What Missing Puzzle Pieces Have Taught Me About Writing (And Life.)

Missing Puzzle Pieces

I’ve written before about the many general benefits of jigsaw puzzles, and the lessons they can teach about writing. Today I want to talk about the joy of missing puzzle pieces. I know, you wouldn’t think that getting to the end of a puzzle only to discover a piece is missing would be a happy occasion. And it’s not exactly happy, but it is instructive. And even a bit inspiring. Am I crazy? Nope.

Puzzles end up with missing pieces in a variety of ways. Sometimes they come that way from the factory, the result of a QC failure. Other times the buyer loses them. Sometimes the dog eats it, the cat wears it, it gets carried away on a sleeve, or sucked up in a vacuum. It falls into an air vent, or a kid carries it away. There are 1,000 ways to lose a puzzle piece. And if you buy puzzles from a thrift store or yard sale, the former owners may have lost some bits, too. It happens.

Missing puzzle pieces used to frustrate me. It was disheartening to put in several day’s worth of effort only to come up short. It made me angry, but at what, really? It’s not like I could change anything. One day I reframed my outlook. What if, instead of getting pissed about it, I chose to look at it differently? (Not bad advice for many aspects of life, incidentally.)

The next time a puzzle came up with a missing piece, I asked myself this: Did I have fun anyway? The answer was yes. The puzzle did what I needed it to do, regardless of the imperfection. But that one question led to a whole bunch of others, which led me to see the bright side of missing pieces. And further, some of those lessons also applied to my writing life. (In addition to fun, I also do puzzles for the calm they bring to my mind. Puzzling = mindfulness to me. I can’t meditate worth a damn, but I can puzzle. It’s a huge bonus when larger life patterns emerge from such a small, fun practice. If you can’t meditate or don’t enjoy it, try puzzling.)

So what have missing puzzle pieces taught me? Here we go.

Imperfect can still be beautiful. This one’s huge. A puzzle with a missing piece can still be beautiful. It may be even more beautiful to you because it’s unique. (Or if you can tie a memory to the missing piece. “Oh, remember when Fluffy trashed the puzzle table and coughed up six slobbery pieces after dinner?”) So it goes with both writing projects and people. Imperfect writing projects can still be beautiful, perhaps even more so because they are uniquely yours. Plus, there’s no such thing as a perfect writing project, anyway, so you have to learn to embrace the quirks and flaws in your work. And as for people, well, we all know there’s no such thing as perfect there, either, and we love ourselves and each other in spite of our imperfections. (At least we should. That’s the lesson.)

The effort you put in is never wasted. If your puzzling experience gave you what you needed (be it fun, distraction, peace, or family bonding), then the effort was still worthwhile. You didn’t waste time if you end up with a missing piece. This is true for writing projects that don’t work out. If you learned something or had fun, the effort was worthwhile.

You can still have had fun doing it. Do you get to the end of a puzzle with a missing piece and say, “That’s it. The whole thing was no fun?” Probably not. You probably still enjoyed your time with it, even if you are a bit disappointed. Imperfect doesn’t mean no fun. Same with writing. I’ve had a hell of a time writing things that have been rejected many times over. Does rejection mean that I didn’t have fun? Nope. Disappointment doesn’t negate the fun I had.

Disappointment is fleeting. So something didn’t work out perfectly. The puzzle was missing a piece. The writing project didn’t sell. Yes, disappointment is real, but it’s also fleeting. The best thing to do is to move on, start something new, and forget the thing that disappointed you. There is always more to do and see. Don’t let one bad thing drag you down.

Getting angry or sad is pointless. It does no good to waste emotions on a missing puzzle piece because there’s nothing you can do about it. If the piece is lost or was never in the box to begin with, there’s nothing you can do except move on. So it goes with writing, especially when it comes to seeking publication. It’s all about letting go of control. If I’ve done the best I can with a book and sent out a quality submission package, then there’s nothing more I can do. If I get rejected, it’s not worth getting angry or sad about it because it’s out of my control. Missing puzzle pieces make me better at letting go.

Sometimes something you think is truly lost is found again. Occasionally you get a moment of joy when a lost piece turns up. Just when you’ve given up hope, it turns up stuck to the bottom of a plate, hiding in a floor crack, tucked into a shoe, or in the laundry basket. There’s a lesson here about never giving up hope. Sure, a piece may be truly lost, but there’s also a chance you’ll beat the odds and find it. With writing, there’s always a chance of acceptance, or a lost and ignored submission turns out to be a winner. While you have to learn how to live with disappointment, you also want to cling to hope. Just not foolishly.

In the case of thrift puzzles, they had a life before you and will have a life after. This is a lesson about the transient nature of life. Thrift store puzzles sometimes bear the scars of their previous lives, just as we all do. Teeth marks from toddlers chewing on them, bent pieces, broken boxes, dust, and missing pieces are just some of the scars a puzzle might bear. Sometimes they’re from love, other times they’re signs of abuse. But you know what? The puzzle goes on. Each time it changes hands it gets a new life. We all bear the scars of our own lives, but we also get the chance to remake our lives every day that we’re still breathing. That’s the biggest lesson of all.

(Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster)

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