The Power of Repetition Part 1: I Remember

by | Feb 26, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

“Repetition is an indestructible garment that fits closely and tenderly, neither binds nor sags.”

—Søren Kierkegaard

Hello from the haze of having a newborn! Our week-old baby, Cleo Frances, is healthy and happy, and I’m excited to re-engage, bit by bit, as I’m able to string together three whole hours of sleep at a time. Well, not quite three hours yet, but soon. 

It’s a good time for me to write a prompt about repetition because my days and nights are on repeat in a much shorter cycle: baby eats, baby sleeps, baby gas-smiles at us for 5 minutes, baby cries when we change her diaper. Repeat 10-12 times per day. 

This prompt itself is a repeat if you’ve taken a workshop from me before. But that’s okay, because it’s all about how powerful repetition can be. 

Repetition, in writing, can mean several different things:

Refrains

in which whole lines are repeated. This is usually a poetry thing, but a character might be sharply defined by repeating themselves. In an earlier draft of The Great Gatsby, the title character called Nick “Old Sport” just a couple times, which made it kind of weird without being a whole character affectation. His editor, Maxwell Perkins, recommended either cutting it entirely or using it a lot more, so that it became a defining tic that represented Gatsby’s doomed hope to blend in with the generationally wealthy. 

Rhyme

of which there are lots of kinds, and which of course is pretty limited to poetry. 

Alliteration

which is repetition of consonants (known as consonance) or vowel sounds (assonance). Alliteration has a place in both poetry and prose as long as it’s used intentionally and isn’t overbearing.

Parallelism

or the repetition of a grammatical structure. This one’s biblical and rhetorical. Like in JFK’s inaugural: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” That “___ any ___” becomes a kind of crescendo as the sentence continues. Or in Ecclesiastes, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill

Anaphora

in which the start of each sentence or phrase is repeated. 

Anaphora is our business today, and next week, too, for that matter. Can’t just have one week of repetition, can we? 

Specifically, the word or phrase is “I remember.” So simple, so effective. The originator is Joe Brainard, who wrote a whole book called I Remember in which every line started with—you guessed it—”I remember.” Here’s an excerpt.

Also, check out Mary Ruefle’s fresh, brilliant take on the prompt, “I Remember, I Remember.” 

Spoiler alert: The prompt today is to write your own “I Remember.” This is one you should definitely totally not skip. It works for everybody. I write one every time I ask students to write one, and it never gets old.


Prompt

Write your own “I Remember.” Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself.

What’s remarkable about repeating the same phrase over and over is that it allows you to range widely and wildly in the rest of each line, while still being cohesive as a whole. Look back at the Joe Brainard excerpt. Notice the humor, the tenderness, the balance of general and specific, detail and vagueness, communal and personal. Quippy one-liners followed immediately by longer paragraphs laden with rich imagery and frank emotion. 

Notice, too, that the memories are not at all in chronological order, which is true to how memory really works. We don’t remember things in sequence. We associate. One memory sparks the next because of a color or a smell or by some indecipherable leap of the mind and heart. 

As you write, take a note from Brainard and use as much variation as possible in the kinds of memories you evoke, the tone, the degree of detail, the length, the time when they occurred. 

If you want to mix it up more, here are some ideas:

  • If you’re working on fiction, write an “I Remember” for one of your characters / a new character.
  • Write an “I Remember” on a single dimension of your life — a passion or interest, your job, your education, family or a relationship, friendship, travel, religion, cultural identity, or perhaps something you have a fraught relationship with.
  • Devote your “I Remember” to one particular memory or period of your life. Evoke your sensory experiences of the memory–sights, smells, textures, sounds, tastes–and find precise wording to capture the unusual emotions and thoughts you had at the time.  
  • Mix in some “I don’t remember…” or “I don’t want to remember” to give it a different texture.
  • Time yourself and write as many “I remember” lines as you can (for yourself or a character) in 5 or 10 or 15 minutes, and then choose one to develop into a more sustained narrative, scene, essay, or poem.

This could be a warm-up for your writing today, or it could turn into something of its own. Like memory itself, the “I Remember” form is endlessly elastic even in its strict repetition.