Jigsaws

Jigsaws

My mother loved to do jigsaws. She would stay up late, after every one else had gone to bed, and do them on the dining table, which is also where she would do the bookkeeping for whichever company she was working for at the time. When she died, I found all the lists and accounts she kept for the household budget, and I remembered how she showed me how to keep track of my spending when I went off to university. She was renowned for balancing complicated accounts to the penny with only a calculator, pen and pencil, even after computers could do it all much faster. That was the jigsaw energy. She always needed things to be right when it came to her work.

I see that tendency in myself. When I do a jigsaw, I can feel my mother with me, and that’s comforting. I can let life flow over and around me, and I’ll never know now whether she was able to do that, but when something feels important, and I set my mind to it, I need it to be done to the best of my ability.

For Christmas last year I bought my daughter a jigsaw of a book shop. Facing a long November and December in another lockdown, I dug it out again, and bought a puzzle board to put it on, so I could push it under the sofa between sessions. (That didn’t work out, it turns out our sofas are all too low to the ground for the board to fit. It’s still useful.) As I’ve worked on it, painfully aware of the guilt I’m feeling about not working on my next novel, it’s become clear I fight my natural instincts. I make creativity more painful than it needs to be.

There are parallels with writing in the way I do jigsaws. I start by turning over all the pieces and looking for the edges. My mother taught me that. The edges provide a boundary. Then I look for the vivid, smaller sections, which are easier to find in the mass of pieces, and put them in roughly the right spots. At some point these sections connect to each other, or most thrillingly to the edges, and things speed up. By this point, my mind has spent enough time on the problem to begin to see connections before I consciously notice them. My fingers move to a piece without knowing why, and it fits somewhere unexpectedly. The whole assembles itself because I’m fully engaged, and the power of my pattern-matching mind, which I undoubtedly got from my mother, shines though.

Don’t get me wrong, that isn’t how I wrote my first book, and I’m not sharing my jigsaw-as-creative-writing metaphor because I know it’s right, but it might help me unlock my current work-in-progress, which also seems to be waiting for when I can sit at a cafe table again, where I’ve always written most of my words. The jigsaw energy and writing energy is surely also linked to the way I write software. It’s human to want to assemble patterns out of what seems like chaos. My problem-solving mind craves patterns. Anyway, that’s what I wanted to say about jigsaws.

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