Writing is Like a Jigsaw

I didn’t think I’d learn much about life in middle school, but in hindsight I might have learned a bit about writing. One of my best lessons in writing came not in any of my language arts classes, but in woodshop.

Often when writing, especially of things that are difficult to write about, it’s ok — and often necessary — to ask yourself where you are. This is a mental assessment, and not merely an account of the writing process itself (though the two are not unrelated). Over the last two years the subject matter for myself as a writer, scholar, and avid tweeter has been heavy. I’d often find myself lost in thought, subsumed in argument, or otherwise hopelessly distracted. I built a pile of unfinished drafts of half-baked collections of thoughts. In today’s digital world of hot takes and cold methodic reads of pertinent and ever-shifting social issues, those drafts are left to rot as their subject matter quickly expired in the wake.

It wasn’t until very recently that I grew, at least in part, comfortable with this. I lull when I write, not merely as an act of procrastination, but rather self-care. I pause. I breathe. I wander away and come back. Sometimes I calmly reassess. I take a break. I call it quits. I return to try again tomorrow. And here, of course, to return doesn’t necessarily mean to continue.

One interpretation might be that I’m a writer afraid of commitment. That may be true, but in growing comfortable with this, I’ve come to understand that it’s not the worst thing in the world. Instead, one of the best writing tools, like most other tasks in life, is self-care. An over-occupied mind is a burden.

But I already knew this.

In the sixth grade, my middle school made us all take a woodshop class. Hammers, power drills, electric saws. All of the good stuff they could in good conscience allow 30 pre-teens to use with adequate adult supervision. One of those tools was an array of jigsaws that we’d use to fabricate parts for soapbox derby cars that we would end up racing later on.

The jigsaw wasn’t as straightforward as the other tools, and herein lies its genius. There was a way you kinda had to finesse the jigsaw in order to get it to work for you, instead of fighting it to bend to your will. It had a personality. You and the jigsaw formd a partnership.

I think the jigsaw is a lot like writing.

One’s instinct with the jigsaw, or any saw or other tool for that matter, is to push the wood against the blade all the way through. But this just ruins your cut, and possibly separates you from the top half of your thumb. The trick to a perfect cut, and keeping all 10 of your fingers, is to push the wood ever so slowly, in very small increments. One centimeter in, one centimeter out. This is because the vibrations of the saw shift the alignment of the wood with every push. And these slight shifts are only noticeable when it’s too late.

Similar to the jigsaw, when you write it’s sometimes best to move slowly, inching your way to a goal with patience and deliberation. And then, when you feel that you’ve lost your way, or feel that the burden of your work weighs heavy, take the time to step back and reassess, both the writing process and yourself. This at the very least to gain perspective and avoid (unnecessary) frustration. Writing is hard. Writing is mean. It can be discouraging, confusing, exasperating. Much of this is built into the task. Writing is rewarding in part because it isn’t easy. But it shouldn’t be unnecessarily difficult, either. The goal, then, is to minimize the unnecessary frustration. Otherwise, you don’t know where you are, or why you’re there.

Sometimes we forget to do that. This is a reminder to myself.

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