Writing Fiction: Palimpsest

One of Elizabeth Bishop’s most famous poems is One Art. Apparently prompted by the suicide of her partner, and the loss of her mother at an early age. It’s a cool analysis of the process of loss with a barely disguised cry of despair/anger/confusion at the end. These are the first two stanzas:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster


Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

The poem is rare as a work of art, because we have every one of the 16 drafts it took to get it into its final shape. This is from the first version, the poem at that time called The Art of Losing Things.

The thing to do is to begin by “mislaying”.

Mostly, one begins by “mislaying”:

keys, reading-glasses, fountain pens

– these are almost too easy to be mentioned,

and “mislaying” means that they usually turn up

in the most obvious place, although when one

is making progress, the places grow more unlikely

– This is by way of introduction. I really want to introduce myself – I am such a

fantastic lly good at losing things I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences.

16 drafts later, the poem has become a villanelle (nineteen lines; five stanzas of three lines each, rhyme-scheme aba, etc). The only lost object from the original are the keys. They are now a starting point which builds to whole continents, and takes in a watch (she had apparently just lost her mother’s watch, her one remaining physical connection.)

What interests me, is the way that, in any creative act, certain elements from earlier drafts will show through. Either sharpening their meaning, or altering it in the process. I have paragraphs and sentences in my second novel which I recognise from the first draft but are now set in a different context. Poems, films, novels, paintings often build up in this way.

There’s an interview on the Film Four website with Jonathan Glazer, the writer/director of the film adaptation of Under the Skin. He describes how they worked at getting the character to develop between three key moments: an encounter on a beach; falling to the pavement; and deciding to change her behaviour. He says:

(It’s not) just what you write, it’s what you find, it’s how you edit, how you re-edit. What you rewrite, what you reshoot, what you re-find, what you re-edit. It never stops. It’s always in flux, until you can almost feel that curve in the right angle.

So the key moments remain, but the intervening action is crafted. Later, he talks about the decisions that were made about the music:

That’s what’s interesting about the process of making anything. One the one hand you’re completely attached to it and on the other hand you have to remain completely unnattached to it. You just don’t know when things are no longer going to be important to you. It’s all in orbit all of the time.

The BBC progamme Bible Hunters, showed how scholars in the nineteenth century travelled to an Orthodox Greek monastery in Egypt. There, they discovered gospels written on parchments. Significantly, an original Mark gospel with no events after Jesus’ death – no resurrection. But more, on some documents there were earlier versions clearly visible. Evidence the text had been added to or amended. The documents are called palimpsests. Parchment where the writing is scraped away to leave it clear for new writing. They mirror the way that elements of earlier versions can still be seen in any creative act.




Elizabeth Bishop


The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.


Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.


I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.


–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.


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