When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in the Soviet gulag, he was forced to deal with a challenge that modern writers rarely have to confront—the problem of memorization. He wanted to keep writing, but was unable to put anything on paper, which would be confiscated and read by the guards. Here’s the solution that he found, as described in The Gulag Archipelago:
I started breaking matches into little pieces and arranging them on my cigarette case in two rows (of ten each, one representing units and the others tens). As I recited the verses to myself, I displaced one bit of broken match from the units row for every line. When I shifted ten units I displaced one of the “tens”…Every fiftieth and every hundredth line I memorized with special care, to help me keep count. Once a month I recited all that I had written. If the wrong line came out in place of one of the hundreds and fifties, I went over it all again and again until I caught the slippery fugitives.
In the Kuibyshev Transit Prison I saw Catholics (Lithuanians) busy making themselves rosaries for prison use…I joined them and said that I, too, wanted to say my prayers with a rosary but that in my particular religion I needed hundred beads in a ring…that every tenth bead must be cubic, not spherical, and that the fiftieth and the hundredth beads must be distinguishable at a touch.
The Lithuanians were impressed, Solzhenitsyn says, by his “religious zeal,” and they agreed to make a rosary to his specifications, fashioning the beads out of pellets of bread and coloring them with burnt rubber, tooth powder, and disinfectant. (Later, when Solzhenitsyn realized that twenty beads were enough, he made them himself out of cork.) He concludes:
I never afterward parted with the marvelous present of theirs; I fingered and counted my beads inside my wide mittens—at work line-up, on the march to and fro from work, at all waiting times; I could do it standing up, and freezing cold was no hindrance. I carried it safely through the search points, in the padding of my mittens, where it could not be felt. The warders found it on various occasions, but supposed that it was for praying and let me keep it. Until the end of my sentence (by which time I had accumulated 12,000 lines) and after that in my places of banishment, this necklace helped me write and remember.
Ever since I first read this story, I’ve been fascinated by it, and I’ve occasionally found myself browsing the rosaries or prayer beads for sale online, wondering if I should get one for myself, just in case—although in case of what, exactly, I don’t know.
But you don’t need to be in prison to understand the importance of memorization. One of the side effects of our written and interconnected culture is that we’ve lost the ability to hold information in our heads, a trend that has only accelerated as we’ve outsourced more of our inner lives to the Internet. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: there are good reasons for keeping a lot of this material where it can be easily referenced, without feeling the need to remember it all. (As Sherlock Holmes said in A Study in Scarlet: “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose…It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.” Although given the amount of obscure information that Holmes was able to produce in subsequent stories, it’s possible that he was just kidding.) But there’s also a real loss involved. Oral cultures are marked by a highly developed verbal memory, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on it: a working poet could be expected to know hundreds of songs by heart, and the conventions of poetry itself emerged, in part, as a set of mnemonic devices. Meter, rhyme, and conventional formulas allowed many lines of verse to be recited for a paying audience—or improvised on the spot. Like the songlines of the Aboriginal Australians, an oral poem is a vehicle for the preservation of information, and it takes advantage of the human brain’s ability to retain material in a pattern that hints at what comes next. When we neglect this, we lose touch with some of the reasons that poetry evolved in the first place.
And what makes memorization particularly valuable as a creative tool is the fact that it isn’t quite perfect. When you write something down, it tends to become fixed, both physically and psychologically. (Joan Didion must have had something like this in mind when she said: “By the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”) An idea in the brain, by contrast, remains fluid, malleable, and vital. Each time you go back to revisit it, whether using a rosary or some other indexical system, you aren’t just remembering it, but to some extent recreating it, and you’ll never get it exactly right. But just as natural selection exists because of the variations that arise from errors of transcription, a creative method that relies on memory is less accurate but more receptive to happy accidents than one that exists on the page. A line of poetry might change slightly each time we call it up, but the core idea remains, and the words that survive from one iteration to the next have persisted, by definition, because they’re memorable. We find ourselves revising and reworking the result because we have no choice, and in the process, we keep it alive. The danger, of course, is that if we don’t keep notes, any ideas we have are likely to float away without ever being realized—a phenomenon that every writer regards with dread. What we need is a structure that allows us to assign an order to the ideas in our head while preserving their ripe state of unwrittenness. Solzhenitsyn’s rosary, which was forced on him by necessity, was one possible answer, but there are others. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss another method that I’ve been using with excellent results, and which relies on a priceless mnemonic tool that we all take for granted: the alphabet.