Tips for writing and memorizing

January 17, 2009

I’m in the midst of trying to memorize Kaia’s set for our upcoming appearance at the MLK Day celebration at the Buskirk-Chumley. As usual, the idea for the set came to me while I was in the shower (all the best ideas come when you’re least likely to have a pen and paper around)!

Like last year, the set this year is a mix of spoken word and sung music, but this year everything’s intertwined in snippets. We’re singing two complete songs and snips of 4 others. Connecting them all are lines I wrote, giving context for each piece.

I follow a particular process to get me to the final draft as quickly as possible and then memorize it:

Say it
Record yourself speaking out on each subject. Don’t rein yourself in — let yourself babble. This is the brainstorming phase and you want to generate as many ideas as possible.  

Write it
Listen to the recording and jot down only the most salient points. You’ll probably start with a disjointed list of bullet points, but keep working until you can put the points into sentences. Depending on the length of your “patter,” you may want only two or three sentences.

Try it
Use your cheat sheet of sentences and run through your lines out loud. Do they sound like something you’d read or something you’d say? Pencil in refinements to make it more natural sounding. Get a sense of the rhythm to work out the kinks until it flows easily.

Edit it
Get out the scalpel and ruthlessly chop every extraneous word. Look for ideas that you’re trying desperately to fit in but that are really beyond your point. Cut ’em! Resist the temptation to keep flowery phrasings when a more direct approach will do. It depends on your audience and the music, but if you want to bring people along with you quickly, use language that’s easily comprehensible. 

Add memorization cues
There are a number of ways you can write your piece to help make it easier to memorize. One was is hidden alliteration: “The people in the civil rights struggle were not solely victims. They sang out in defiance.” Note the number of “s” sounds in those two sentences. When spoken, you can emphasize struggle, solely, sang, and defiance. One “s” word becomes a cue for the next, yet the spoken word sounds natural.

The ancient Druids were known for their phenomenal memories. One of their many roles in Celtic societies was to act as a repository of the tribe’s history. This included incredibly long recitations of stories, genealogies, and poems. I’ve successfully used some of their techniques when writing more poetic pieces, such as ending a phrase with a word that begins the next phrase. 

Bran rode out upon the waves,
Waves that shone like Lugh’s bough.

Direct repetition isn’t always possible, so you can use a related word to string one line to the next. Using this technique, Druids could recite thousands of lines for hours with no breaks (save for a drink or three!). 

Run it
Now that you have your script, start running it.  Start by reciting the lines while moving. Physical movement helps memorization. Don’t try to get off-script too soon. Start with the most difficult section first, then add the next section, and so on. You may not always start at the beginning; in fact, repeatedly starting only at the beginning can hamper your efforts to internalize sections that get less practice.

Get off-script
Run the lines until you can begin to go off-script for longer periods of time. If your piece is long or complex, reduce it back to bullet points and work from that as an interim step to going completely off the page. At this point your body will naturally add gestures — let it. 

Polish it
As you gradually move off-script, imagine your audience very clearly. Imagine the stage or other setting you’ll be in. Visualize these as clearly as possible. Follow your body’s gestures. Record yourself again and see if you sound like you’re speaking or reading. If the latter, really pay attention to your delivery and just say it like you mean it. Too often, when speaking in public, we put on a false voice that preaches or drones. Just allow yourself to speak as naturally and as conversationally as possible.

Keep visualizing that audience. Smile to them where appropriate. Let your physical expressions come naturally from the words you’re saying. This is one area of rehearsal that many performers overlook — they rehearse the lines/scene/music very internally, as if the final performance will be in their living room. Your ultimate goal is to connect with your audience, so you need to rehearse that part of your performance as well. The more strongly you imagine the setting you’ll be in, and the more authentically you rehearse, the more polished and powerful your final performance will be.

Go forth!
If you find that you absolutely cannot get every line down and you’re under a crunchy deadline (not that I’m worried about Monday night’s performance), make a cheat sheet of the shortest bullet points you can possibly devise and put it on the stage floor as a memory prompt. Don’t forget to practice with it before you perform.

Now, after your four or five weeks of hard work, get out there and deliver your 6-minute performance. It’ll be killer! 😉