by Taffy Cannon
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy jigsaw puzzles, and my first specific memory is the satisfaction of correctly positioning all 48 states in their USA frame. I also recall Wyoming being impossible to differentiate from Colorado and confess that to this day I can never remember if Kansas sits on top of Nebraska or vice versa.
My mother worked jigsaw puzzles on a card table in the sun room, and certain of her puzzles became old friends or sworn enemies. I liked to sit and work these with her, though never for very long, and I took my greatest pleasure in meandering past and stopping just long enough to fill a significant gap or two. It’s over forty years since my mother died, but I still have one of her puzzles from that era, Disks of Newton by the Bohemian painter Frantisek Kupta, an abstract artist who died in 1957 – but has two current Facebook pages.
Springbok called him Frank, and I was stunned to realize that in all the years I’ve owned and worked this puzzle, I never once read his bio on the back of the box. This makes me feel even more lowbrow than usual, but bless the Internet. I was able to not only easily learn Kupta’s history, but also to find endless examples of his art, including many paintings from the Disks series and an actual picture of the very same puzzle box that I’ve moved thousands of miles around the country over the past four decades.
The1965 jigsaw features 360 pieces, each one different, and is fiendishly difficult, including several inches of border that don’t directly link at all. I’ve worked it many times over the years, most recently between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and every time I am surprised at how much harder it is than I expect. (A similarly sized and configured Jackson Pollock of my mother’s was all but impossible, and I got rid of it a long time ago.)
Puzzles are not part of my normal routine, and most often I’ll work them when I am sick, specifically too sick to read. Once I get started, I do them in spurts, running through several before suddenly hitting a personal wall (or feeling significantly better), at which point I pack them all up again, sometimes for years.
In addition to their palliative powers, I’ve come to realize is that working jigsaws for me can be a way of analyzing complex issues while appearing to be at least marginally productive. Sometimes these are related to writing and other times to more personal matters. Occasionally, as in my recent dalliance with the Disks of Newton, the two coincide.
I follow a general method for assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and I realize now that it’s much the same routine I use to plot a novel or structure a work of nonfiction.
I start with the edges, the borders, the boundaries of what I hope to accomplish. Only rarely will I assemble the entire border before I dash off on one or more tangents, piecing together some striking interior element, often because it taunts me with vivid color. My favorite jigsaw puzzles usually contain a number of smaller puzzles, such as sections of a shadow box, or seed packets, or jungle parrots.
I usually keep the cover of the puzzle box available as a visual aid, though purists would consider this cheating. Knowing the general appearance of a puzzle can be useful and save some time, though part of the fun is always in seeing how and where the smaller sections – we’ll call them subplots – fit into the larger overview.
As in plotting, perspective can make all the difference. Sometimes I’ll find myself getting muzzy after a certain period of time, particularly if I was sick to start with. At this point nothing is as useful as a change of perspective. In life, in fiction, or in uniting several hundred small bits of cardboard, viewing a difficult scene from some other angle can often clarify matters with wondrous speed.
At times the various parts of a jigsaw suddenly all come together. I find this comparable to those wonderful moments in writing when all your various threads and strands and nuggets suddenly take on their own lives and produce a tapestry that may even be better than what you had in mind. If only this could be counted on to happen every time.
The final similarity between jigsaw puzzles and writing will be self-evident to many writers: my cats are absolutely certain that none of this could be accomplished without their assistance.