“Sedulous aping”

Maxines_Alexandra_Imperial “Memory” – or memoria – is one of the five canons of classical rhetoric. Write Brett and Kate McKay in their excellent blog “The Art of Manliness”:

Anciently, almost all rhetorical communication was done orally in the public forum. Ancient orators had to memorize their speeches and be able to give them without notes or crib sheets. Note taking as a way to remember things was often looked down upon in many ancient cultures. …

Because the orations of ancient rhetoricians could last several hours, they had to develop mnemonic devices (techniques that aid memory) to help them remember all the parts of their speeches. The most famous and popular of these mnemonic devices was the “method of loci” technique.

The method of loci memory technique was first described in written form in a Roman treatise on rhetoric called ad Herennium, but it also made appearances in treatises by Cicero and Quintilian. It’s an extremely effective mnemonic device and is still used by memory champions like Joshua Foer, author of the recent book, Moonwalking With Einstein.

To use the method of loci, the speaker concentrates on the layout of a building or home that he’s familiar with. He then takes a mental walk through each room in the building and commits an engaging visual representation of a part of his speech to each room. So, for example, let’s say the first part of your speech is about the history of the Third Punic War. You can imagine Hannibal and Scipio Africanus duking it out in your living room. You could get more specific and put different parts of the battles of the Third Punic War into different rooms. The method of loci memory technique is powerful because it’s so flexible.

In his excellent blog, LawProse, Bryan Garner makes a good case for trying to memorize the prose of good writers.

What did David Foster Wallace and Robert Louis Stevenson have in common? They taught themselves to write better using the same technique: reading short passages from superb writers, trying to re-create from memory the passages they’d just read, and then assessing how their own versions compared with the originals. The assumption was always that the original was superlative—and that each departure from exact replication was a slight failure. It’s a superb technique to improve your command of syntax, punctuation, and phrasing. …

Here’s what David Foster Wallace said about the exercise: “If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate the passage that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.” Robert Louis Stevenson called the exercise “playing the sedulous ape.” He said: “I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and the coordination of parts.”

So even though the best exercise is to repeat the drill using the same passage, this technique is not an exercise in rote memorization and reproduction. It’s a technique to improve your attention to the building blocks of superb writing and to develop your feel for them. As you do that, you’ll be able to appreciate the cadences, syntax, punctuation, etc. in your own writing.

Read the whole post and try one of Garner’s nifty practice exercises.

—-

photo by Bob Basil

 

This entry was posted in Robert's posts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.