The Jigsaw Puzzle of Writing

Since the pandemic, I have been obsessed with jigsaw puzzles, preferably 1,000 piece ones. It’s my escape from worries of the spread of the virus, the upcoming election and the general mess that 2020 has brought. I start each puzzle the same way – sort out pieces by color then take the edges and build the frame. Once the outline is done, I concentrate on areas of color or pattern, turning and rotating each piece for a fit.

Sometimes I get discouraged when nothing fits and all the pieces look the same and the task seems insurmountable. Then I take a break and go for a walk at the beach or in the neighborhood. When I get back and look at the puzzle again, patterns I didn’t see before appear and pieces that looked so similar have more nuance than I detected before. I tackle it anew.

It was on one of those walks that I realized that putting together jigsaw puzzles was just like the writing process. I am enrolled in a Master Class at UCLA Extension for the next eight months to revise and polish the first draft of my memoir on my family’s immigration history from China. The edges are complete — I have the frame and outline in my first draft. As I rewrite and edit every chapter, I concentrate on grouping like pieces together, finding a pattern and seeing how it fits into the larger puzzle. I mull over each word like a puzzle piece, trying new words or finding better ones. Entire paragraphs get cut, phrases are written and rewritten, words are deleted, read and reread while I wonder if each piece helps to make it a coherent whole.

Sometimes I get stuck because the words don’t convey what I really want to say or it feels stilted and the amount of revisions needed seem insurmountable. Then I take a break, go for a walk or start a new jigsaw puzzle and wait for renewed inspiration.





8 thoughts on “The Jigsaw Puzzle of Writing

  1. Again, Cynthia, great writing. I’ve often looked at writing as a jigsaw puzzle. It is very inspirational and I love the way you break down the writing process using puzzle pieces in different ways to arrive at your goal–a 1,000 ways to reach the final product.

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