A Palimpsest

Written by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

Dear Writers,

Recently, as global tragedies and deep personal sorrows duel daily in my head and heart, it’s been hard to hear my voice.  No, it’s been hard to find anything I want to say – any thought that can muster enough energy to form words, especially words on the page.   Form itself has been a challenge for me: finding a form that can hold me and help me sift through my experiences so that they can transcend navel-gazing and touch others.

Serendipity has come to the rescue.

Serendipity as in: the message on a tea bag.  The focus of a 5Rhythms class.  The sight of two small, brown, side-by-side birds sitting on a tree branch in an ice storm, with only each other for shelter. Which is to say, being in the present moment for long enough to let the universe offer a gift to quiet the din inside me.

The latest gift comes from Sherri, who is in residence at Hedgebrook at the moment.  She mentioned a novel to me, and later asked me to help her remember another, and in both cases, I encountered the word “palimpsest.”  As many of you know, who know my work, I am preoccupied with the everchanging story of “Who am I?” and in particular with memory as the main tool we use to tell and retell the narrative of who we want to be.  In my three books, I have done this against the backdrop of history – which has at least some form of documentation of fact, however twisted – but now my focus is my parents, our family, a topic for which there is surprisingly little evidence.  Our personal history is very much like a faded manuscript, reminding me that I did not pay enough attention to the stories until the people who lived them and could tell them were gone. 

But “palimpsest” gives me so much freedom. The fact that there is a word for rewriting on top of what was once written: it is the same concept I have been working with, of “re-memories,” but the word evokes an image, and the image gives me form.  It gives me permission to more fully imagine on top of fragments of memory. In some cases, to make things up completely, knowing that my reader will understand what I am doing, but also knowing that new story is informed and shaped by the one that lies beneath it, because, how can it not be?  It’s like an elaborate, ornate Wordle: when you have a vowel or two to work with, there are so many possible choices, but a palimpsest offers more freedom to try them all.

The spirit of a gift is that it must be given.  I’m assembling the writers for the new Grove retreat, and I’ve promised them that we will be creating our workshops and offerings to meet them where they are in their own struggles, successes and goals.  So here’s an opportunity, perhaps, to work with a palimpsest:

What is the underlying story for you?  Perhaps something you don’t remember, or will never know, or that you can’t make sense of?  Or one that you are bored of but can’t stop writing, or that you are so tired of hearing from someone else’s perspective or voice?  It could be a chapter, poem, or scene that isn’t working. It could be the story of your surroundings, environment, culture, belief systems.  A page from an old journal. It doesn’t even have to be words: it could be a musical score, a mathematical proof, a drawing.

Identify it. Maybe even let it fill you. Then let it go and begin a new story on top of it.

We’ll be doing this at the Grove.  I’m thinking dance, word clouds, art supplies. And Sherri (who is in the woods so I get to speak for her) might also be inverting this relationship to the underlying story by using mythologies and fairytales to pin down and understand what is free-floating in our stories now. More to come in April, but for those of you who can’t make it, or who encounter this message out of time and space, I leave you with the image of a palimpsest, the beginnings of a prompt, and the freedom to start writing on top of the old story and see what happens.

Happy writing, everyone!



(And if you want to find our more about our April retreat, The Grove, jump to this page or follow the links from Write With Us and Retreat on the menu above.)


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