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Piecing the Puzzle

Piecing the Puzzle

I bought my wife a jigsaw puzzle for her birthday, and have been paying for it ever since (metaphorically, that is; I think it cost $14.99).

It’s one we had glanced at together earlier in the year, a spectacularly vibrant image of fall colors, looking across a pond at a stand of birches and oaks busy turning riotous shades of red and orange and yellow, with bright green moss ribboning up trunks and peeking through underbrush, with a dappled, slightly cloudy turquoise pond in the foreground. Putting this puzzle together would be challenging, but I felt confident we could handle it. I only overlooked one thing.

The bastard—the lovely, amazing son of a bitch—is 1,500 pieces.

Why? I have asked again and again, both silently and out loud as Karen and I and various visitor-helpers have struggled over the past three weeks to deliver a handful of pieces at a time to their destinations. Why did I do this to her/myself/us?

It’s a question that also pops up sometimes when I’m in the throes of a new story.

For me, a story can start with any element—plot, character, a scene, a feeling. But there is always a germ, a single moment from which everything that follows grows, cells splitting and multiplying—until it stops.

Because the process is never linear. It may stop altogether for weeks or months before I return to the thread, the problem, the—if you will—puzzle piece. I turn it over and over in my mind. Where does it fit? I know it goes somewhere.

At first my sense of order usually demands that I try to build an edge, an outline, a frame. But this part of the process is full of fits and starts, because stories aren’t any more linear than life itself. Our limited perception of time might make it feel like A happens, then B, then C, but reality is much more fluid and multifarious than that. While A is happening here, D and Q and L are busy elsewhere conspiring to wreak havoc that will only become apparent when we reach F. And there is no controlling the process; N and V and X often pay me a visit before C ever arrives.

So, I jump around. I discover pieces and sort them into piles. Orange for motivation goes to the side; yellow for character goes in the cardboard box bottom; red for conflict forms a bright cloud above the frame. The mossy trunks and shadowy branches become the skeleton of plot, though I know that later on I will chop off one limb after another and watch in wonder as new ones grow, unbidden, never imagined until they appear.

Last night, right before bed, Karen stayed downstairs a few extra minutes and came up to announce she’d placed eight more pieces and figured out where one chunk we’d put together earlier attached to the frame. There was a note of triumph in her voice, despite the fact that more than half the puzzle remains. We aren’t there yet, but we’ll get there. And the getting there is the point, isn’t it?

Right now, sitting at my writing desk the next morning, I have several groups of pieces in front of me. I know they go together somehow—the essential features of the image they will form becomes clearer in my mind every day—but I’m still sorting from one pile to another, figuring out what fits where, or what else might fit better. Piecing the puzzle.

Why? Because puzzles were made to be solved. They’re just pieces scattered across a table right now, but together, forming a richly complicated whole, they will coalesce into an image, a moment, an insight. They will gain meaning, and communicate that meaning to a viewer. And in that moment, the puzzle will be complete.

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