The Writing Puzzle

puzzleI am considering joining the Benevolent Confraternity of Dissectologists.

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.

35 thoughts on “The Writing Puzzle

  1. I love jigsaw puzzles! I haven’t done one in a while, but some of my walls have finished ones hung on them. It is very relaxing and I love your comparison between them and writing! It’s quite accurate and your approach to complete a jigsaw puzzle also sounds like mine. 🙂

    • I also find it very relaxing to put a puzzle together. I’m not sure why. It’s a lovely way to spend a snowy afternoon. 🙂

  2. What a great comparison. I think I’ll have to remember this when I am writing -especially when I get stuck. I have often compared puzzles and raising children. I’m sure you can relate.

    • Oh, boy – can I ever! That’s another whole post. 😉

      Now that I think of it, the mind mapping that I do is kind of similar to the whole piece sorting exercise that I do with a puzzle. A mind map allows me to see al the pieces laid out so I can start organizing them into more coherent thoughts and sequences. I didn’t even notice that until you mentioned being stuck and I thought about how I use mind maps to get UNstuck.

      Cool. TKS!

  3. This is a beautiful analogy. And you have given me much to think about. If only when we put a piece of writing out into the world we could be as sure that it has been put together as completely and correctly as we are that jigsaw puzzle. That’s the only difference: puzzle solving is objective; writing is not.

    • Thank you, Judith.
      I think that writing is the puzzle that is never finished.
      And that’s ok.

      Each piece you write is made up of smaller pieces, but is also a piece in your larger body of work.
      Your body of work is in turn a piece of a larger genre or movement or period.
      And each of those genres, movements, and periods are pieces of an even larger puzzle.

      Unlike a jigsaw puzzle which can only ever show a single finished image, the writing puzzle is always evolving. The image grows and changes with each new piece. It is a reflection of the human heart and mind and can never settle into a “finished” state, but remains always in motion.

      Thanks for helping me put this into words.

    • Thanks. I’m also a geek for learning about how other writers and artists process their ideas. I’m a sucker for a good behind-the-scenes story. 😉
      TKS for coming by!

  4. thank you that was great — my grandparents on both sides of our family did puzzles — my dad brought home puzzles for me we did them together thanks always a great winter time treat –

    • Puzzles are a distinctly winter-ish activity, aren’t they?
      Thank goodness the same seasonal constraints don’t apply to writing!

  5. Loved this for the analogy and also because I find jigsaw’s so relaxing. In my mind, every good holiday home should have a big one. In fact, I’m returning to a favourite holiday house in Cornwall this year and am praying the 5000 piece jigsaw of Mevagissey harbour is still there. I didn’t get to finish it eight years ago…

    • Five THOUSAND pieces!?!?! Wow. You are ambitious. Good for you!
      I’m not sure I’ve even ever seen a 5000-piece puzzle. I think I’ll have to work my way up slowly … Good luck. I hope it’s still there, waiting for you!

      • Ah, I checked with my husband and he thinks it’s a 1000 piece one and I’m talking complete nonsense! It takes up an eight-seater dining-table though…Let’s hope it’s still there this year and we can see who’s right.

      • Well, a 1000-piece puzzle sounds MUCH more do-able than a 5000-piece one, but who knows? An 8-seater table is a BIG space!

        Good luck!

  6. A great analogy and something I had never considered before. The more I think about it, the more I can see the many similarities between the two. Perhaps it is time for me to get the old jigsaw puzzles out each time I get stuck in my writing, perhaps I will find inspiration there 🙂

    Heather xxx

    • So glad it made sense to you, too. 🙂
      I love the idea of working on a puzzle to bust through writer’s block. You never know. Stranger things have worked!

  7. I sent this to my mom and loved reading your analogy! It is so fitting for me as a writer as well, even down to how we ‘process’ the puzzle, with the edges first then filling in the details. I never thought of it this way! Also, I now have a fun new word! 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing with your mom. That’s so lovely.
      Glad you enjoyed the post & learning a new word. I liked adding “dissectologist” to my vocabulary as well, even though it doesn’t seem to have wide adoption … yet. 😉

  8. my officemates and i worked on a 500-piece puzzle this week. calming and enjoyable experience indeed.

    i agree with how you compare doing jigsaw puzzles and writing – the frame, the outline, searching for pieces/words that fit together. very good illustration.

    it’s nice to know someone out there who pretty much has the same approach with writing.

    • Thanks so much for the share and for sharing your story.
      A puzzle with your officemates sounds like a great team-building exercise as well. I was amazed at how communicative my daughter becomes when we’re working a puzzle together.

      • yes, that’s how we all felt, that it was a great team-building exercise. we’re now beginning on a 1000-piece puzzle donated by a student who saw us, staff, working on the 500-piece one.

        looking forward to more great illustrations from you on writing and the writing life.

      • I love that a student is donating your next puzzle. What a lovely ripple & rebound effect. I hope you have fun doing it. 1000 pieces – I’ll have to try one of those. 😉

  9. Pingback: Weekend Edition – plus writing tips and good reads | Live to Write - Write to Live

  10. I know it’s been a while since you posted this but I just came across your text and read it. Being a puzzler myself, anything about puzzles attract me and I love to read any related article talking about it. Nicely done on your part. Your comparison is very accurate between writing and puzzling. And puzzles are a good way to share a calming activity with your loved ones. Even kids enjoy it. I do it with my 13 year old sometimes and really love that. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t work on a puzzle. In fact I enjoy it so much that I even created my brand of puzzles with my own designs that I’ve been selling for the past 4 months. I’m also a member of many Facebook groups of passionate puzzlers like myself and we share daily about our passion. That is how I found that I was not the only one that loved it that much since I had no one closer to me to share it with. With these groups I can share and find people that totally understand what I’m talking about and don’t think I’m crazy.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Anie. It’s good to be with people who don’t think we’re crazy, or at least if they do think we’re crazy, they share our specific brand of insanity. 🙂

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