It’s a puzzle

Putting a puzzle together is about the only creative work I’ve done in the last month.

Robot puzzle

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.

Robot puzzle

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?

Robot puzzle

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.

Robot puzzle

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.

Robot puzzle

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.

Robot puzzle


13 thoughts on “It’s a puzzle

  1. Marian says:

    I find myself nodding at much of this post, especially what you said in your fourth-from-last paragraph — that sometimes the only thing you can do is an exercise; that life sometimes uses up all the things you need to create, and that as long as you’re keeping your head in the game (and out of an oven) you’re doing all you need to do. (The oven part made me laugh out loud, btw 🙂 ).

    I sometimes think it can be a mistake to create something while in a messed-up or otherwise stressed-out frame of mind (or at least, a mistake when you’re creating something that you yourself are going to keep). Maybe this is just me and my wonky relationship with “stuff”, but it seems to me that much of what I create gets infused with the situations and emotions that I’m experiencing at the time, and then -no matter how successfully the project has come off – that thing will forevermore have that sticky residue of unhappiness attached to it, and I’ll always get that feeling when I look at it. So I say, keep puzzling until you’re sure that you can infuse something good into whatever it is you next want to create, and if you at any time worry that you’re not actually creating anything tangible, maybe the thought that you’re exercising your brain will help:

    (As to “this guy” you reference, I wandered over to his site and read his tweets and I too, was quite irritated by what he was saying (the whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” schtick given out by those who have succeeded somehow never fails to annoy me /grumble grumble/), but then he does pretty much totally redeem himself in his second piece).
    Marian recently posted…Documentary Review – The Clean Bin ProjectMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thanks, Marian. It is always so nice to hear from you. I totally agree with your feelings about how things get infused with situations and emotions surrounding them. Maybe it’s wonky, but it works that way for me, too. I used to know someone who believed houses held some kind of ju-ju from events that happened in them. Swore that part of the reason for his divorce was moving into a house being sold because of a divorce. I happen to know there was a lot more to it than that, but sometimes I wonder…

      At any rate, for now I’m going to be OK with doing puzzles instead of making something real. It’s not like it feels as if there’s much real choice in it, so I think the saner thing is to work at being OK with it. Hope you are doing well. Looking forward to your next post.

  2. Jen says:

    I was just thinking about you the other day and wondering how you were.

    One of the things that we tell student writers (or used to tell them when we had time for things like writing workshop) was that sometimes it doesn’t come easily – that staring out the window or doodling or whatever it is that doesn’t necessarily look like writing is important work that primes the pump. Those things that we don’t think are helping us make progress may in fact be allowing us to make room for the ideas or words or projects that we are looking for and wanting.

    I know that when I engage in what I consider to be some activity like crocheting a simple baby afghan, while my hands are busy, my mind is free to wander. Or while I’m out digging in the dirt, prepping the plants, I’m occupied and making but really what is happening is my subconscious is working…laying the ground work or working through problems that I didn’t know were bothering me. Puzzles serve the same purpose for my husband – they relax him and allow him to calm down.

    Now some times all those things are a means to an end and sometimes they are just what they are – like you said, an exercise. I’m generally good either way, depending on the season in which I find myself.
    Jen recently posted…(Almost) Wordless Wednesday – The BeachMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I’m with you. When I was younger, I used to fight the times of not-writing–and feel like I was lazy or otherwise deficient for not writing. I came to realize that the times of not-writing were often the times I was generating life experiences that would fuel later writing. If I’m not-writing, there is always a reason. For me, writing requires a certain distance from experience. If I’m in the thick of something that is taking everything I’ve got, there’s none left for the kind of reflection that writing requires. So, I’ve come to be OK with it. It’s nice to hear from you. I’m looking forward to catching up with what you’ve beed doing. I’ve also been not-reading (other than fiction), but I’m getting back into the swing of things. Or might be.

  3. Lisa says:

    I always love to read what you write. Yes to the being all used up and not having the internal spark at the moment. I find the creative work hard to fit in my schedule lately–I have plenty of things I want to do, but lately when I have an hour to myself I’ve been holing up with a (candy floss) book. I know that when I start working my way steadily through my bookshelf that it is a way of recharging. (I’ve re-read the entire Harry Potter series, all 29 Jayne Ann Krentz books in my posession, and the entire Sookie Stackhouse series. Then I concussed myself and spent a lot of time contemplating the ceiling.).

    The spark will come back eventually. Till then, self-soothing.

    • Rita says:

      Considering all that you’ve got going on, yes to the candy floss! I must confess I’d never heard of Sookie Stackhouse. My candy of choice tends to be mysteries or YA novels (my current soothing balm). At least the YA novels are connected to my job, so I can feel a teensy bit virtuous about reading them. But really, it’s just for the sugar-high, and I know it. Hope your head is feeling better.

  4. Sarah says:

    As usual, I love this post, Rita. (And I was totally tickled by the relationships between the text and the puzzle photos, especially that funny, pensive fellow at the end.) I think you’re right that there is something *specifically* creative about puzzling, but I also think that being able to see the ways in which almost any activity can build our creative muscles is a useful skill.

    Oh, those cranky get-your-butt-in-gear-and-write lectures! Always from the white dudes with beards.

    I will say, though, that I think there’s something to showing up and writing even when you feel like you’re in a not-writing space. Just for 20 minutes. Or even 10. But regularly. That’s a conclusion I’ve come to with my own fits-and-starts writing practice over the last few months. The showing up is a kind of discipline that changes your sense of yourself as a writer. Builds confidence, in a way. So I’m saying, you have to write even when the writing isn’t going well — because eventually, the writing *will* start to go well, and experiencing that transition can really give you wings.

    Was that too tough-love? Should I go check my face for a beard?

    I’ve been thinking about a post of my own about the concept of making time (for creativity, especially). Now I just have to find the time to, you know, write the post! But I hope we can continue this conversation.
    Sarah recently posted…A simple spring pastaMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Yes, what is it with the bearded white dudes?!?

      Although I’m advocating here for some grace with times of silence/stillness/block, I will also say that there is MUCH to be said for regular practice. I’m sure I’ve linked to this Kim Stafford essay before on the importance of writing daily (, but it’s so true that I keep referring others to it. When I’m writing daily, the writing is different. It’s better and more productive. I’m sure that would be true of any creative practice. I’m sure it’s not much different from working out–when I’ve missed the gym for too many days, the first one (or more) back is always hard and I’m clunky. We develop a kind of muscle-memory, I think, when we create on a regular basis. (OK, I know I’m stretching/mixing metaphors too much, but indulge me. I’m out of practice.)

      And thank you for noticing the image intentionality. Made me smile. 🙂

      • Sarah says:

        Oh, that’s an amazing essay, thank you! I hadn’t read it before.

        Actually I think the workout/gym metaphor is totally apt. I notice that when I go a while without swimming, it is harder to talk myself into/easier to talk myself out of “breaking the seal” and getting back in the water. But once I’m there, I’m instantly so happy I did.

        Pretty much exactly like writing, I’d say!
        Sarah recently posted…A simple spring pastaMy Profile

  5. Kate says:

    I love puzzling. I don’t do it very often – mostly when I’m on vacation – but I love all the little victories of snapping things into place. (Nope, not OCD at all.) And this puzzle is adorable.

    Also, I’d say that this puzzle turned into a remarkable creative endeavor – this post was beautiful. Thank you!

  6. Laura says:

    There is a passage from one of Madeleine L’Engle’s memoirs about how none of the things she wrote while pregnant ever came to fruition. She made the effort, but she eventually realized that she couldn’t birth a book and a baby at the same time. Maybe we can only gestate one thing at a time, and maybe that’s okay, even if practicing feels rote or walking away from it for awhile seems awkward.
    Laura recently posted…A Post In Which I Start Another Mess, Instead of Finishing Ones I’ve Already StartedMy Profile

  7. May says:

    Oh, I will puzzle on indeed! One of my favorite things to do on a cold winter’s evening is spill out a big puzzle on the large coffee table in front of the fireplace. I always ask if anyone wants to start a puzzle with me. No, no one does. I chuckle to myself a half hour in as we are all gathered side by side puzzling away, me and all the people who didn’t want to start a puzzle!
    May recently posted…HappyMy Profile

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