What’s My Name Again?

by Zoë Sharp

I’ve just written that title down and realised that actually it would be a good one to do about pseudonyms, which wasn’t actually my intention. After all, a writer’s name is vital. It is who we are. And speaking as one who often gets both parts of my name misspelt – an extraneous ‘e’ tacked onto the end of Sharp and pick where you like for people to put the dieresis. I’ve even had those who hover one dot over the ‘o’ and the other over the ‘e’, just to hedge their bets.

Anyway, I digress. Where was I going with this again? Ah, yes, I know – memory! That was it! I remember now …

I’m the first to admit that I have a dreadful memory. Faces? No problem. I even recognised an old colleague from a local paper we briefly worked for in northern England twenty years ago, who I spotted sitting on a bench at a theme park in Florida, so not quite in context then. But names? Hopeless. I regularly go upstairs and forget what it is I went for. And shopping without a list is a nightmare.

So, I was intrigued to be recently reading Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown and come across the section on dramatically improving your memory. Derren Brown, for those of you who are not aware of him, is part illusionist, part psychologist, and all showman. The Guardian newspaper described him as, "Clearly the best dinner-party guest in history – he’s either a balls-out con artist or the scariest man in Britain." His various TV series over here have dumbfounded and entertained in equal measure, and while the knowing style of his book has taken a bit of getting used to, the information contained in it is just fascinating.

And why is this relevant here? Because, if I understand him correctly and extrapolate accordingly, fiction writers should have the best memories ever. Elephants should be as fickle goldfish compared to us lot.

Why? Because we exercise our imaginations on a regular basis.

Ye-es, it foxed me to begin with, but stick with me on this one, OK? And do give this a whirl. I tried the example in the book and was amazed that it worked flawlessly.

You see, Brown claims that most people, given a list of twenty disparate, unconnected words, can recall about seven with any degree of accuracy. He gave such a list and suggested that you read it through, and then try and jot down as many as you can recall, in the same order. I took the liberty of substituting my own words. Or, rather, so I wasn’t subconsciously picking words that I might find easy to remember, I asked someone else to do provide the list for me. And here they are:

bicycle

cabriolet

fridge

rollercoaster

muckspreader

pincushion

blotter

hemlock

Shakespeare

thingamabob

nonagenarian

Rolex

Skyline

filter

cauliflower

grandfather

cuckoo

tortoise

carpet

blitzkrieg

So, having read through them, look away from the screen and try and write them down, in the same order they’re listed here. How did you do? If you got past seven, you’re Marvo the Memory Man and you don’t need to read any further. Put it aside for a bit, and then try again, without re-reading the list, but in reverse order this time. Ah, now that’s a stumper, isn’t it?

How it’s done, according to Brown’s method, is create a link from one word to the next by producing an image that connects the words. A vivid image, with smells and emotions attached to it. If the image is of something that stinks, sniff it. If it’s funny, find it so.

The elements need to interact in some way, and each little scene needs to be odd enough to be memorable. Some people, apparently, don’t like visualisation and claim not to be very good at it, but we’re writers, for heaven’s sake. We spend our days making stuff up – that’s what we do.

So, here’s my own list of connections between the above words:

bicycle/cabriolet

A group of Edwardians in striped blazers and straw boater hats, riding along on their bicycles, very slow and stately, but in case of rain they all have cabriolet tops they can raise over their heads, with big curved hinges on the sides like an old-fashioned pram, and tassels along the front.

cabriolet/fridge

A nice little VW Cabriolet, gleaming in white, all colour-coded, and when you climb inside it’s still white like you’re sitting in your fridge, with wire racks and dairy products on the shelves and a light that comes on when you open the door. There’s a big bottle of milk strapped to the passenger seat. The air con keeps it frosty cold.

fridge/rollercoaster

You open the door of your fridge and a rollercoaster track unfurls out of the salad drawer, complete with screaming passengers, and goes careering round the kitchen, making it impossible to sneak down for a midnight snack without waking the entire street.

rollercoaster/muckspreader

The farmer next to the amusement park hates the people who ride the rollercoaster making all that racket, so he always drives his muckspreader along the hedge next to the bottom of the first drop, and sprays them all with cow manure as they hurtle past. Particularly nasty if you’ve got your mouth open as you go.

muckspreader/pincushion

Someone’s come up with a new way of recycling cow manure, which instead of being scattered is reformed inside the muckspreader into neat round pincushions, the size of pillows, which it deposits in a neat orderly row as the farmer drives his tractor through the local ladies’ sewing circle.

pincushion/blotter

The only trouble with the cowpat pincushions is when you stick a pin in them they let out a great cloud of stinking vapour and leak a nasty greeny fluid all over the place, which you have to soak up by putting a blotter under the pincushion wherever you go.

blotter/hemlock

An ingenious murderess decides to soak the blotter on her husband’s desk in hemlock, so he will be gradually poisoned as the hemlock leaches out and into his hands whenever he works late into the night.

hemlock/Shakespeare

The entire cast of a Shakespeare play toast each other with hemlock-laced glasses of wine, thus dying tragically at the end of the first act, not realising that the leading man is a method actor who has genuinely dosed them all with real poison.

Shakespeare/thingamabob

Will Shakespeare finds himself momentarily lost for words and invents a new one – thingamabob – which instantly becomes all the rage in Elizabethan England. Queen Elizabeth I instantly demands he produce one, by royal command, and he has to cobble something together or lose his head.

thingamabob/nonagenarian

Nonagenarian little old ladies can be easily identified by the fact that they’re each followed about by a thingamabob, which is a little bouncy squeaky thing, like a cross between a space hopper and a tribble, which won’t leave them alone. There they all are in the park, swatting at these troublesome thingamabobs with their umbrellas.

nonagenarian/Rolex

When anybody reaches the ripe old age of 90, their nonagenarian status is celebrated by awarding them a Rolex watch. The only trouble is, it’s a big garish one, plastered with diamonds, and the streets are filled with old folk dressed up in flashy watches and gold chains like gangster rappers.

Rolex/Skyline

All Nissan Skyline sports cars comes with a Rolex attached to the front of the bonnet so the driver can time themselves as they lap the Nürburgring in Germany. It’s also used as a means of handicapping the faster ones. The quicker you drive, the bigger watch you have to have, thus not only increasing drag, but also preventing the driver from seeing where they’re going, and slowing them down. At least they know exactly what time they crashed.

Skyline/filter

As a party trick, someone drives their Skyline around the inside of their filter coffee machine, like a fairground wall of death. Round and round they go, until they’re almost vertical up the sides, kicking up great rooster tails of coffee grounds and leaving tyre tracks in the paper filter.

filter/cauliflower

After heavy rain sluices cauliflowers into the drains, you have to insert big filters to stop them clogging everything up, otherwise they create the most awful stench of rotting vegetation.

cauliflower/grandfather

When your grandfather gets on a bit and loses his teeth, the only thing he can eat is mulched up very well-pureed cauliflower, which you have to cook for him in giant vats until it goes grey, and then put through a blender, at which point he packs it into his cheeks like a hamster. Grandfathers only have to be fed once a week using this method.

grandfather/cuckoo

Grandfathers are not acquired in the usual way, but introduced into the family nest like cuckoos, in the hopes that they’ll be cared for like the other family members. Of course, grandfathers can be bigger and more aggressive than other relatives, and often push them out of the nest using their Zimmer frames.

cuckoo/tortoise

Swiss cuckoo clocks are using tortoises instead of the more traditional birds to call the time. At the top of the hour the doors open and a tortoise emerges, very, very slowly, on the end of a spring. It can take these clocks several days to strike noon and midnight.

tortoise/carpet

To keep your tortoise warm in winter, you cover his shell in carpet, preferably shag pile, so there’s all these tortoises ambling about with multicoloured carpet stuck to their backs.

carpet/blitzkrieg

Brings a whole new meaning to carpet bombing. There’s the archetypal RAF squadron leader with handlebar moustache and flying helmet, piloting his plane through flak-ridden skies over war-torn Europe, waiting for his bombardier to give the word that he can release his load of Axminster and Wilton. Once away, these rolls of carpet plummet through the clouds in a lightning attack on the terrified populace.

I have to say that Derren Brown’s own list – and the explanation of the links between the words – was probably much better and far more amusing than my own. But you get the idea. If anyone can come up with sillier or more vivid connections, please feel free. But let me know how you get on. Because, it’s rather nice to know that this fertile imagination we have can be put to other uses, isn’t it?

Oh, and before I forget, this week’s Word of the Week is eidolon, which is an image, a phantom or apparition, a confusing reflection.

15 thoughts on “What’s My Name Again?

  1. billie

    This is a blast from the past for me – in high school I bought The Memory Book by Jerry Lucas to help with memorizing long lists of information for tests, etc.

    He recommended the exact same technique and I used it successfully all through high school, undergrad, and grad school. I still use it if I need to remember lists of any sort.

    I don’t know where that book is now, but each chapter had a different memory technique.

    I love your connecting stories for the list!

    Reply
  2. Louise Ure

    I tried to rewrite the list after reading your connecting stories (okay, that means I read the list twice) and came up with 14 right! It must work.

    Now to use it on names. I’m sadly losing that useful skill.

    Reply
  3. Pari Noskin Taichert

    What fun! And what a useful technique for those of us with grey matter that’s slowly becoming, well, lighter grey.

    I’m going to try using this today with some of the lists I’ve got to keep in my head.

    My family thanks you.

    Reply
  4. Kaye Barley

    Oh, what fun! I love this and will try using it. Its also very timely. I just finished writing a note to a friend whining about all the pink sticky notes scattered all over my desk, computer screen, refrigerator, etc.Louise! You got 14 out of the 20! I got 9, and tickled pink about it.Thanks, Zoe.

    Reply
  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Billie

    Great that this method worked to get you through so much education. I just felt that as a writer has to create mental images all the time, it was a perfect way to exercise and improve my memory!

    Reply
  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    If I stumped you at 14, it must be the mental image I created between that word and the next wasn’t strong enough. Come up with something more vivid, that sticks better in your own mind, and you’ll be able to get all the way through, no problem!

    And yes, I’m so grateful everyone wears name badges at conventions ;-]

    Reply
  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Derren Brown comes up with another method of remembering lists of tasks, and that’s to mentally walk through a building that’s familiar to you – your house, for instance – attaching some vivid mental image connected to each task to each room as you go through it. If you always take the same route through each room, that will stick in your memory, but you’ll be able to attach new tasks as you need to.

    I admit, though, I haven’t tried this one yet …

    Reply
  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Kaye

    Again, if I lost you at nine, that’s my fault more than yours, for not creating an image that was strong enough to be memorable. Just make up your own and see how you get on.

    Reply
  9. JT Ellison

    Wow, Zoë, this is too cool! I desperately need something like this to help me with names — as long as I get repetition I’m fine, but I grasp at straws if someone is trying to get me to remember them without help. Oddly enough, I’m much better at remembering long strings of numbers — credit cards, library passes, and the like. I remember all my old phone numbers from when I was a kid, license plates — it’s bizarre.

    Thanks for another excellent post!

    Reply
  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Me and numbers just don’t get on. I still have to look up my sister’s phone number every time I dial it. Oh, hang on, does this indicate that I don’t call my sister often enough?

    Numbers just don’t speak to me. My Other Half can scan a column of figures and point to the mistake. I can add them up three times with a calculator and get three different totals.

    On the other hand, like you, I can still recall the phone number of the first house I really remember living in. I think it was drummed into me just in case I ever got lost.

    Weird that, isn’t it? How memory works and how far back it can sometimes stretch. I can distinctly remember being wheeled in my pram along the street where my grandparents lived and one of their neighbours leaning over the pram to look in at me. I’ve no idea how old I was at the time, but it can’t have been very. It’s a very clear memory. And yet I’d have to stop and think if you asked me what I had for lunch yesterday …

    So, to throw in a new question, what’s your earliest memory?

    Reply
  11. Zoë Sharp

    We used to go on sailing holidays from when I was about eighteen months old, and I had three older half-siblings who used to dangle bits of bread wrapper on hooks over the stern to catch mackerel, which they then chased round the cockpit, clubbing away at them with a makeshift priest.

    It was years before I could be persuaded to eat fish …

    Reply
  12. Tom Barclay

    ” . . . clubbing away at them with a makeshift priest.”

    Between “mackerel,” “makeshift” and “priest” you’ve got the guts of another story there, Zoë.

    Reply
  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tom

    Hm, it could be fun, couldn’t it? But I can see that certain people would go off in directions that are SO different from the original context, though ;-]

    Reply

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