Posted in Personal life, Writing

Why Doing A Jigsaw Puzzle Is A Bit Like Writing A Book

(How the gift of a jigsaw puzzle made me recognise interesting truths about writing and the subconscious mind)

Completed 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle
My Christmas present from Laura

When my 10 year old daughter presented me with a jigsaw puzzle  on Christmas Day, I knew it was just what I needed to take me out of myself and away from my keyboard for a much-needed mental rest.

She was surprised that I hadn’t guessed what her gift was after her not-so-subtle question on Christmas Eve:

“What’s your favourite number of pieces for there to be in a jigsaw puzzle?”

Fortunately my answer matched the puzzle that she’d bought: 1,000 pieces. What’s more, the picture was the kind I like best in a jigsaw puzzle: an array of small pictures combined together.

I couldn’t wait to get started on it. I seldom take time out to piece a jigsaw together, but every time I do, I get a frisson of pleasure from the reminder offered by jigsaw puzzles of the workings of the subconscious mind.

Subconscious Solutions for Jigsaw Puzzles

Completed small puzzle
It’s a miracle!

I love the way that you can pick up a piece and slot it immediately into place without thinking. You find your hand has already placed the piece in its correct position before you’ve made a logical appraisal of where it might fit. Only afterwards does your conscious mind catch up, realising, for example, that the slender grass stalk down one side of the piece lines up perfectly with its tip on the piece above. It’s as if some jigsaw-loving higher power is using your hand as its vehicle.

As I was slowly piecing my new puzzle together, it occurred to me that assembling a jigsaw is a lot like writing a book.

  • No matter how carefully you prepare the component parts – the corners, the edges, all the pieces with blue sky or Persian carpet or Delft tiles or pink flowers – the assembly of the puzzle never goes entirely according to plan.
  • When daunted by what seems like an insurmountably difficult section, you realise that if you only apply yourself, one piece at a time, you really can conquer the challenge.
  • Sometimes it works best if you switch your conscious mind off for a bit and let the subconscious take over.

So it is with writing a book.

Different Approaches to the Jigsaw Puzzle

Not everyone tackles a jigsaw puzzle the same way, any more than authors follow the same formula for writing books:

  • When I do a puzzle, I like to keep the box in view, so that I can study the picture and monitor my progress. Every time I look at it, I spot new and helpful details.
  • My husband prefers the “mystery tour” approach, turning the box face down to create a harder challenge. He’d be the sort or writer who prefers not to start with an outline, letting the characters lead the way.
  • Our daughter goes for her favourite parts first, e.g. the big pig in my Christmas present puzzle. She’s named him Steve and put a note in the box so we remember to greet him by the right name in future.
A selection of standard puzzle pieces with different shapes
Meet my new friends

But it may be only writers (or crazy people) who like to anthropomorphise the pieces. As I’m assembling the puzzle, I like to classify the different shapes into characters (clockwise, from top left):

  • the chubby, confident man, with outstretched arms extended for a hug
  • the  synchronised swimmers looking up
  • the ballroom dancer
  • the tractor driver
  • the ballet dancer, leaping across the stage
  • the air-traffic controller, waving a big lollipop to guide pilots around the runway
Wentworth Wooden Puzzle with whimsies
Where my whimsies take me

Although my more sensible scientifically-minded husband may not make making friends with puzzle’s component parts, he does enjoy as much as I do any jigsaw containing “whimsies”. Whimsies are the fancy-shaped pieces dreamed up by the Victorians to resemble specific shapes.

Our near neighbour, the Wentworth Wooden Puzzles company, is famous for its modern whimsies. It riddles its puzzles with pieces in the fancy shapes on specific themes. After completing my Christmas puzzle, we did a Wentworth one with an Alice in Wonderland theme. Camouflaged within the puzzle were an Alice, a Cheshire cat, a white rabbit, and all kinds of other characters from the classic children’s story. The need to accommodate these fancy shapes ensures the rest of the puzzle pieces also take unusual forms. Sometimes there are straight edges in the middle of a puzzle – how anarchic is that?!

The Joy of Completion

Whatever one’s approach to puzzle-making, who can fail to experience a creative joy as each small scene falls into placec? I find it odd that so sedentary an occupation has such power to quicken the heartbeat. And, oh, the heady satistfaction at the puzzle’s final completion, even though the end result is not exactly a surprise.

Where The Similarity With Writing Ends

Of course, the similarity with writing a book only goes so far:

  • Jigsaw puzzle with last piece missing
    Not the same without the vital spark

    The writer never has the problem of finding the cat has chased your words around the table, sending a few of them skittering under the dresser, from whence you have to extract them with a broom handle.

  • Nor does the writer return to her desk from a break to find her husband has, annoyingly, put into place the last few pieces of a finished story, leaving the writer redundant.
  • No writer embarks on the act of creating a story knowing that all of the component parts are right in front of her, neatly laid out and only needing to be mechanically selected and assembled in the right order to produce the required result.
  • But neither does she find herself at the end of a story with the final word apparently missing from the face of the earth, never to be seen again,  the trick with the broom handle having failed.
  • When you start a jigsaw puzzle, there is only one right solution. There are no absolute rights or wrongs about a book.

But what a good thing the similarity only goes so far. Otherwise  all stories would be soulless, no matter how neat and tidy.

When writing a book, even with a clear outline from the start, all kinds of mysterious processes happen along the way to morph it into something bigger, better and more interesting than the plan made it at first appear.

Unlike jigsaw puzzle pieces, the component parts of a story often materialise as if from nowhere, sent spinning out of the subconscious or unconscious mind by the mysterious powers that govern the human brain. Sometimes the act of putting a whole story down on paper can feel like an unconscious act, especially if it’s one you’ve had simmering at the back of your mind for a long time, or if you’ve woken up, as happens often, with a complete story fully formed in your head. That’s when the act of writing becomes more like taking dictation (though any writer who works that way is best advised to spend time consciously refining and editing the piece).

No author wants to write books with the predictability of a jigsaw puzzle. But some days the notion sounds appealing: if the task of writing a book were  as formulaic and straightforward as a jigsaw puzzle, we writers would have a lot more time on our hands and a lot more books in our back catalogue.

And I wouldn’t have to wait till next Christmas for my next fix of the jigsaw puzzle experience.

In the meantime, I’d better get back to my manuscript…

Pile of unsorted jigsaw puzzle pieces

If you liked this post, you might enjoy other posts about writing and creativity:

And if you’re an author yourself, you might like to read my latest post on my Off The Shelf Book Promotions blog:

How To Sell More Books via An Author Newsletter – with special guest David Ebsworth

Posted in Writing

My New Philosophy of Flower Arranging

This weekend, my lovely friend Susanne, whom I’ve known since I was 11, presented me with a beautiful bunch of spring flowers – anemones and tulips (my favourite). As I stuffed them unceremoniously into the first vases that came to hand, (well, we were in the middle of my husband’s birthday party), I inadvertently conducted a floral  experiment that’s brought out the philosopher in me. Or should that be the flowerosopher? I think I’ve just invented a whole new school of thought. Florists, philosophers – you decide….

Sometimes it’s good to be in solitary splendour, regardless of what anyone else is doing – but it can get a bit lonely.

Single anemone in a green IKEA vase
1) Standing, strong, alone.

Other times, there’s safety in numbers, all standing together, disciplined and firm.

Tulips and anemones stuffed tightly into a glass vase
2) Looking pretty but with no room for manoeuvre.

Best of all is when you can be together, but enjoy the freedom to be who you want to be and to go where you want to go in life.

Tulips and anemones loosely placed in a glass vase, arrange themselves
3) With room for manoeuvre, these flowers arranged themselves to perfection.

I know which I prefer.

Thank you, Susanne – you and I definitely belong in vase number 3!

Posted in Family, Writing

The Power of the Shower

(New blog post about finding writing inspiration under a refreshing shower – an electric power shower, I mean, not English autumn rainfall!)

English: shower head Deutsch: Duschkopf mit st...
Finding creative power in the shower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grabbing a quick shower yesterday morning while my husband walked my daughter to school, my cares fell away.

My conscience was clear: my part of the early morning duties were complete:

  • breakfast prepared – check
  • school lunchbox packed – check
  • daughter’s hair brushed and plaited – check
  • her purse topped up with a pound coin for after-school Film Club – check

For a moment I could let my busy head empty as I got myself ready for work.

At least, I thought I was letting my mind just wander, but after a few moments basking with my eyes closed, I suddenly realised that flowing into my head as steadily as the water was pouring from the shower head was a whole stream (groan) of ideas for various articles I was  scheduled to write over the next few days:

  • two book reviews  (the first has since hit the ether here)
  • the theme for this month’s parish magazine column (now on paper)
  • the gist of my piece for the November issue of the Tetbury Advertiser (emailed to the editor this morning)

So quickly and easily were these ideas coming, from somewhere deep within my subconscious, that I was tempted to spend the rest of the day in the shower. At this rate, I could have written a three-inch thick novel by tea-time.

But I had to head for the office of reading charity Readathon, where I spend my weekday mornings, so I cut my shower short at 15 minutes.

Short? I hear you cry. My husband complains that even 15 minutes is far too long, though it’s nothing compared to my daughter’s record of 45 minutes. (I’d never seen anyone enjoy a shower lying down, until she did.)

Even so, considering my mind had felt drained when I stepped into the shower, I was pleased with the result – and I don’t mean just being squeaky-clean.

English: Black Bear mother and cubs in den,, h...
Hibernating black bear mother and cubs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It had been a bit like taking a restorative nap. Although I can never sleep during the day, I’m a great believer in sleeping on a problem. Rather than lie there fretting in the dark, I recommend going to bed with the unsolved challenge lodged firmly at the back of your mind, and leaving it to stew the night away. Very often, on waking, I find the problem’s been solved, as if someone’s whispered it in my ear while I was out for the count.

Which makes me wonder what miracles of creativity I could perform if I went into hibernation. If it gets much colder this weekend, I think I’ll give it a try.

If you liked this piece, you might be interested in these posts about different kinds of power:

The Power Behind the Blog: Battery Chargers

The Power of the Postage Stamp

Posted in Personal life

All Washed Up Without A Non-Stick Sponge

sponge cake (for groc)
All sponges were not created equal (Photo credit: Rakka)

There are very few items on my shopping list that are indispensable. But of this I am sure: there is no susbstitute for a non-stick washing-up sponge. J-cloths, stringy things on sticks and those flat, dimply sponge squares just WILL NOT DO.

I have strong evidence that many people share my view. Nearly every time I try to buy some non-stick spongers, they are inexplicably out of stock. No matter which supermarket I choose, passing through the socio-economic spectrum from Lidl to Waitrose, there is generally a gaping hole in that part of the dishwashing supplies section. Piles of sticks and cloths on surrounding shelves taunt me with their abundance. Rough-edged scourers and Brillo pads mock me with their determination to remove the non-stick from my omelette pan at twenty paces. But non-stick sponges are there none.

Brillo Pads Ad, 1950
Brillo Pads Ad, 1950 (Photo credit: alsis35)

What is the meaning of this chronic shortage? In these heady days of near-perfect stock-control, empowered by barcode-reading tills, how can all the supermarket chains get their supply of this item so consistently wrong?

It’s not as if non-stick sponges contain a rare or seasonal ingredient. They don’t require a long and complex manufacturing process. Nor is there an irregular, seasonal pattern of use to make stock control more difficult. Surely pretty much every kitchen sink sees a similar throughput of washing-up, week in, week out? My only recourse is to stockpile whenever I find them. I guard against a crisis by buying two or three twin-packs at a time.

I’m therefore irritated today to discover a failure in my own stock-control system. When I go to get a new one from the broom cupboard, there are none. I determine to buy a whole shelf load of sponges next time I can track them down.

And then it occurs to me why they’re so hard to find. There must be thousands of shoppers all over the country who share my approach. It’s the stockpiling that’s causing the shortage. The minute a shelf-filler replenishes a shelf, someone dashes up to sweep the lot into their trolley.

photo of natural sponge stalls in Greece
No sponge shortage here (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s like the great toilet roll crisis of 1973. Many people, like my friend’s mum, bought a car-load in a panic when they heard there was about to be a shortage. There wasn’t – before the stockpiling started. But then there was. (Sound familiar, Mr Cameron?) As an old school bursar used to say to me, shaking his head sadly, “There’s enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.”

The answer, then, is clear. All I need to do is propagate a rumour that there’s about to be a j-cloth shortage or a new hyper-absorbency tax on those weird dimpled flat sponge squares. Gullible shoppers everywhere will forsake the non-stick sponges in order to stockpile these alternatives. Leaving all the non-stick sponges for me. Hmm, I think I could clean up here. Once I’ve got a new sponge, that is.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this story about another shopping crisis: The Perils of the Supermarket or this one about – or indeed this one about another everyday household item: Give Me a Wetwipe and I Will Clean the World.

Posted in Uncategorized

Lipstick is Not the Only Treat: Little Luxuries That Will Not Break the Bank #1

Estee Lauder, in a vivid print from Yves Saint...
Estee Lauder shares the joy of lipsticks (Shame about the hat) (Image via Wikipedia)

Is it an urban myth that in times of recession, lipstick sales soar?  I’ve heard that when women are short of cash, they forgo bigger treats such as new shoes and handbags in favour of that pocket-sized pick-me-up, the lipstick.  But how many Plum Dandies and Flaming Fuschias does a girl really need? The longer a recession lasts, the less these crazily named shades appeal.

But lipstick is not the only treat.  There are plenty more low-cost luxuries out there to lift your mood without breaking the bank – and I’m on a quest to track them down.

First up is the humble face flannel. (Translation for the benefit of my American friends: that’s a facecloth, washcloth or washrag to you.)

You probably barely notice yours as you perform your morning ablutions.  Once its tread’s worn thin, you’ll relegate its role to duster or a polishing cloth, before its final demotion to the compost heap where it will quietly biodegrade.

If that sounds like the life cycle of your face flannel, that’s because you’ve never treated yourself to a posh one.  That can be a different experience altogether.

My eyes were opened only recently to these greater possibilities following the gift from my friend Susanne of a Crabtree and Evelyn face flannel.  It was a luxurious thick white cloth, embroidered with cornflower blue seashells, and the moment I touched it I was lost.  It was the Rolls Royce of face flannels. I didn’t so much wash with it as feel my face embraced. I leaned into its plush velvety softness with all the drama and self-indulgence of a toilet roll advertisement. It wasn’t so much a wash as a caress. Who’d have thought that washing your face could feel like such an indulgence? I”ll never again be be satisfied with a thin towelling square, no matter how precisely its colour matches my bathroom decor.

So take my advice and next time you’re after a cheap treat, bypass the chemist’s counter and the supermarket aisle.  Head for the luxury linens area of an upmarket department store and seek out the most expensive towelling range in stock.  Cast your eye along the plush, vivid-hued piles (another treat in itself, actually) and choose the most gorgeous colour you can find. Snap up the bath sheet’s baby brother – the luxury face flannel – and whisk it home before you can change your mind.

You’ll be glad you did – and you’ll be surprised at the lasting satisfaction it will bring you, all for as little as a fiver.  Just be careful not to stain it with your lipstick.