Sitting with the Pieces: On Jigsaw Puzzles and WritersTell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
— Mary Oliver

I have a deep and growing penchant for jigsaw puzzles. They give me something to work on as I take calls – something that pulls my mind just enough to keep it really focused on the person on the other end of the line. They are a tool to let my brain slow and think through something. They give me a sense of accomplishment when much of life never feels finished. They are a way to spend time with someone without the pressure of “making” conversation and instead allow truth and pain and beauty to bubble up in the cracks.

This morning, I sat down for a few minutes to work on the puzzle above – a beautiful nativity angel that Dad and Adrienne picked up for me at a flea market. It’s the perfect gift – old, recycled, bobbled, and finishable.  Yesterday, on calls with clients, I pulled out all the pieces with these green shades on them in an attempt to complete some of the lower third of the puzzle. I hit a wall there and began, instead, to work on the center scene of the piece with all its rainbows and bright colors. But this morning, when I sat down, I saw the green pieces with fresh eyes, and I began to slot them into place without effort. Soon, I had put dozens of those tiny pieces into place, the slip of satisfaction at my fingertips.

Writing is like that, I think. It would be nice to know just how things go together, to be able to set each piece in place in some sort of predictable, satisfying pattern. But writing isn’t linear – even for folks like me who write in a more linear fashion. Writing is tugging lines out of the chaos, picking out the pieces shaded with green and laying them out to study so that when the fresh eyes of new experience or that glorious thing that James Joyce called epiphany  tingles down our arms, we can slide the pieces into place with a rhythm that approaches the beat of our hearts


I have the privilege of working with a lot of writers, of talking with them about the labor and love of words, of listening to their struggles and hearing the joy of their hearts at their successes.  I’ve been doing this a long time now, and I can tell when someone is willing to make the commitment to writing and when someone is hoping that writing will commit to them.  The difference there is not subtle, of course, because writing has no volition. It wanders willy nilly and will leave us as quickly as we let it.  The writers who won’t let it, they’re the ones that will find their rhythm; they’re the ones for whom writing will release her gifts.

If I had to identify three traits that I see in the writers who I know will make a life from this word-building way, I would mark these as the emblems.

  • A Willingness to be Uncomfortable with Not Knowing. These folks are willing to lay out the pieces of story, of question, of pain, of beauty and stare at them, trying them out together, pushing the tabs of this experience or this character into the slots of that one and then letting those missed alignments move them toward a new attempt. They don’t need the path laid out all the way for them. In fact, it’s the not knowing that drives them forward.  They are, as Rilke so beautifully said, “living the questions.”
  • An Acknowledgment That Writing Takes Sacrifice. These individuals have the scars of letting go written in the creases of their hands – parties that tinkle with laughter beyond their ears, hearts that ache in two when they hear their children playing beyond the office door, the easy slipping away of an hour’s televised drama relegated to later.  They don’t sacrifice all they love for words because, after all, it is what they love that feeds the writer and because, most of all, those things matter, which is – they realize – why writing matters, too.  They don’t try to have it all, and in so doing, they seize hold of all they have.
  • A Heart Bent To Practice. These people know that perfect is not possible in words (or life, for that matter), and so they are not cowed by the fear of flaws or foolishness or fakery, even those those fears roar like dragons at the base of their skulls. They turn, instead, to the doing, the regular return to the page to try, attempt, essay, give it a go. They are seeking ideal, a mirroring of what is in their minds, AND they know they will not capture it but with the lens of a fun house. And that is okay. That is more than okay – it is good because it is theirs alone.

Is that you? I hope so because years of talking to writers has taught me one more thing, too: every single story written into the lives and tongues of every single person matters. Every single word of it.