JIGSAW PUZZLES AND WRITING

I used to do jigsaw puzzles with my mother when I was a child and recently due to a need to sort through some family papers I discovered them again. My mother had some very specific criteria for the puzzles she would do. They should be of works of art and they should have interesting shaped pieces. Not for her the kitsch of the country cottage or any lurid flowers or cute puppies. And she had absolutely no interest in swathes of sky. Waddington Fine Art Puzzles fitted this criteria perfectly. And so over the years she bought a lot of them, some of which I kept. This one below is by Johannes Vermeer and is called A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (1670-72) and it’s in room 16 of The National Gallery in London.

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The main thing I remember about doing them was the companionable silence broken periodically by a murmur of satisfaction as an elusive piece was slotted into  place.

Recently, I’ve been feeling anxious and my concentration has not been good and finding the puzzles gave me a craving to do them again, so I have been interspersing my writing with a bit of jigsaw-ing. I’ve been finding it soothing and according to Wentworth Wooden Puzzles there’s a reason for this.

“An activity that can help us experience some of the many benefits of mindfulness is focusing on completing jigsaw puzzles. In a similar fashion to popular adult colouring books, jigsaw puzzles allow the brain to relax while keeping the hands busy. They provide a calming distraction from hours spent staring at screens, whether that’s a computer, TV or even a phone. An easy way to channel the imagination, a jigsaw puzzle gives you a creative outlet whilst keeping your mind focused. This activity allows us to achieve a state of creative meditation as well as leveraging the left (logical) and right (creative) sides of the brain.

Some studies, such as the MacArthur Study, have even concluded that people who solve jigsaw puzzles in addition to other activities that provide a mental workout, can actually lead to longer life expectancy, better quality of life and reduced chances of developing certain types of mental illnesses (e.g. memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease) by up to a third.

Because of their calming qualities, completing a hard or challenging jigsaw puzzle can have serious effects on your mood. We all know the satisfaction of finally finding where that last piece goes, but this actually encourages the production of dopamine, the chemical in your brain which helps keep us happy and healthy. These mood enhancing effects help to lower our heart rate and blood pressure, allowing us to release stress and tension. These benefits make jigsaws extra beneficial for those who suffer from stress or anxiety.

Completing a jigsaw puzzle can even put our brains into the same meditative state that we experience while dreaming!  So why not take some time out away from work and your phone to complete a jigsaw and see how it can help focus your brain and relax.”

My novels have always come in fits and starts. Rarely have I seen how they fit together until very close to the end. I do not plot them all out. I do not know what will happen. This creates anxiety which I recognize as  part of my creative process but sometimes it can feel like a curse. A jigsaw however can be physically completed; I can create a whole picture.

I’m approaching the end of this one now and what I’m left with are the dull brown pieces. There’s an expression bird watchers use to describe the multitude of birds which are barely distinguishable from each other: LBJs or little brown jobs. Doing this puzzle, I completed the blue of the dress first and then the orange of the string instrument on the left. The colours stand out and are easy to separate. The LBJs may not be flashy and colourful but without them the picture is not complete. They hold the fancier bits together. As I’ve got older I have grown to appreciate more the non-flashy bits of writing, the craft that finishes a paragraph well or sets the scene vividly but with economy. These bits can be hard to write but they make the whole story run smoothly. Anyone can write a fight scene or a funeral.

Towards the end, progress stalls because putting all those brown bits together is more difficult. And that definitely corresponds to my writing experience. The first 30,000 words can feel easy, fun and filled with hope. And they take probably half the time of the last 30,000. Why do I always forget that?

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Doing a jigsaw puzzle of a famous painting has another advantage. It puts you up close and personal with it in an intriguing way. You have literally pieced it together, so you know it intimately. I remember the shock and delight of seeing Winter Scene by A.B. Avercamp for the first time. It was much smaller than I expected but there was the turquoise jewel like roof of the main house, there were the birds sitting on the branches I had struggled to put together and there was the red shirt of the boy on the left. I was stunned. I was taken back to being a child, sprawled out on the floor next to my mother, filling in the pieces.

So, if anyone’s got a nice Waddington Fine Art Jigsaw Puzzle of between 500-1000 pieces – no sky, no pets, no cute cottages, no rushing trains – you might just have yourself a buyer. And if you’re interested in the very beautiful wooden puzzles produced by Wentworth Wooden Puzzles take a look at the link below. I’m very tempted by The Art of Painting and who is it by? Oh, that man Vermeer of course!

And if anyone ever sneers and asks you what the point of doing a jigsaw puzzle is, tell them you’re leveraging the left and right hand side of your brain. That should stun them into silence long enough for you to fill in at least a couple of  LBJs.

https://www.wentworthpuzzles.com/

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13 thoughts on “JIGSAW PUZZLES AND WRITING

  1. Great post Victoria! I’ve not done a jigsaw in years but you’ve really tempted me. The non-flashy things in life are easily overlooked but they are essential, and valuable, as you say. I hope the jigsaw’s worked it’s magic and your anxiety has lessened – if not, there’s a lot of jigsaws out there… 🙂

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    • Hi Andrea my Mum was a bit hardcore on jigsaws. She also loved crossword puzzles and was very good at them. I wasn’t terribly keen on art galleries when I was a child maybe this was my mother’s way of trying to interest me in art!

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  2. Well, I’ve just shared your post with a couple of my college friends. We had our own little ‘reunion’ this past Fall with lots of plans on wine-tasting and hiking and walking the shops, but three of the five of us were most interested in working on a jigsaw puzzle that one brought. They set it up in our little rented cottage and between jaunts, had the best time sitting there finding pieces that fit. I’ve never had any interest – felt like I’d rather spend that time reading, or blogging, or writing. But now that you’ve shared all of the benefits, I may have to re-think my stance on jigsaw puzzling. :–)
    I love what you say about writing. Yes, I’m working on a new book too, and I don’t plot either. So I’m either smiling as my characters show me what’s going to happen next, or I’m tearing my hair out.

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    • Hi Pam – what a lovely story! There is something meditative about doing a puzzle. maybe a case of simple pleasures. I’m always fascinated by those pieces which you feel must be really obvious but you only find at the end. A case of hiding in plain sight. Good luck with your writing and hope it’s more smiling than hair tearing!

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  3. I love your analogy of LBJs with the connecting pieces in writing. So true (and I confess I sometimes get caught up in the LBJs and forget about the Big Events, which may explain why would-be publishers often view my books as ‘too quiet’…). I used to enjoy jigsaws when I was young and while they were pretty lowbrow – Cornish fishing villages, that kind of thing – I loved piecing together the various roofscape – the LBJs of the built landscape – probably because they were all subtly different. Here in Australia, people talk about ‘puzzles’ and I always want to correct them – JIGSAW puzzles, you mean… Lovely post!

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    • Hi Colin – ah now then roofs. I remember one puzzle of a Spanish village which had those lovely red roof tiles and it was very big, much bigger than the art ones. The publishers are fools. I’ve just read a book called The Horseman by Tim Pears. It’s a gorgeous book – very slow and beautifully written. I loved it and it got me yearning for a bit of quiet in my own writing and since I’m writing something that feels a bit like The Three Musketeers … I’ve been feeling a bit stalled. Maybe that’s why I need the jigsaws. Now for a bit of slow writing …

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  4. I was brought up with a puritan approach to jigsaws – you couldn’t look at the picture on the box when you were doing them. I was shocked when I found that other people including my husband’s family had no such constraint.

    As to the ‘brown bits’ of writing – when I was doing research one of the most illuminating things I read was a book which focused on just such passages in the ancient poem I was working on – all the descriptions of sunrise, the ship mooring in a new harbour, that sort of thing. It really informed the way I worked thereafter. I’m not an English literature specialist but I’m sure you could really make something out of (for example) all the details of behaviour in, say, Middlemarch, as characters enter one another’s homes and are shown out again at the end. An anthropology of Middlemarch, if you like. I’m sure someone must have done this somewhere!

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    • Hi Virginia and thanks for the comment. That’s quite hardline – not to be able to look at the box. I remember we had a few jigsaws that had belonged to my parents when they were children which did not have any picture and that was quite fun seeing the picture emerge as the pieces were put together. In my early writing days i once made the mistake of writing a draft of one of my crime novels which had all the dialogue in place but very little of the scene setting. I enjoy dialogue because there’s a certain energy you can surf on and you can feel like you’re getting somewhere. Anyway in this case my agent said ‘I can’t see it.’ So I had to go back and fill in all these LBJs. It was a sore trial at the time but afterwards I made sure I did more of these linking passages as I went along and I’m more patient with them now and probably more skilled.

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  5. What a woman of great taste your Mother was!
    I think it is so, so important that us artists find a balance to our creativity. And it doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as we don’t attack ourselves when we do it. Without our non-creativity balance we would all explode. Jigsaws seem a fine one to me. And, as your say, you learn a lot about the work of art.
    Did your Mother every have a jigsaw of Titian’s ‘Man with a Blue Sleeve’, I wonder …

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    • Thank you Francesca. All that lovely blue! No, she didn’t that would have been fab! I went along to The National Gallery to take a look at The Girl Sitting at the Verginal only to discover a large gap and a notice on it saying this has been taken away to be photographed! So I had a long look at Avercamp’s Winter Scene instead. The one thing you don’t get, of course, is a sense of how big the paintings are, that can come as quite a shock.

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  6. I know – you would have been able to swim in it!
    I comment all the time in my art history lessons that scale is so important. I spend hours finding the dimensions of artworks, but nothing beats seeing them in the flesh. And they can elating and disappointing in equal measure if the scale is not as expected. – the Mona Lisa being a very obvious example!

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