How to Remember Stories

These days, I'm afraid, the entertainment is us. Story up

Posted Oct 10, 2020

Igor Rodrigues / Unsplash
June O. / Unsplash
Source: Igor Rodrigues / Unsplash

You’ve probably heard of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, the father of Tragedy. But do you know how he died? A hungry bird dropped a turtle from a great height onto his bald head, thinking it was a rock.

Now that’s tragic. But it’s a pretty good story. Even if you bail on this post right now, at least you’ll have that one yarn ready to go at the next dinner party, if the subject of unexpected calamity comes up. And these days, it comes up a lot.

The question is, will you remember to tell it?

The human brain can hold a lot of material. More than we ever thought. New research suggests your memory is so unfathomably capacious it could store the contents of entire Internet.

But working memory is a different fish. It's relatively wee. There may only be 4gb of capacity for immediate recall — less than your laptop has. Your brain, by evolutionary design, is a ruthless culler, letting most of what it encounters run right through. Including most of what you hear and see and live.

Unless …. you tell your brain how important the stories you want to save really are — by positively bathing them in careful attention, like a curator at the Library of Congress.

When you hear a killer story, one that checks Dorothy Day’s “duty to delight” box, the first step is to bank it. Right away. In the little notebook you always carry in your back pocket. (Right?) Forty percent of what we learn is gone in 20 minutes. Seventy percent is gone in a day.

Get it down in as much detail as you can remember. Yes, you may look like a knob. But that never stopped, say, Ronald Reagan. The former president was known to pull out a pen right in the middle of dinner if someone shared a juicy anecdote, and scribble it down on one of the blank index cards he always kept in his jacket. (If the story contained even a modest swear word, Reagan would write "h--l" or "d—n.” Which, come to think of it, I believe my father did, too. It was a gentler time.)

Much of the nitty-gritty detail will fall away at the next stage, when you transfer the story from your notebook to some kind of filing system. But make sure you don’t do this for at least a week. “Waiting helps you separate the wheat from the chaff,” the writer Ryan Holiday maintains. Many of those pages you so enthusiastically dogeared will seem distinctly meh when you return to them. “This is a good thing – it’s a form of editing.”

Do you now dictate your material into your smartphone and then, clicking your heels, port it into into your computer via something like the organizing app Evernote? Many do. But there’s lots to be said for going old-school. A number of bestselling authors swear by three-by-five-inch index cards, collected in a bull clip or a little filing cabinet. Something about the act of physically jotting stuff down gets your body involved, which helps you remember. Studies show you’re far more likely to recall material from handwritten notes than notes you recorded or typed.

Either way, you definitely don’t want to write the whole story out in full. “That seems to kill the oral telling somehow,” says author and storytelling consultant Shawn Callahan. Do get down the facts you might forget – like names and dates and places — but otherwise just “think about what’s most important to you in the story,” he insists. Distill it into a single funny or unusual sentence or image. Or better yet, into a little movie clip. We remember best what we can easily visualize.

The reason that story about the Greek playwright came readily to mind when I needed it is because it’s pretty cinematic. There’s Aeschylus, strolling through a clearing in the olive grove, and he’s suddenly exposed, his bald head gleaming in the sun. Bombs away. As a bald guy, that resonates with me emotionally. You never know when you’re going to fatally take a turtle in the head. For me, vulnerability is the feeling at the core of that story, and tagging a story with an emotion seems to help a lot. “We remember more if we can see it happening, and even more if we can feel it happening,” Callahan says.

One of the things the speaking club Toastmasters does well is to provide practice in building the story-retrieval muscle. Pulling your stories out of your brain when you need them is an acquired skill. This is how real life works. You can’t whip out your phone in the middle of a date or a dinner party. You just have to … story up.

One woman in my club was 90 years old. She would often spin yarns from her own childhood, stories of working the grill in the family waffle shop, or entering beauty contests, or fighting for racial justice. Composing and delivering these seven-minute gems was, she maintained, how she was able to stay cognitively sharp.

It’s way easier to remember stories if they fall into an area you’re a little bit of an expert in. The more you know, the more you attract and connect with similar stories, and the narrative canopy spreads. As a kid, psychologist Adam Grant used to memorize the batting averages of baseball players on his beloved Detroit Tigers. As an adult, he adapted that talent to memorizing psychology studies. It’s like having a research assistant in his head. Psychology studies are more useful than batting averages, because they’re about what makes humans tick. Just like stories.

My father deeply believed that stories are therapy — both for the listener and the teller. That was why he was privately building a vast story bank, from which he one day hoped to be able always to draw the perfect story at the perfect moment.

But here’s a dirty little secret I’ve come to figure out: You don’t actually have to have a vast story bank. You can make the moment fit the story, rather than the other way around.

Once, long ago, there was old rabbi who was known for answering every question with a story. He seemed never to be caught out. One day a student said, “Rabbi, How do you know so many stories? And how do you choose the stories to tell that are so perfect for the subject?”

“Your question,” the rabbi said, “reminds me of a story.

“On the outskirts of a village there lived an aspiring young archer. While heading into town one day he noticed a barn with chalk circles drawn all over its side. Someone had been using those circles for target practice. And whoever it was was an ace: In each circle there was an arrow dead centre. One day the young man knocked on the farmhouse door.

"'Excuse me,’ he asked, ‘but do you know who is this marksman who can shoot a hundred perfect bullseyes?’

"'Oh, yes, that’s the town fool,’ he farmer said. ‘You think he shoots bullets in circles. But actually, he shoots first, then he draws the circle.’

“'And that’s the way it is for me,’ the rabbi told his student. “I don’t just happen to have these perfect stories that fit the subject being discussed. Instead, when I find a story I particularly like, I steer the conversation that way so I can then introduce the story.”

For Part One of this story on stories, click here.

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