I am writing this on New Year’s Eve which, for me, feels poignant and relevant but for you, the magic of it has already worn off. We all know what kind of year this has been and, of course, I am looking forward to a new one. It feels right, however, to stand back and look at what I have learnt.
I think I have seen the trick in non-fiction. The knack, the secret. It makes reading it effortless but writing it so full of effort it’s sometimes easier to give up.
Writing non-fiction is like a jigsaw. A jigsaw bought at a charity shop. I have no idea if all the pieces are there when I start it, but I start it anyway. I pour the pieces out onto the table and it looks unsurmountable. So many different coloured bits, so many odd shapes. It’s a mess, it’s an uncoherent picture that does not tell a story. But I know a story is in there somewhere. In fact, sometimes there is more than one story. Sometimes, three puzzles were mixed up together in the box and sent to the charity shop. It takes ages to take out the bits that don’t fit but it’s worth it. Eventually. And sometimes, you never know, you might find the whole puzzles for those other pieces and make new stories.
When I am on the verge of starting it, I can’t sleep. All the bits are floating around my head. How does it all fit? Where should I start? Personally, I start with the edge pieces. I collect them all and start shaping the frame, and only then do I start to fill in the middle bits, the sky, the mountains, the tiny bits of nothing that actually act as glue to the whole picture. My partner, perversely and possibly worryingly, starts in the centre and works out. What kind of madness is this? (This is something else I have re-learnt – we all do things very differently.)
If the picture on the box is a detailed one, it’s easier. It’s like having a strong sentence to start with. A plan, a base. An arrow pointing in the right direction. Although, this is not always the case.
For instance, for this essay, I could have written something like this:
For me, writing non-fiction is like a jigsaw puzzle. (Etc etc)
The first jigsaw puzzle was created by a map engraver called John Spilsbury, in 1762. He mounted one of his maps onto wood and then cut around the countries. He gave it to children in the local school to help them with their geography education. The word jigsaw comes from the actual saw that was used to cut out the puzzles in the late 1800’s.
Well, I think that fact is fascinating. This framework is useful and interesting. Then, last summer, Jake Wolff, a Creative Writing Professor at the University of Central Florida tweeted something that made me go hot all over.
“Creative nonfiction writers be like: I first ate a hotdog when I was six years old. I remember the taste, the scent, the summer.
Hot dogs were invented in 1693 by Steven Hotdog. According to Scientific American, the hotdog is…”
Shit. Did everyone do this? Is this lazy? Is this a trap? Was this a flawed structure? Wait, did I have to follow a structure at all? No, I don’t. But personally, and this year made me understand more than ever, I find it easier to have some sort of framework. But the tweet made me think twice about which pieces of the puzzle actually fitted and which ones just looked like they did. (Those pesky blue sky bits.)
I read this year. Not more than normal but I did manage to read a hefty pile of non-fiction books and essays. I discovered Rachels Cusk’s non-fiction. Her essays often stunned me into looking blankly into space. How did she do it? I could not see any pieces jammed together where they shouldn’t be. In fact, all her pieces fitted so snugly together it was like looking at a photograph not a puzzle. Zadie Smith’s essays are the same. So shiny and real. So smooth. Like a magic trick. You see why it’s harder to write now – because I can see the cracks in my own writing, where the pieces are wedged in and don’t actually fit at all.
Apparently, at the start of lockdown puzzle sales went up 370%. People wanted something to do at home, to work their brains, their hands and their eyes. To pass time as a family, or on their own. Images of exotic locations sold particularly well. I am not surprised. I took to sorting out the pieces of my own puzzles as an escape. I wrote about the two houses I grew up in. The woods, the fireside, the country shows I went to. I wrote about class and family and motherhood. I wanted to knit memories in with the here and now to try and make sense of it.
The last day of the year means nothing really. The world will keep turning. It’s only another day. (Did you know our current calendar follows the example of the ancient Babylonians who established the seven-day week based on the cycles of the moon. But that’s a piece from another puzzle – you can tell, it’s interesting but it doesn’t quite fit here, right?)
Hogmanay still feels, somehow, like the last piece of a 365-piece puzzle. Wait, 2020 was a leap year, wasn’t it? A 366-piece jigsaw puzzle. Maybe that was what was wrong with it. We have a piece left over that doesn’t fit in anywhere. Put it in the drawer. We might need it one day.
Rebecca Smith is a writer and audio producer. She is due to graduate from Glasgow University with an MLitt in Creative Writing and is currently writing about the rural working-class.