I’ve read in the past that working on a familiar, routine task like cooking can work wonders – it gives the conscious mind a job to do that’s not taxing to the subconscious, so the Girls in the Basement can brainstorm the creative problem without being interrupted every few minutes.
Cooking works quite well for me, especially when I’m editing, but when I’m in the early discovery stage of a new story in a new world, when the possibilities are limitless and almost everything has to be invented, my favorite trick for getting myself unstuck is to do a jigsaw.
Jigsaws are often seen as a valuable educational aid in children’s development, and a way for oldies to keep dementia at bay, but I find they also get my fiction writing discovery wheels turning in just the right way.
I’ve never tried to analyze what it is that works so well for me, but having spent an afternoon pondering the question, here are a few possible reasons:
There’s a feeling of great satisfaction in bringing order to a puzzle. I usually start with a thousand pieces and it’s daunting to see them all spread out and jumbled up. Then I look harder, and patterns start to emerge. I pick on a place to start, whatever looks like the easiest place to get some momentum going. It’s often the outside frame, but not always. With a circular puzzle it’s easier to start in the middle and work outwards. And sometimes there’s one part of the picture that looks really clear and straightforward, so that’s the place to begin.
There are so many different ways to attack the problem; different techniques come in to play, depending on the puzzle manufacturer and on the picture. Perhaps colors are the distinctive feature, or patterns, or brushwork if it’s a reproduction of a painting, or the shapes of the pieces themselves. I tend to go by colors and patterns first, whereas my husband likes shapes and spatial recognition. Sometimes a puzzle manufacturer will use the same shapes more than once, so you can make the pieces fit together but you have to pay attention to the picture itself or when you stand back it doesn’t look right. Sometimes the pattern or color differences will be very subtle (like the dolphin in progress above) but the pieces are unique, so you have to pay careful attention to the slight differences in shape.
The great thing is that you’re constantly making choices. Repeatedly trying and testing, and most of the time getting it wrong, discarding and looking for a better choice until you find the one piece that’s exactly right. Focusing on one technique or one part of the puzzle, and if that doesn’t work, moving on to the next until you get some traction.
You also get rewarded for persistence. Sometimes you can stare at the pieces for ages and nothing seems to work. Other times you get into the flow and every piece you choose just slots in to place. No matter. You can spend five minutes or half an hour, but usually you’ll do something that brings the puzzle closer to being completed, and there’s visible evidence of your progress.
The other big takeaway for me has been to discover how much skill is involved in setting a really satisfying puzzle. The picture has to be something that appeals to me, of course, and the actual puzzle should be well-made – if the pieces are flimsy or don’t lock together cleanly or (it happens!) if I get to the end and discover a piece is missing, then I’m never going to buy another puzzle from that manufacturer, no matter how beautiful the picture. If the technical construction is good, then the puzzle should keep me engaged by providing challenges that call on my ingenuity and require me to use as many techniques as possible. If it’s too easy – all red in one corner, all blue in the other – then I’m not challenged and completing the puzzle is not satisfying. If it’s difficult but the challenge is simply a slog or process of elimination, then I’m not challenged plus it’s boring and I’m tempted to give up. If it’s just hard enough, it’s a collaboration between the puzzle setter and me, and it’s fun. I’ve figured out which manufacturers do this brilliantly, and I switch between them for maximum variety.
Lotta food for thought in one simple puzzle.
I bought a big batch of jigsaws online a couple of weeks ago and I’m hoping they’ll see me through the first draft of Alexis’s story.
Any one else find puzzles helpful, or is it just me?
What’s your top tip for problem solving or boosting creativity?