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Lusty Lady

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Writing is like doing a jigsaw puzzle

Recently, my boyfriend and I completed this jigsaw puzzle (of the Vincent van Gogh painting Café Terrace at Night), in about a week:


Every time I wandered over to the puzzle, deciding which part I wanted to tackle, peering closely at each piece, so close I could see the brush strokes, I made this connection: doing a jigsaw puzzle is like writing. When you dig deep into it, get lost in it, you are moving piece by piece, word by word. You are breaking the process down into its most individual parts. Sometimes you are getting so deep into the trees you forget there's a forest, and that's a good thing. Not to forget that forests exists entirely, but to be able to focus so closely on the detail that only the detail matters. Only the next word, and how it fits with the one before and the one that will come after.

For me, with any task, when I start to think about the entire thing, I so often hit a wall. I'll never get that done, I think. With writing, "the entire thing" usually isn't just that one piece of writing, it's all the assignments I've taken, plus all the pieces I want to write and pitch on spec and all the vaguely floating longer projects get the idea. That is sometimes what goes through my mind when I start to write, say, a 650 word column.

Lately, writing has been scary. It's often felt impossible, even though I still know, somewhere deep inside, that I have good ideas, that if I can just fashion them in the right way, get them lined up just so, polished and pretty and rolling off the tongue, I will have produced something I'm proud of, that will resonate with others. Yes, I do care, greatly, what other people think of my writing. How can I not? Unless I'm blogging right here or posting somewhere that's unpaid, I am literally relying on other people to approve my words. It's a tricky balance, to believe in your worth and your words, to be able to step back and say, yes, okay, I'm done, to send it in and move on.

And that is where writing is very much not like a puzzle. Even though the process is indeed similar, with a jigsaw puzzle, there's only one possible right answer. Trust me, with a 1,500 piece puzzle, I tried many times to cram a piece into the wrong slot, or turned it over to check if maybe, even though clearly it wasn't a match, maybe somehow when I looked from the other side it would be. It got easier the farther we got, both because there were fewer pieces to choose from and we had more information about what shapes and colors went were. We also developed a shorthand, each of us speaking our own puzzle language.

With writing, as with chess, there are so many choices that I think don't think human brain, at least, my human brain, can always process them in a way that helps narrow them down. Often I just have to do the equivalent of putting blinders on and pretending to myself that actually there aren't other choices, there is only the one, the path I've chosen, because to agonize over every detail can leave me simply staring at my screen. Or typing and then deleting. Or going way over my word count. Or giving up altogether and surfing the internet.

Truthfully, sometimes I wish the processes were the same, that a 1,500 word article had the same pre-ordained outcome as a 1,500 piece puzzle. But then I stop and think about it and realize I would hate that, if everyone who set out to write about a given topic churned out the exact same words. The times I wish that are, to put it bluntly, the times when writing is just hard. When it feels like the last thing I should be doing for a living. When all my Impostor Syndrome symptoms come out in full force. It's then that I have to take a step back and remind myself that sometimes you just have to do the best you can. Not every piece is going to be my personal favorite, or receive universal acclaim, and that's okay. Sometimes you do it anyway. Sometimes, like with our puzzle, a piece is missing, or feels like it's missing, but it's deadline time, or you're as done as you're going to be, or you set your spec essay aside for another day.

This week I got two rejections from publications I'd love to break into, and both were actually lovely. Both suggested I try them again, with a twist on those same pieces, even. That is different from a jigsaw puzzle too. Because when there is that outcome you know you can reach if you just keep trying hard enough, and that everyone doing that same puzzle will reach it too if they are just diligent enough, you do get a sense of satisfaction, but it's not the same sense of satisfaction when you make up something from scratch in your brain.

If you're struggling with your writing, I recommend Jordan Rosenfeld's post "Being Enough." She writes:
Success is narcotic in its effect on us. Over time, you need more and more to achieve the same level of internal fulfillment each acceptance, paycheck or accolade brings. I am especially prone to this, as a self-employed writer. Each win is especially big for me, because I did it with my own labor (though always with lots of mentorship and camaraderie along the way). So I court the next one and the next one.
I'm about to go on vacation, but I'm planning to get a jigsaw puzzle to do when I get back. Because, like writing, I'm hooked on it. Even when it's a challenge, I want that challenge (though sometimes I do everything in my power to avoid that challenge). So no, writing is not always like a jigsaw puzzle, but I think the two processes can work well together.

To further join the two together, here's a little snippet of a story I wrote inspired by the previous jigsaw puzzle we did, but a sexy fictionalized version, in Kristina Wright's anthology xoxo: Sweet and Sexy Romance (which as of this posting is only $2.00 on Amazon for the paperback!). I hope this shows you really can write erotica about anything! Here's an opening snippet of my story:
I'm leaning across the dining room table, my elbows precariously placed in one of the few spots where the wood isn't covered by jigsaw puzzle pieces, straining to secure a key piece of the Tropicana in its designated spot. We've been working on the two-thousand piece Las Vegas Strip puzzle, one I thought we'd finish in a weekend, for a month, so every match is a mini victory. I've just lined up the edges exactly and am ready to look for my next victim when I feel a slap on my ass that makes me gasp. I don't dare turn around to look at my boyfriend, Roger, but instead pause right where I am, drop my head, close my eyes and wait.

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At January 18, 2015, Blogger Lace Winter said...

I don't know if I thought of writing as quite like a jigsaw puzzle before, but your description fits my own experience so well! I get so bogged down with details, worrying about getting everything just so, just wright, that sometimes my progress slows to a crawl or halts entirely. At least, this is what happens with my longer works. With my shorter "flash fiction," I don't worry about it at all, and things just flow. I think somehow I don't take it as seriously, so I stop over-thinking it, figuring "what the hell, it's just flash fiction."

Yet, people seem to enjoy it. It seems to work. Perhaps I should take that as a sign of how to work on novel-length fiction as well, except I can't get away from the "this is going to be a signature work, it has to be perfect!" syndrome.

In the end, you're right, writing isn't quite a jigsaw puzzle, because there is more than one way to put it together, and many different ways can be equally effective. Thank you for this, Rachel. Thanks for all of your work.


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