Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Writers love words.

And so I’m delighted to learn a new one—palimpsest. Like Lisa’s Jahn Clough’s word pentimento, the painting beneath a painting on a reused canvas, palimpsest is also a term of reuse. Originally a palimpsest was a manuscript page from a book or a scroll that had the text scraped off of it so that new text could be written on it. The word literally means “scraped again.”

I love the word, but I don’t always love the deed. Recently I launched myself into a book-length project and found I had completely missed the goal for which the editors were aiming. Everything I’d thought about, everything I’d written had to be scraped away so I could start again. I knew going into the project that this could happen, but I was thrown, briefly, into gloom.

This is by no means the first time I’ve started something over—all my writing has been scraped and scraped again and often scrapped after scraping. But this time I found myself ruing my blithe response to students when I’ve suggested that they revise or even toss what they’ve written. “All writing is practice,” I tell them, and it’s true. But writing that we care about (and why should anyone care about our writing if we don’t?) is also hard work, and I need to remember and respect that hard work even when urging drastic action.

Writers love words. We’ll continue to put them down, scrape them off, and put new ones down. I need to scrape away the words I use to suggest that other writers palimpsestize their own writing, and I need to put new words down that recognize both the hard work writers do and also the sense of loss they might feel, as I felt, when they let those words go.

Luckily I believe that all good writing, scraped or scrapped, goes to word heaven and is very, very happy.


  1. I so needed to hear about word heaven. Many of my darlings are there.

  2. I agree, Phyllis. So much easier to give that advice to just "start over", then to do it. Word heaven is a comforting thought. The other one I use is that all the words and ideas are still there in the iceberg under the sea, supporting the tip of the story.

  3. A long time ago there was this Garfield cartoon where Jon had brushed Garfield and he said, "What am I supposed to do with all this hair?" and Garfield said, "Make another cat."

    Wish I could make another novel with all those words I cut. :p

  4. Heck, hamsters, it turns out, run an average of 8 miles on their wheels every night. We're all moving somewhere, be it more words or more miles. We just have to keep doing it.