Puzzles and Writing and the Human Mind

By Anne K. Kaler

Puzzle DoneIt is finished. The puzzle, that is. The writing is never finished.

The writing is truly never finished, never polished enough, never edited sufficiently because the story never fully ends in my mind. The characters and events continue to exist in my internal universe. I am never satisfied because I feel as if I have abandoned my created children on an alien planet without a working spaceship.

That’s why I do puzzles when I write. I need the constant encouragement that there is an end in sight — that there actually is a last puzzle piece to plunk into place, the only place in the material universe that it will fit.

So why do I persist in both endeavors?

Writing is an effort. Not only do you have to construct sentences about how you feel but you also have to put them in some order that will mean something to a reader. Not an easy task, that sitting over a computer and gazing into space, waiting…

As an academic (i.e. one who writes for publication and promotion), I had to follow a recognizable formula to convince my peers that I knew something they had not thought about. I was safe in knowing that, when I ran out of facts, I was at the end of the paper. A quick summary of the initial question of my thesis, a quicker change of the question’s verb from present tense into past tense, add a “thus it is proven” sentence, and I was finished.

That’s another reason I like puzzles. I know that the puzzle will “end” when the last piece is inserted.  My greatest worry is that there will be a piece missing and the picture will not be completed. If that tragedy were to happen, I have even contemplated cutting and coloring a piece of cardboard to mimic the missing piece.

Such an academic process tends to wring out the joy of literature when you have to analyze how it is constructed, much less when you have to try to explain it to unwilling student ears. So, most of my writings ended up being a carefully arranged list of my research efforts, chock full of fascinating facts which I had unearthed and strung together into what I hoped made sense to some other human being. After a while, I could do that easily. However, while my analytical mind was churning out logical connections, my creative brain was responded with snide remarks and flights of fantasy about the arguments I presented. Thus, my creative writing efforts often sprang from these dull facts like new buds on old branches because I doodled along the margins of my serious writings.

When I studied those doodles — those moments when facts turned into fun — I discovered that prose writing could be an untapped source of story-telling for me. I was free to create my own thoughts.  That led me to discover what genres did not work for me.

Poetry is too constricting an art for me to practice, although it does have its moments as a release for emotions I can’t express in prose or in person.

Journaling is too personal simply because I don’t want to remember everything that happens to me. News writing means to tell the truth when I can’t really tell what is true or not.

Drama requires physical actions and loud voices, both of which can be annoying to others around me. Greeting card phrases might be my forte, except all the good ones can’t be released to a family audience.

Advertisements are abominable in print or on electronic media and no clever bragging about a product will entice me to purchase it if I don’t want it.

Letter writing nowadays is a forgotten art involving handwriting, ink, envelopes and stamps.  Emailed “letters” are so much easier and can be deleted with no fear of blackmail.

A puzzle, on the other hand, is physical reality in contrast to my imaginary world of words. No matter how I twist or turn the pieces of the puzzle, each piece will fit only one place. When I slip it into that place, I am assured that it will stay there without complaining that it wants to be in a better place. My paragraphs in writing tend to whine about where they are placed, complaining until I have to cut and paste them many times to get them to make sense.

That action of cut-and-paste in writing is the same as trying to find the right connection between a particular puzzle design and its corresponding space. Many pieces are cut so cleverly that they easily deceive the human eye and try the human temper. There are times when I swear that the puzzle designers are spawns of evil sent to annoy me; why else are there so many pieces that almost fit?

The monotonous action of trying a puzzle piece in many possible spots leads to an extraordinary state of mind which repeated physical actions can cause. Ironing linens does that to me or sorting silverware or pulling weeds. This state of freedom allows my mind to wander aimlessly where it will until it stumbles upon an elusive complex thought which I can then snatch for my writing.

In addition, both writing and puzzles serve as compulsive nags to my natural inertia. I would rather read someone else’s writing than to write my own thoughts.  I would rather follow someone else’s colorful creativity in little cardboard pieces than follow my own creative urges to completion. With my many unfinished needlework and art projects haunting my closets, I am lucky that I don’t have to depend on either occupation for my food or shelter or comfort.

The sense of accomplishment is almost equal with both endeavors. The puzzle (as you see in the accompanying picture) exists in physical reality. It can be touched, seen, and appreciated by others without much effort. It is pleasing in subject and in texture. It can be framed and mounted on a wall, glued to a table and decoupaged, or broken up for someone else to assemble. 

My writings, however, need another step to become available to my audience’s appreciation. The story in its manuscript form must be published in some format for the single reader to enjoy it. Let me state that again. The story I am telling was meant to be read by one person privately with its meaning and value to be shared directly between me and my reader. (It can be read out loud, of course, but its length and complexity most often forbid that.) It is meant to be a totally private experience for the reader whereas the puzzle is meant to be shared with others.

This sense of the private reader is not shared equally by our newer electronic devices. A story told in a book is a one-on-one experience. Checking cellphones, tablets, and Kindles has now become a one-on-one experience through which information can be transferred to others. However, such other modern devices are meant to be experienced communally — television, film, records, etc. can be either private or communal events. A book containing a story can be “shared” by retelling the story but that retelling ultimately short-changes the total story and its affect on its audience.

Imagine the Cliff Notes of “Jane Eyre” or “Gone With The Wind” compared to the original text. In a similar manner, picture puzzles show a smaller version of the picture on the box but the puzzle itself is larger and more colorful than that on the box lid. The box holds the pieces in a state of potentiality and the puzzle-arranger must re-create the original puzzle in its proper size.

Creative writing does somewhat the same action. The stories that lie within our memories are merely seeds of our written form of the story. Those seeds need the soil, water, light, and encouragement to grow and change into colorful and meaningful blooms. The seed-stories need expansion and re-assembly within our minds before they can become stories which must, like children leaving the nest, be set free to be told to others. So also, the puzzle pieces inside the box need a human mind and human hands to assemble the picture on the box lid.

Both endeavors nourish our sense of accomplishment and our need to create art. The analytical and the creative working together are the sum and substance and power of the human mind working.

Keep writing…and try a picture puzzle too.

2 thoughts on “Puzzles and Writing and the Human Mind

  1. I enjoyed your post – congratulations on completing the puzzle. I find that the story seeds inside me are usually incomplete at best partially formed and require the process of writing to become clear to me — often surprising the hell out of me!

    Don’t think I’m going to try a jigsaw puzzle though (low frustration tolerance)


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