Palimpsest Exercise: From Point A to Point C


This term’s university module, now nearly over, has been all about the importance and methods of research. I haven’t learned a whole lot of new stuff this term but I did come across the concept of palimpsest exercises whilst writing an assignment on incorporating fact into fiction.

A brief history lesson

In Ye Olde Times, when parchment was super expensive, using it only once was pretty wasteful. A lot of manuscripts were written on, cleaned, written on again, cleaned again, and so on. That’s a palimpsest. The term doesn’t just apply to paper, incidentally – a bronze plaque that’s been turned over and reinscribed, or stone that’s been smoothed down and recarved, are also palimpsests. The word comes from the Ancient Greek palimpsestos, which literally means ‘scraped again’.

In a way, reused canvases (a la Monet) could be called palimpsests. They weren’t scraped off, just painted over, but technically the modern definition doesn’t require scraping. All it means is ‘used for one purpose and later reworked for another’.

When we read [a palimpsest], we see erasures from other reading and writings. History is the reading we make of this subjective, visually complex activity. It is made up of layers upon layers of fact and opinion and stray thoughts, so that one cannot always decide if one is reading one layer or another.   ~ Brian Kiteley, How Language Lives: Reading and Writing Historical Fiction


The Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, a Greek manuscript of the Bible from the 5th century

The actual exercise

Pick a paragraph from a writer you like. Pick a second paragraph from a second writer. Got them? Right, now write a prose bridge between them.

The challenge is to somehow make them fit. Brings the settings together, make a logical progression of plot, or even turn two character voices into one. You can rewrite the original paragraphs a little to make this work – hence the name of the exercise. Start easy, with paragraphs that are vaguely similar in tone or subject matter, then graduate to completely different genres, voices, and worlds.

The point of this is to stretch your powers of persuasion. Make the reader believe that these two different paragraphs belong together, and always have. If you can do that, you can make them believe anything you put on the page, and then you’ve got them hooked.

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