Memorizing

Kate stands center stage. Behind her is a screen with a blank projection slide.

Kate: At first everything is unfocused.

The screen slide changes to a blurry grayish block of completely illegible text that crowds the slide.

Kate: I can’t keep any of it in my head, and it seems bigger and more insurmountable than it warrants. The mass is undifferentiated. I feel pretty incapable at this point.

After going over it a number of times, it is still unfocused, but now it takes on a new quality: slipperiness.

The screen slide shows the blurry grayish block again, this time certain lines pulse into a sharper focus. They don’t stay in the same place and move around the gray blocks. Nothing stays long enough in focus to read it.

Kate: It’s like grabbing at a bag of Vaseline’d eels. Horrifying and impossible. This is a difficult time.

I usually want to give up and stop the whole endeavor at this point. I really have to grit my teeth and force myself to continue. If I stay with it long enough, I start to catch some of those eels.

The screen slide shows the blurry gray block, with the pulsing slowing down, some short phrases pulling into focus long enough to read them with each of the lines staying in the same place.

Kate: This phase isn’t a great time either, but it is a huge relief after the confusion of the eels to be reminded that my mind actually can get a hold of a group of words and remember them as written. That relief alone keeps me going through the considerable mental discomfort.

The next part is actually what I think is the coolest transformation in the process.

The screen slide shows the blurry gray blocks shift to smaller chunks (like highlighted lines in a book) separated from the other gray blocks. A sprinkling of short phrases are legible inside the smaller chunks.

Kate: The text starts to separate into these topical chunks. I begin remembering what the theme is for each of the chunks. Sometimes I have an exact phrase or two, but more often, I don’t have exact wording at all.

At this point, I could probably give you the gist of the beats, but not any specific lines. If I keep looking it over, eventually I arrive at key phrases.

The screen slide shows each blurry gray chunk with a clear phrase in it, but the rest of the text is pulsing in and out with synonyms for the original text. The pulsing bits are in the same place, but never quite the right words.

Kate: This is the riskiest point in the process. My confidence level has increased because, hey, I’m consistently remembering the topic order of the text, the exact text of certain phrases, and I’m pretty close on the other parts. What does it really matter if I’m using an entirely different word arrangement for the parts I’m not exactly sure of yet?

It would be super easy to stop at this point, and that’s why it’s a dangerous time. I know this kind of confidence in my performance won’t survive the scrutiny of another person. So I have to knock myself down a few notches by making myself say it out loud.

The screen slide shows the clear phrases as black text on a white background. The places with pulsing text change to white blankness.

Kate: The rubber meets the road. It becomes crystal clear I don’t know any of this yet.

Now that my unearned confidence has been appropriately deflated, I get back to work. I go over the text again and again, and I start snagging new bits of it into my memory.

The screen slide shows the clear phrases again, now with blurry, illegible text that completes each themed chunk. Several of the blurry lines and phrases slowly come into focus, while others still stay blurry and/or cycle through the synonym versions of the text.

Kate: I’m getting really close now. I’m able to start zeroing in on the sections that I can’t quite get exactly right. I speak it out loud over and over again, taking as much time as I need to remember the phrases precisely.

I’m pretty determined at this point. I’m in sight of the finish line, so I really put the pressure on to get everything letter perfect.

The screen slide shows the clear phrases, and most of the blurry, illegible text has pulled into sharp focus. There are a couple of phrases that are cycling between blank and blurry. They also pulse occasionally with the wrong words.

Kate: This point is probably the most irritating. I’ve got it. I mean, it really feels like I’ve got it. There are just these couple places that trip me up every time. I either can’t remember the words at all, or I keep saying the words wrong. Often I will keep going over and over it, trying to bully myself into remembering them.

This does not work.

What does work is taking a break.

The screen slide is completely blank.

Kate: It is not easy to take a break. Usually, these things have a deadline. A time when it must be memorized, no excuses. A break feels like a stupid thing to do so close before the critical moment. The kind of strategy that is very difficult for a person like me who only feels really comfortable when I’m actively doing the thing that needs doing.

But that break works wonders on my brain.

I come back to it, and the words flow from my mind and my mouth.

The screen slide fades up each phrase of the text into sharp focus in the correct order, while Kate speaks the text word for word. When she gets to the last sentence, Kate flubs one of the phrases and it turns a little fuzzy.

Kate: Well, almost flows.

Curtain.

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