After a week off work, with no schedule and plenty of walks along the river, writing, good times with family and at home, reading, working jigsaw puzzles, dancing to The Staple Singers, and watching movies with Ben, I feel almost too mellow to join the world again. The only things I want to do are take more walks, keep writing on my novel, and work more jigsaw puzzles. I’m addicted to the puzzles.
I buy them at the thrift shop. They cost somewhere between one and two dollars, and so far six out of six have had all their pieces. Of course, as I am putting them together, I don’t know that, and almost every time, as I am working, I think that some are missing. But I keep plugging away at it. I keep examining the shapes of the pieces spread out on the table, and the patterns, the colors, the overall picture. I move them around, and try something this way and then that way until it slides in smoothly and perfectly.
I worked three puzzles over Christmas vacation. I like the way this activity, which in no way contributes a thing to society or the financial betterment of my life, feels. It kind of unhinges my mind. It makes me forget everything else. I become absorbed in the activity. I work until my back hurts, and then keep on working.
At first the task seems impossible. But there is the border to start with. That’s simple enough, or should be, so I look for all the pieces with straight edges. The next step is to look for anything that might be easy, patterns, something bold and obvious. I work on one section of the picture until it’s done, and then I work on another. At some point I have done the easy stuff, the obvious stuff, and now, in order to finish, I have to focus even harder, and persevere even more.
When I was younger, I became frustrated with anything that was difficult. This was an unfortunate way to live, as most things were difficult for me. School was a nightmare. Studying was impossible. Jigsaw puzzles hurt my brain. If something was hard, I always took it as evidence that I possessed an inferior mental capacity. Since I didn’t like being reminded of this “fact,” I veered away from anything too challenging. My younger self would have never chosen to work three jigsaw puzzles over the holiday.
What happened? When did I cease to be that person and become the person I am now, who can not only work a jigsaw puzzle, but even write a novel? I don’t think there’s an exact answer to that, as I don’t think there was an exact moment. Instead, it’s been an evolution, a slow turning from what I learned and internalized about myself, to what I can do, or at least try to do.
It started with writing, not jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles were not important to me, but writing was. It became clear to me that each time I said I wanted to write, but did nothing about it, I cut my soul a little, until I felt like I might die the death of a thousand, self-inflicted tiny slices. So I wrote. I started. And I continued. And somewhere along the way, I finished one book. And then another. And another. And another. And somewhere along the way, far along the way, I ceased being frustrated with the process. I ceased expecting it to be easy, or get easier. I ceased depending on awards and money and accolades to tell me I was doing the right thing. I knew I was doing the right thing, and I began to actually enjoy the difficulties inherent in writing, just as I enjoy the difficulties inherent in putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
As I worked my three jigsaw puzzles over the holidays, it occurred to me several times that that the emotional skills it takes to complete a puzzle are similar to those needed to complete a novel. You must begin somewhere. You do the obvious part first, blissfully oblivious to, or ignoring, the parts you know will be hard. As it becomes more difficult, you must persevere. And you must have faith that whatever puzzle piece is missing will turn up. It is available. With writing, it unlikely that you’ll find that missing piece in the box. Perhaps it’s under the couch, or in the library, or in a story a random stranger will tell you next week, but the piece is somewhere. You need only be open to that in order to eventually find it.
There have been times when writing has felt like a colossal waste of time. There have been several times when despair was all that I felt, and I begged for a sign from the universe to tell me to keep working. The universe replied perfectly, not with signs that success was around the corner, but with this simple message. “Do what you want to do.”
What I wanted to do was write. I had to admit that wanting to do something mattered a great deal more than other people wanting me to do it. It even mattered more than being good at it. Just like a marriage, you choose it again and again.
I don’t feel such paralyzing self-doubt anymore, or rather, I don’t feel it so often. Those feelings are still there though. I pass by them every day. I see them along the road. The feeling of inadequacy waves wildly at me, trying to flag me down. Fear pretends to be a stranded motorist in need of my help. My old expectation of fame and wealth sticks out its thumb, and hikes up its skirt, trying to bum a ride. If I recognize them for who they are, I smile and nod, and sail on by. “Not this time, old friends” I say. “I’m not stopping the car for you.”
This works, until it doesn’t work. One mile I’ll be fine, and the next I’ll look in the rear view mirror and there they will be in the back seat, blowing their hot sulfury breath into my ears, and telling me that I missed my exit.
I am reminded of all this as I work my jigsaw puzzles. Inevitably, in writing or puzzling, I bump against a hard spot. The pieces aren’t fitting, but I know something will shift if I just keep at it. So this is what I do. I keep at it. I write. As I said, out of the six puzzles I’ve purchased at the thrift shop, all have had all their pieces. What are the odds of that? A lot of the stories I’ve written, I would never want published. There are pieces missing. I know this. I see the holes, and it doesn’t matter, because sometimes a piece from one story jumps the box, and fits into another.