Everyone has a secret guilty pleasure. Chocolate, Hallmark movies, karaoke.
I have a secret geeky pleasure. Puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles.
When I lived in Wisconsin, where winter seems endless, lots of families kept a permanent "puzzle table" in the Great Room. Some of these could really mess up your mind: 2500 pieces of a Jackson Pollack painting. The cover of the Beatles' White Album. A two-sided, round pizza puzzle; each side a different pizza. I put puzzling down as something for People Who Needed to Get a Life.
Then I found the Beach Puzzlers.
Several times a year, my family and friends meet at our beach house at Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina. I don't remember who started it, but one year, along with the family-sized bags of M & M's, gallons of margarita mix and toilet paper, someone brought a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. We dumped the pieces on the dining room table (never used for dining), and singly or in groups, put it together during our stay. Some of us spend hours at the table. Some of us stroll by on our way out to the beach to add a piece or two. Tradition is that it MUST be finished before we leave. One year, the Saturday morning cleaning crew arrived to find that The Renters (us) had not left at 10 am, so they could ready the house for the New Renters, coming in at 3. The cleaners waited on the other side of a locked screen door, as my husband yelled, "Two more pieces. I just have to put in two more pieces." (That was the year of the infamous swan-shaped puzzle.)
|Daughter Lily, age 5, learns that no matter how hard you pound, you can't make a "wrong" piece fit.|
No, I haven't forgotten the six word memoir. Hang in there.
I am terrible at meditation. I have a gabby mind that never shuts up. On sleepless summer nights when I hover over the puzzle, adding a piece here, searching for a piece there, that is a kind of meditation for me. Chanting "Blue piece, red piece" as a mantra, calms me, empties my mind of all the "outfield chatter."
A tranquil mind leaves room for deep thoughts of life...and puzzling. How puzzles and life are a bag of jumbled bits, that come together to make a Big Picture. Only life is more like an old puzzle that has been in the house for years. When you finish it, five pieces of sky are missing, and you have ten pieces that definitely do not belong to this Big Picture.
Hmmm. Maybe puzzles aren't like life after all. Maybe they're more like writing. You start off with a jumble of ideas that you know are going to come together, some day.
There are two ways of putting together a story/puzzle. Most people look first for all the straight edged border pieces (assuming it's not a swan or pizza). I look for pieces of a similar color that just look like they should ft. I write novels the same way. Some folks start with an outline. I start with the scene that is the most vivid and fully formed in my head. I rarely start with Chapter One, and never with an outline.
After awhile, I'll have a bunch of little puzzle patches that go with each other, but need to be connected to the Big Picture. The same with writing; my first draft will have scenes missing. What chapters and scenes I do have, need to be connected, to flow seamlessly one to another. When I stand back and look at a puzzle/novel (after working on it bit by bit), my head mysteriously now can find that weird-shaped black piece that goes with a bunch of other weird-shaped black pieces, that connect all the patches. With a novel, I can see that this character should have gone here, not there. All the transition scenes are waiting for me to insert them, so many tiny bridges of time and space, moving the reader through the story.
|Puzzle two days ago|
And now...get ready for it...is where my six word memoir fits in.
When I first started submitting stories, my husband worked at an Alabama pulp mill. If you've never lived downwind of a pulp mill, I don't recommend it, unless you like the smell of sulphur 24/7. The upside of the mill was it's by-product: wood chips, which make great ground cover for the parts of the yard that would not grow grass.
I was sitting on the front steps of my house, opening mail, when the wood chip truck arrived one day. I waved to Wayne, the driver as he backed up to his usual dumping space. The chips rattle-roared down the dump slide as I opened a letter. A letter from an agent.
An agent who had read my first three chapters and wanted to read the rest. My heart shot to my throat. And then back to my stomach. You know it's not going to be a good letter when it begins, "I took your manuscript with me to my mother's funeral." You just know it's downhill from there. And it was. Not only a rejection, but a nasty one. (I later learned that agents tend to be much more blunt than editors.)
I slumped against a porch pillar, letter limp in my hand, and blinked away tears. Not only was I not good enough for her to represent, I apparently wasn't good enough to call myself a writer. (Everyone's secret fear, right?) This wasn't my first rejection, but it was the first to be up close and negative about my writing. (Although I did think that judging a work at a loved one's funeral was hardly fair.). Maybe I should give up writing. Maybe I should go work at Barnes & Noble at the mall.
Footsteps on the driveway made me raise my head. The Wayne the Truck Driver had walked away from the enormous pine chip pile, stopping about twenty feet away fro me. I pulled myself together and stood.
"Would you like some water, Wayne?" I asked. "Hot day, huh?"
As if he didn't hear me, he looked at me and said. "Don't you worry about whatever is worrying you."
Did I look that depressed, even at a distance? But before I could speak, Wayne said, "It will all come together, somehow." To make sure I understood, he held out his hands and laced his fingers into a triangle. "It will all come together."
Then he got back in his truck and drove away. The whole moment was so weird...almost as if I'd been visited by Yoda...if Yoda had been much taller, and wore overhauls and a John Deere cap. Sometimes I see signs and messages. I knew that this was a sign for me to keep writing.
I remember Wayne's Words whenever my work-in-progress looks like an unfinished puzzle. It will all come together, somehow. If I work long enough, the missing scenes and connections will come and feel right, just the way you know the instant before you set it in place, that this puzzle piece belongs just there and nowhere else.
|Puzzle this morning. Yes, there IS a missing piece. Maybe the dog ate it.|
This is why there is always a puzzle-in-progress on my kitchen table (the one we never use for kitchen-like activities). It reminds me that puzzles, like novels, are long haul projects. When I have a Bad Writing Day, or just hit a brick wall....I spend a moment or two with the puzzle. A piece will suddenly look different to me. I know where it goes. It snaps into place. A bit more of the Big Picture is revealed. In my head, the brick wall crumbles. When I get back to the computer, the rubble will be swept away, a bridge forming in it's place.
Because, it will all come together, somehow.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman