by Jenny, written in her tutoring days
Ten-year-old Charles stares at me in terror, fist clenched around a Ticonderoga No. 2 as if he’d rather stab the blank sheet of binder paper than try to put his thoughts in written form. Like most of the children I’ve tutored, he’s so conditioned to remember all the rules of writing that he can’t even summon half a conscious thought. He gulps, eyes bulging, and gasps out a series of questions. Should he think of a title first? Should it go in the center? Should he indent, skip lines, use cursive? Should he start with a topic sentence, a startling statement, or a quote? His teacher likes him to use “strong adverbs;” should he? As with writers of all ages and abilities, the shoulds of writing have overshadowed the will.
I tell Charles what I tell myself: the ideas are already in you, and so are the words. There’s a jigsaw puzzle in your head, and the picture will emerge as you solve it. But the first thing you have to do is open the box and dump the pieces out.
He slaps the pencil down and rolls his eyes. “I don’t do puzzles,” he says. “Why would I spend so much time making a picture when I can just buy one already made?”
“Because,” I tell him, “you learn who you are by the process of doing your own.”
And I realize, in the telling, that that’s exactly why I write — to discover what I think and feel, and who I am.
My first thought, when I open my own mental puzzle box and watch the seemingly random words spill on the page, is that nothing will fit – that I’ve mixed multiple puzzles, or am missing critical pieces. But I’m learning from experience that this despairing thought is wrong. Nothing has to make sense right away; it always comes together in the end. So first I turn the boring gray ones over – tree turns into sycamore, and toy turns into antique marionette – and then I start to sort the piece-words out, looking at patterns, grouping them in lists or webs by what they have in common. In a jigsaw puzzle, this might be a pile of pieces that seem to be part of a ship, a cloud, a geranium; on my paper, it’s an idea, an argument, an example.
I shift the piles into a logical order and turn back to the leftover pieces. Some are so straightforward that I can see they’re meant to be topic sentences, part of the frame. As that takes shape, I can see where to fit the pieces from the idea piles, examining each for fit and flow of thought. This process helps clarify my vision of the end product. The very writing of this post, for instance, is clarifying my ideas about why I write.
This isn’t just an exercise in craft, though. The process of examination and discovery is, in essence, like doing a puzzle of my self. Examining the word-pieces and discovering the connections between them helps me understand what’s already in my head – the big picture on the cover of the puzzle box. I discover thoughts I didn’t know I had, and gain awareness about my values that helps me give with more grace and speak with more certainty.
But writing doesn’t just reveal my identity – it shapes it. This is why I open the box, sort words, lay out their frames. Through the process of “doing my puzzle,” an image begins to emerge of who I am, what I stand for, and how I want to be.
It sounds self-indulgent, just as it might sound self-indulgent to spend an afternoon putting together a jigsaw puzzle when there is so much “real” work to be done in the outside world. But I’ve learned that I really can’t be the better person I want to be when I’m not at peace with myself. If my ideas about who I am aren’t clear, if I’m uncertain about what I stand for or where my priorities lie, anxiety clouds my interactions. Writing is a meditative, contemplative puzzle that centers me. I believe that something bigger than me has made the pieces and the box they came in, that I don’t have to make up who I am. My role is just to put those pieces together so that the finished works – my writing and my self — can resonate with other human beings.
It’s gratifying when the image is at last clear. But, as I tell Charles, puzzles are all about their doing – whether alone or with the help and companionship of others. I’m here to help him see the unturned piece, the odd curve, the missing edge. But first he has to let the pieces fall out of his head.