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How The Act Of Writing Is Like Putting Together A Jigsaw Puzzle

Updated on February 22, 2015
Like many writer projects, a jigsaw begins with a clear picture of what you want to make.
Like many writer projects, a jigsaw begins with a clear picture of what you want to make. | Source
This clear picture cannot be made without attending to the individual pieces.
This clear picture cannot be made without attending to the individual pieces. | Source
Comparable to editing a phrase until it fits perfectly, there is satisfaction discovering where the puzzle pieces belong.
Comparable to editing a phrase until it fits perfectly, there is satisfaction discovering where the puzzle pieces belong. | Source
Much like a writer experiences working on a story or larger piece, sometimes progress putting together a jigsaw puzzle seems painfully slow and frustrating.
Much like a writer experiences working on a story or larger piece, sometimes progress putting together a jigsaw puzzle seems painfully slow and frustrating. | Source

Recently I was putting together a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle when I had the thought that writing can be compared to putting together a puzzle. After all, it isn’t uncommon to start a story or poem or novel with a vision of what you want to write about. This vision, or big picture if you prefer that term, is akin to the picture on the box which holds all the pieces to the jigsaw puzzle. It’s helpful to have a vision of what you want to create; however, much as you find with a jigsaw puzzle, a story, poem, novella, and so forth must be formed piece by painstaking piece.

This may sound like bad news. After all, it’s easy to think that any brilliant idea you have should be cleanly reproduced on the page. While golden moments when an idea translates fairly well onto the page the first time you write about it certainly happen, these aren’t the norm for most writers. They certainly aren’t my normal as a writer, and I am learning how valuable it is to revise and revisit a piece much in the same way I will revisit any in-progress jigsaw puzzle to see if I can find just one or two more pieces that link together.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, it can be enormously helpful to step away from the piece you are working on in order to return to it later with fresh eyes. Whether you need to step away for fifteen minutes, a day, a week, or longer, this time away should help you refocus on what you are trying to say.

Such refocus can help you see what you didn’t see before. For example, you may have tried to describe your character’s coat as “the same color blue as a summer morning” at first, and later you may look again at this phrase and decide that “sky blue coat” is what you are actually trying to say. Upon discovering the better phrase or description, it is not unlike finally finding two puzzle pieces which fit together. The thought “Of course this is where this word should go” should help encourage you to tackle the next unwieldy phrase. Much like turning a puzzle piece around to see if it fits in its new position, repositioning words will help you understand how flexible and malleable language can and should be. Language is, in fact, more flexible than a jigsaw puzzle since most expressions can be altered, whereas a jigsaw puzzle’s pieces are only supposed to fit in their one designated spot.

As writers we must boldly write out our unique take on a subject. As Anne Lamott wrote in bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life, “All the good stories are out there waiting to be told in a fresh, wild way. Mark Twain said that Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before. Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or inside pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions. Some people will sing it spontaneously, with a lot of soulful riffs, while others are going to practice until they could sing it at the Met. Either way, everything we need in order to tell our stories in a reasonable and exciting way already exists in each of us.”

More wonderful quotes from "bird by bird"

Writing is also like putting together a jigsaw puzzle because it is easy to become discouraged and frustrated when you are not making swift progress. Whether we become impatient because we live in a fast-paced modern world or because it is easy to believe that creativity can be forced instead of merely coaxed, the fact remains that many writers become frustrated in the middle of their pieces. The initial enthusiasm they felt upon starting the project has been replaced by a weary realization that this will take much longer and involve more effort than originally anticipated.

At such times it is helpful to step back from your project and reconsider your original vision. Do you still want to write about the teenage boy with brain cancer who wants a date to the prom, or do you want to keep this character while changing the challenge he faces? This is unlike putting together a puzzle in one respect because you don’t have the option—unless, I suppose, you get out permanent marker and mark up the individual pieces—to change the picture you are putting together.

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You do, however, have the option to abandon ship if you decide the puzzle—and, similarly, whatever story, essay, poem, novel, etc. you are working on—isn’t worth completing. This is a tricky matter, not surprisingly, because often a story can be redeemed with enough effort and perseverance. And, as anyone who has completed a large jigsaw puzzle knows, there is a satisfaction that comes with staying the course and finishing what you started. However, especially with writing, there will be dead ends that, no matter how clever your word play or how carefully and elegantly scripted your characters, cannot be changed into thoroughfares.

All is not lost at such moments even if it may seem as if you have wasted your time working on the now abandoned writing project. Akin to attempt a jigsaw puzzle which is too large or complicated for your current skill level, certain writing projects are too grandiose to complete where you currently are as a writer. This is an ultimately hopeful truth, however, as it means that you have more reason to stretch and challenge yourself as a writer until you can undertake your dream project. Part of the stretching is being able to step away from your current piece and return to it repeatedly in order to tweak a phrase, eliminate excessive adjectives, and reconsider the vision which initially inspired you. And, if all else fails, you can start working on a jigsaw puzzle until a new story idea floats into your brain and you begin this process anew.

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