Don’t worry. It’s not as distasteful as it sounds. A dissectologist, as it turns out, is a person who enjoys doing jigsaw puzzles. The Benevolent Confraternity of Dissectologists (BCD), founded in the UK in 1985, serves a global membership of such enthusiasts – hosting events, researching puzzle history, restoring and preserving antique puzzles, and so forth.
I own two puzzles. I helped complete one when I brought it to my parents’ house last fall. The other is currently spread across my dining room table where my daughter and I have been working at it intermittently for the past couple of days, grabbing a few minutes here there to place another piece or two. It is a calming pastime, one I’m surprised my ever-active ten year-old enjoys.
As we sat on opposite sides of the table this morning, she with her cocoa and I with my tea, it struck me that writing is very much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Both involve the assembly of many small pieces into a whole. Both require time and patience. Both are best accomplished with a combination of planning and luck.
Most puzzles come with a picture of the finished image on their box top. I like these puzzles best because I can see what I’m trying to build. The box top provides both inspiration and a roadmap. It helps me wrap my head around the project so that I can more easily see how the pieces go together. Likewise, most of the time when I am writing, I have an idea of what the finished piece will be. My vision may not be crystal clear (it’s more like a slightly blurry photo that shows shapes, colors, and texture, but no detail), but it gives me enough to start with.
Starting a puzzle is the hardest part. There are a number of ways to begin, but I always follow the same process. First, I lay all the pieces out and turn them face up so I can see the images. Then, I sort them into two piles: the inner pieces and the edge pieces. During the sorting, I pull out the four corner pieces and set those aside. With all the pieces in their proper piles, I start assembling the outer edges of the image. I like to build this frame first because it defines the space I’m working in and helps me orient the rest of the image. Sometimes, while I’m working on the edges, I’ll find a couple of middle pieces that go together. I collect these serendipitous finds and set them aside. I will use them to start building the inside of the image once the frame is complete.
My approach to crafting a story or essay is very similar. The corner pieces are my anchors – key ideas or themes. The completed “frame” is my outline. Within that space, I can start building different sections of the inside. I don’t work the inside in any particular order. With a puzzle, I usually start with whatever pieces I paired during the sorting process. With a story or essay, I start with a single line – usually something that came to me as I was putting the outline together. The line might be an opening, a closing, or something in the middle. Where it ends up in the finished piece doesn’t matter. What matters is that I have a place to start writing.
From this point, whether I’m working on a puzzle or a piece of writing, it’s all about just chipping away at the thing – piece by piece, word by word. There is no other way to do it. Sometimes, I will think I’ve found a piece that fits only to discover upon closer examination that it wasn’t quite right. Usually, once I realize my mistake and remove the errant piece, I can easily see how to make another, more important connection.
Sometimes I can stare at the pile of puzzle pieces or the blank page for a long time and not see a single piece that fits. Other times, there seems to be a certain muse or magic at work. Puzzle pieces I’ve been searching for suddenly appear in quick succession, snapping together with a satisfying click. Words that I’d been unable to find suddenly tumble out of my head, finally moving the story forward.
With both puzzles and writing, I find that – once started – the project gets under my skin and won’t leave me alone until it’s complete. I cannot walk by the puzzle without stopping to see if I can place just one more piece. I cannot stop thinking about my story. My writer’s mind is always at work sifting ideas, gathering tidbits, trying to untangle the thing so that I know how to arrange it on the page.
The best feeling in the world – with a puzzle or a piece of writing – is when I reach the tipping point. In either pursuit, there is a point at which I have gathered enough momentum that the pieces – either literally or figuratively – start dropping into place faster and faster. I no longer have to hunt and peck for each piece, turning it this way and that to see if it fits. At this stage, things come together so quickly that I can hardly keep up.
And then, the thing is done.
At this ending, the puzzle and the writing finally take their own paths. I do not save a finished puzzle. I break it down and return the pieces to their box. Perhaps I will take it out again another day. Perhaps not. A finished story or essay, however, is not dismantled but sent out into the world in one form or another to become – I hope – a piece in someone else’s puzzle.
According to the founders of the BCD, they call themselves dissectologists because John Spilsbury, the man who they say invented the original puzzles in the 1760’s, called his creations “dissected maps.” I find that very fitting. For, what is a story or essay if not a kind of map, guiding us through the territory of our thoughts and dreams, showing us the terrain of our own mind or the mind of another? And what do writers do if not dissect the world and then reassemble it in a way that helps us see it more clearly?
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.