Putting a puzzle together is about the only creative work I’ve done in the last month.
Perhaps that doesn’t seem very creative. Maybe it isn’t. After all, I haven’t generated anything new, which I’d probably argue is the essence of creativity.
And yet, I’m going to claim my puzzling as creative work–because I think the exercise builds cognitive muscles we need when we sit down to make things.
When I begin a puzzle, there’s a clear end-vision. It’s not mine, but there is one, on the cover of the puzzle box. I know where I’m going. But all the pieces are just so many random, scattered bits.
At first, all I can do is build the frame that will contain them. I look for the ones that have a straight edge. I separate them from the rest, start to look for patterns of color. I compare them to the vision, start to piece them together.
Next, I go for the low-hanging fruit of the puzzle. What in that end-image is visually distinctive? What pieces can I easily separate from the others and start to join?
In the early stages, it can feel as if some parts of the puzzle will be impossible to finish. When I realize that there are just so many blue (or red or purple or…whatever color) pieces, and that there are blue parts all over the image. I wonder how I’ll begin to figure out which part of the picture each blue piece belongs to.
But so far, none has ever been impossible. The more of the puzzle I complete, the more the choices narrow. As the other colors find their way into the pieced-together part, I am able to see all those blue pieces more clearly. I begin to notice their different shades of blue. I am able to see things in the blue bits I wasn’t able to see when they were surrounded by so much else: a shadow, a line, a tiny slice of some other color on the edge of the blue.
As large parts of the puzzle take shape, I see places where a piece with some bit of blue connects–and before I know it, some big blue section is coming together.
And so it goes, until the whole thing is complete, as long as I keep at it. Some pieces I have to turn 3 different ways before I can see how they fit. Sometimes I’ll have a big chunk of puzzle hanging out where I think it goes, and then I’ll suddenly see the place where it will anchor to the frame and it’s much higher or lower than I thought. Sometimes I’ll have a piece that I try over and over and over and begin to think I’ll never find the place for, and suddenly it is so obvious where it belongs.
It’s the same for any creative project. We often start with a vision, and we begin with broad strokes, the things we can grasp most easily. The deeper into it we go, the more challenging it can feel, but if we just keep at it, keep trying, things begin to come clear. We have to trust in the process.
I’ve done enough puzzles now to know that I can trust the process. My last one was a leap up: 1,000 pieces! It was hard. At times I got a bit bored with it. I wondered why I was mucking around with making a thing that has no real value in itself: When I am done, I leave it out for about a day and then I sweep all the pieces back into the box. The only purpose is the doing of it. And if that’s not true of much creative work, well…then I don’t know much about creative work.
Here’s the other thing I know about puzzles and creativity: Sometimes, the only thing you can do is an exercise. Sometimes, life so uses up all the things needed to create–energy, purpose, hope, security–that you have no ability to do anything more. If you find yourself in one of those times, and the best you can do is muck around with a puzzle (or do crosswords, or sing karaoke, or read fluffy novels, or take photos on AUTO), then do it without apology or hand-wringing. As long as you’re keeping your head in the game (and out of an oven), you’re doing all you need to do.
I don’t live in the tough love camp of creative endeavor. I’m not one to think that those who lament the lack of conditions needed for creativity just need to develop some backbone and discipline and get their asses in the chair or go home. (Like this guy. Who, to be fair, also believes this. And whose writing about writing I really enjoy.) Yes, I do believe that the only way to create is to create, and that if all you ever do is dream, well, that’s all you’re ever going to do.
But if you’re in a place where what feels like your true creative work can’t happen–or where you just don’t give a fluck if it does or doesn’t–then just do what you can and be OK with it. Even if all you can do is piece together a puzzle of someone else’s creative vision. Allow yourself to do what you can do and see if you can reframe it. See if you can find the connection to your creativity in it. Because that, I think, is the only way you have any real hope of coming back to it. (It being life.)
Puzzle on, dudes.