How Jigsaw Puzzles Can Jumpstart Creativity

October 15, 2018


I actually force myself to utter this word aloud when I get stuck while assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

I’m kind of embarrassed to declare my love of jigsaw puzzles. The hobby seems like the antithesis of my right-brained approach to life. The pursuits that most reliably fill and nurture my soul are generally creative, like the novels I write. In fiction, there are no rules. Life is a series of endless possibilities, of infinite new paths, of countless unexplored destinations. A novelist’s protagonist (insert name here with whatever name you feel like assigning your protagonist) can choose option A, option B, option C or option “other” at any juncture at all. The choices are wide open.

A jigsaw puzzle, of course, is the exact opposite: a challenge with only a single acceptable solution for any given dilemma. That blank space in your picture can’t be filled by your imagination. It can be filled only by the one puzzle piece that exactly conforms to its dimensions. No creativity, no room for error, is involved. You either find the right puzzle piece or you don’t.

So why do I enjoy jigsaw puzzles so much?

One reason is that it provides time for my imagination to incubate . . . to ponder . . . to chill. Jigsaw puzzles paradoxically demand both intense concentration and endless opportunities for daydreaming. Many a novel has been germinated in my mind while I’ve been trying to determine if a particular eggshell-colored puzzle piece is either part of the froth of an ocean wave or the tip of a castle’s barbican. Something about staring intently at an inch-wide piece of cardboard, and giving your full attention to its place in the world, is both grounding and transcendent at the same time. It was when struggling with a jigsaw puzzle piece, for instance, that I decided that my protagonist in “All the Wrong Chords” should have a brother who died of opiate addiction . . . and when I decided that the victim of attempted rape in “Thirty Sunsets” should have a sibling who, unbeknownst to her until the information was most pivotal in her life, was conceived of sexual assault. A million plot points were conceived while staring at that eggshell-colored piece of cardboard.

But I think another yet another factor more closely explains my love of jigsaw puzzles. When I’m stuck and command myself to move, I physically change my perspective. I assemble jigsaw puzzles at my dining room table (hence my disinclination to throw dinner parties), so I can easily move from one seat to another when filling in the missing pieces. When I’m absolutely, positively stuck from the seat I’m currently occupying, I move to a new chair and am suddenly contemplating the big picture from its east orientation, rather than its south . . . or its west rather than its north . . . etc., etc..

Getting a new view — a fresh perspective — is vital both in assembling jigsaw puzzles and in assembling novels, or song lyrics, or any of the other many creations that fire my synapses. My brother, who cowrites songs with me, and I describe the process as nudging a kaleidoscope ever so slightly to the right or left . . . a seemingly subtle shift in one’s vantage point that can potentially unleash a million new creative possibilities.

For instance, a song my brother and I wrote for “All the Wrong Chords” EP called “Save Yourself” was a redneck anthem in the initial draft of my lyrics. How redneck, you ask? Suffice it to say the word “tequila” was in frequent rotation. My brother balked. “I don’t wanna write a bar song,” he said. (Party pooper.) So I tweaked the kaleidoscope — I moved — and I discovered lyrics that were actually much closer to my heart. (Search “Save Yourself by The Beastings” on youtube to hear it.)

So when I’m stuck while writing a novel or lyric, I summon the power that has served me so well in my jigsaw-puzzle passion: I move.

Sometimes, the move leads to a false start, or a dead end, or a frustrating exercise in futility.

But sometimes — just sometimes — it leads to the destination I’ve  been seeking all along.

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© 2020 Christine Hurley Deriso