Friday, May 11, 2012

The Yoga of Jigsaw Puzzles

This is what I've been doing with my evenings lately. Staring at a bunch of shapes and trying to make them behave. Trying to help them find where they belong. Trying to discern the exact point of shading from yellow to gold to brown to green.

Concentrating hard. Sinking closer and closer to the table until my head swims with jigsaw-shaped patterns. Following the slightest clue: a shade of gray here; a line of black there. Fitting one piece, then another, and then finally leaning back—always surprised to see a picture emerge from this chaos.

I blame Judith Kitchen. She gave away jigsaw puzzles a couple of years ago, with the challenge that if we finished them, she'd donate money to cancer research. So I diligently put together a puzzle of a Klimt painting; it took me weeks and a little help from my friends, but I did it and felt such a rush of accomplishment, I immediately went out to get another.

It's a little addicting: this putting back together of what's been deliberately broken.


I confess that last night I stayed up past midnight doing this darn puzzle. I kept meaning to stop, but then I'd get one piece into place, which gave me a tiny little adrenaline rush that kept me searching for just one more. 

But the law of diminishing returns took over, and in the last hour I simply stared at the pieces, which refused to budge.

And then, this morning, I walked by the table on my way outside to get the paper. I glanced at the jumble of pieces and instantly fit four more into place. Just. like. that. 

It reminded me that often our minds do, literally, get worn out. As do our spirits. We are not inexhaustible beings. We really do need to rest—and in that rest, often the most intractable problems can be solved. Just like that.


Writing, to me, is often like working a jigsaw puzzle (but, unfortunately, without the box top to guide me!). I know there's a whole picture out there—I can sense it—but at the beginning it's just a jumble of incomplete (and sometimes jagged) parts.

Sometimes, I start with the border, the frame. I figure out the shape, the form, this picture will take, and then carefully start building from the border inward. But other times I do the opposite: I just start right in the middle, clustering some bits together to see if they fit, then build outward toward the shape this picture needs to contain it.

Maybe this metaphor has already gone too far. Maybe I've already stared too long at this post and it's no longer making any sense. But there's one more thing: When it's happening, when you're in the thick of it, you feel that little adrenaline rush when the pieces start to fit. When you've discerned the pattern. When your brain has aligned with the logic of the puzzle and you can start seeing your way clear.

That's what keeps us in the writing chair. That's what keeps us up past our bedtimes.


And now, just a little Pen and the Bell news. I still have a giveaway going on in my previous post: you have until this Monday, May 14, to participate and perhaps win your very own, hot off the press, FREE copy of The Pen and the Bell.

And if you haven't checked out our website yet, please do. You'll find a "Writing Practice" section that is a collaborative blog, with stories, news, and writing prompts. You can sign up to receive "Letters from Brenda and Holly" on a regular basis.

And Fiona Robyns, over at Writing Our Way Home has published a "creativity interview" with Holly and me, where we talk about what motivates and supports us in our creative lives. It was fun to have a chance to correspond in this way with Holly again.

I hope your day is filled with fun puzzles to solve, and may the solutions arrive to you easily. Get some rest, even if it's just a few minutes between one piece of your life and the next.



  1. What a great metaphor! This is exactly what writing my piece the other day felt like. It wasn't a story, it was hardly even non-fiction. Instead it was an attempt to grasp after some undefined essence or meaning, the catching of which was well nigh near impossible, until suddenly the parts of the picture, which I knew was out there, began to come together, albeit slowly. The piece needs a whole lot more work, but its feeling its way home! And the adrenaline gives a mighty push!

    1. Thank you for sharing your own process, Edith! Beautiful.

  2. I love this metaphor, even if you did wonder if you took it too far. It's spot-on.

  3. What a lovely meditation, Brenda...I am always so glad to find your posts in my inbox, and that you have decided to keep sharing via your blog. You always give me something meaty to think about. Do you know Margaret Drabble's sort-of memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet? Puzzles are its center. I also wanted to say how lovely your's and Holly's interview is on Writing Our Way Home, a site where I am an active and happy participant. Thank you again for your ongoing posts.

    Gretel W-S

    1. Thank you so much Gretel! I'll have to check out Drabble's book. Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. What a great and fun connection. It's so true. One of my favorite part of writing is figuring it all out! I write longhand first. I enjoy crossing things out, making arrows to paragraphs that need to be moved, numbering, the journey and puzzle of figuring out the finished product! Of course the end is great, the feeling of accomplishment and seeing the final work, but yeah, I must say, the most fun is in the journey! Kind of like yoga, which,if we are lucky, will always be a process, and journey to go along on. :-)

  5. You kind of have me wanting to buy a puzzle now...


What say you?