Jigsaw Puzzle Wisdom

Sep 12, 2015

In my early days of learning to write fiction, I believed my job was to simply sit and work with the words of my book — writing them, moving them around, revising them. I would be able to measure my efforts by the chapters and whole manuscripts that poured forth. If I wasn’t producing that quantity of good material, I was wasting my time. Oh, I knew that a certain amount of research was necessary, but beyond that, I should be writing.

In reality, when I sat down to write, I alternated between staring at a blank screen and mentally beating myself up for not having finished that chapter or even part of the chapter. The task of writing a novel felt so daunting. Soon going to my desk was like torture. Even washing dishes, my most detested of household chores, became more appealing. How could little old me succeed at so huge and overwhelming a task as writing a novel? Maybe I couldn’t. And so I tried less and less.

Then one day up at the cottage as I spent hours searching for pieces to complete my third jigsaw puzzle in as many days, it occurred to me just how content I was in my task. Yes, finding the perfect piece for each spot involved a lot of hunting and sometimes a little frustration, but snapping it in place felt like a mini celebration because it brought me one step closer to the ultimate victory — a finished picture! I mentally stepped back. What if I looked at every minor success of my writing process as proudly and excitedly as I did each found puzzle piece?

That moment made me realized two things: 1) I have to acknowledge every minor success, and 2) there’s prep involved. I need to have a grasp of the big picture before I begin. With a puzzle, the picture is provided for me. When writing a novel, it takes time to figure out a sense of that picture before the writing can follow.

Now I celebrate every small victory, especially before the writing begins. I get excited about finding a historical detail that perfectly aligns with my plot. I take pride in putting in hours thinking through the plot. I congratulate myself for each believable trait I add to a character sketch. And when it is time to write, I revel in a single, solid sentence, even though it may later be tossed and replaced by something better. I desperately need those self-applied pats on the back for the small successes in order to have confidence when I face the larger challenges of getting this chapter, that character, one particular scene just right.

I still have hard days, but my “puzzle epiphany” seemed to bring success within reach.

Want to explore this idea further? Read Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird.