ll be writing about it in more detail. Meantime, I’ve been doing a very great deal of another kind of memory-work. I suppose it’s something that’s embedded in the spirit of Christmas. Letters … visits … talking …it’s memory work that involves other people.

Memory sharing

The other day, here in Wales where I’ve been spending the Christmas period, Paul and I went to visit Ella whose oldest sister Ruthie (there were eight of them in the family) was one of my Welsh ‘aunties’. Aunty Ruthie died last May aged 99 and until her last couple of weeks, she’d been going about as lively as ever.

Conversations over the years with Aunty Ruthie, Ella and their brother Emrys were hugely entertaining, they knew so much about this North Pembrokeshire area. Their knowledge also reached further afield. As the people they’d known as children grew up, married and had families and perhaps moved away, they’d kept track of them all. They had – and in the case of Ella still have – hundreds of real-life stories about the people they knew. Stories were in their blood. Their father had been the local clog-maker. Throught his working life, his shed had been a meeting-place for people and their storytelling. Last year, that work shed was taken to St Fagan’s, the museum of Welsh folk culture on the outskirts of Cardiff. Ella went up for the day and did the honours by ‘opening’ the shed in its new home.

In between seeing old friends, I’ve been continuing the very long process of sorting through the papers of another of my Welsh aunties. Aunty Mali was very important to me and after she’d died, I made her and her stories the subject of my one-woman show, Travels With My Welsh Aunt.

This New Year, I re-opened the big cardboard box that she’d had in her house to take another look at the large Welsh hat that was stored inside. I remembered her explaining that it was a ‘ceremonial’ hat – not the sort that would ever have been worn on run-of-the-mill occasions. This hat had belonged to her mother and when I got it out of its box this time, I looked under the tissue paper around it and, much to my surprise and delight, discovered three photos of her mother wearing it. That’s one of them on the right.

Memory work is full of surprises!


You can also read occasional blogs by me on the Early Learning HQ website.  Early Learning HQ offers hundreds of free downloadable foundation stage and key stage one teaching resources. It also has an extensive blog section with contributions from a wide range of early years professionals, consultants and storytellers. For details of the Society for Storytelling, click here.

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply