There are two things that most like to do during these achingly long January days. I like to write and I like to do jigsaw puzzles. I’ve never understood those writers who claim to have the entire plot of a story mapped out in their minds before they sit down to write. You often find these sort of characters among genre writers and also among writers of genre comics. I believe these people are one of two things: bullshit artists or hacks. Those that are the former use this claim of narrative clarity as a way of selling a story that hasn’t yet been, and may never be, written, those that are the latter always turn out to be re-packaging a story they are already familiar with. Either way, I am suspicious of anyone who tells me how well they know their story unless they’ve tried telling it.
When I’m trying to come up with a narrative I feel exactly the way I do when I’m working on a jigsaw puzzle. I sit down with this jumble of thoughts scattered all over the table, I push them all around with my hands for a bit, then I set about the tedious task of sorting them. Edge bits first. Then pink bits, black bits, funny textured bits and bits with eyeballs or faces on them. The first stage is so difficult because while I have an Idea of what the story will be like, I haven’t got a bloody clue how all these little thoughts will fit together. At this stage the job is time consuming, frustrating and the rewards are pitiful. When you are sorting your own ideas you feel like you’ve spent hours in front of the screen writing, but because you still can’t see any of the picture yet, you feel like you’re not writing at all.
You keep plugging away at the puzzle story though, and if you’ve sorted your thoughts properly they’ll start connecting into pairs, and soon they’ll start to snowball until you have these little clusters of story floating around on the table. It often seems to me that the more tedious the work is at the start of the writing the more ecstatic the feeling is when two or three clusters of story connect and you finally have a sense that there is actually a narrative in there among all of the chaos.
If you’ve never done a really big jigsaw puzzle you’re probably not sure why it’s fun. There’s a wonderful burst of pleasure when you get two pieces of coloured cardboard to fit together perfectly. It’s a sort of tactile satisfaction that also feeds a desire some of us have to find vision through organisation. We push the pieces together, tap them in with three consecutive taps and let out an inaudible gratified sigh. As the puzzle gets closer to completion finding pieces that fit together becomes easier, the flares of pleasure come closer and closer together and any drudgery associated with the sorting stage fades into the past. Usually the puzzle is finished in a frenzy of activity, and when the last piece pushed in and tapped three times, it comes with a special kind of triumph. When doing a puzzle with my mum, a crafty competitor in all manner of nerdy pursuits, I sometimes resort to hiding a piece of the puzzle until all the rest were in place to make sure it was me who got to put the last piece in and make those three jubilant taps.
Like a jigsaw puzzle, the pleasure of writing a story builds to a crescendo as you work but, unlike the puzzle, the moment of ecstasy comes well before the very end. That moment comes when you’re washing the dishes or pruning your toenails and thinking about the story and you get floored with an “Aha!” moment. Two or three large chunks of story just click together and now you have a veritable continent of story that if you’re lucky will connect nicely to the frame of edge bits you’ve almost finished assembling. You can feel the excitement welling up from beneath your diaphragm. You can actually see the story. It’s there! All that remains is a frenzy of activity as you find all of the loose ideas that you still have scattered around the table and use them to fill in the gaps in between the well braced chunks of the narrative.
So the process of jigsaw puzzle writing goes.
A problem that I foresaw in using this unwieldy puzzle metaphor was this: A puzzle comes with a picture on the front of the box, and the method of finding a narrative through writing comes with no such convenience. Later I realised that the unwritten story does come with something like a picture on the box: my desire as a writer to create a certain experience for a reader. I know what sort of stories I want to read. I know what I want to feel when I am reading. This is my guide when I’m trying to create a narrative and find myself overwhelmed by the anarchic mess of little ideas scattered on the table.
This works within the metaphor because the doing of the puzzle and the finding of the story changes the way we see the subjects we are working with. Someone who has just finished the puzzle knows every element of that image with an offensive intimacy such that, in most cases, they don’t really care to look at the thing again. Ever. They set out to create a picture that looks like the one on the box and the tragedy is that when they have achieved it they are unable to see the picture they once saw. All they can see are the seams between the pieces. Similarly, if you’re a good writer, the story that you have found through writing might perfectly resemble the one you desired to read when you started out, but you’ll never be able to really read it. You will only be able to brush your eyes over the connections between all those tiny little ideas. The only time I ever see my own story from the reader’s perspective is the day I sit down to write it.
How does jigsaw puzzle writing apply to comics though? I think it can apply to all forms of storytelling, but having said that, I’m not sure that there are many cartoonists that write like this. Sometimes I worry whether I’m really a prose writer trying to pass myself off as a cartoonist, like Michael Jordan trying to play baseball, or Arnie trying to play politics. I think this way of finding narratives is useful for comics because when stories manifest from a nebula of thought particles, an amorphous mass of puzzle pieces, we find stories that have a structural balance to them. These stories are spherical, not in the sense of a narrative vector, but in the sense of a narrative constitution. Spherical stories of tend to have better structural integrity than this shoddy scaffolding that are the load bearers in stories created using the make-it-up-as-you-go method that a lot of cartoonists use.
And that’s all I’ve got to say about that. My summer puzzle has been finished after a late night session working on a harrowing block of solid black sky with my friend Adam. Thank god I’m not one of those losers who glues the finished puzzle to board so it can be hung on the wall.
First posted @ Pat Grant Art – all images from the same post.