A couple of weeks ago, I read The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, and I’m one chapter short of finishing her 1995 bestselling memoir The Liars’ Club now. As the Peck Professor of Literature and Memoir at Syracuse University, she offers expert tips and provides an appendix of must-read memoirs. The list is so worth the purchase for those interested in studying the genre.

In Chapter 19, “Old School Technologies for the Stalled Novice,” Karr encourages intellectual enterprises to keep you studying the craft of writing. Here are some of the tools she uses to learn from mentor texts. Some of these include writing longhand. She says it will slow you down as typing can’t.

  1. Keep a notebook, where you copy beloved poems or hunks of prose. Nothing will teach you of great writers’ choices better. Plus, you can carry your inspiration around in compact form.
  2. Write reviews or criticism for an online blog or a magazine. It will discipline you to find evidence for your opinions and make you a crisper thinker.
  3. Augment a daily journal with a reading journal. Compose a one-page review with quotes. Make yourself back up opinions.
  4. Write out longhand on 3×5” index cards quotes you come across, writer’s name on the left, source and page on the right. Karr has thousands of these from which she cobbles up lectures.
  5. Memorize poems when you’re stuck.
  6. Write longhand letters to your complicated characters or even to the dead. You’ll learn more about voice by writing letters, how you arrange yourself different ways for each audience, than in a year of classes.

Number Five spoke loudest to me. Funny how I can still remember chunks of verse from days gone by. I memorized the “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost in the eighth grade for my English class. Anytime I take another look at that poem, the words come flooding back. When I taught sophomores, I memorized Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” funeral oration from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. And when I taught juniors, I memorized Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief candle” soliloquy. Because the students had been tasked to memorize, I wanted to prove I could do it. I loved to show them a three-year-old’s ability to memorize, too. Here’s a toddler’s version of “Litany” by Billy Collins.

Here’s one I’m working on, at Mary Karr’s suggestion and just because I love it:

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
by e.e. cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

32 thoughts on “Memorize?

  1. This is an interesting list with information that I don’t recall seeing before. I once knew all of Mark Anthony’s speech, I think that memorizing will not only help with writing, but is also a wonderful brain exercise in general.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I remember reading both of Karr’s books. Funny I’d forgotten about that. I often write longhand and I try to memorize a stanza from a poem once in a while. Perhaps I absorbed her advice more than I realize.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Most standardized tests for students with written components (at least in Texas) require longhand along either the high stakes AP and SAT tests. Outside of school, I’m not sure. I take my notes in longhand and write some occasional letters…

      The SAT test also requires a cursive signature 🤷‍♀️, and that’s the hardest part for some kids (next to the math, reading, and vocabulary).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In high school, I never liked having to memorize poetry and pieces from Shakespeare. On the other hand, memorizing songs as a member of our Glee Club was so much more fun 🙂 The only things I memorize these days are the 101 passwords needed for life online.

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  4. I have Mary Karr’s book on memoir and read it many times. Isn’t she a fantastic writer? I still recite (to myself) poems and psalm, prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. After you mentioned Macbeth’s soliloguy to despair, I had to recite it to myself from the beginning: “Tomorrow and tomorrow . . . .” Oh my!

    Liked by 1 person

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