Writing is a Puzzle

Aaron, my 11-year-old grandson, is really smart. That’s not just the opinion of a proud papa; we have definitive proof in the form of recent school aptitude tests. Currently, he’s reading (yes, reading!) at a 10th grade level and solving math problems at an 11th grade level. He can figure out any Rubik’s cube in less than two minutes. He can assemble an 800 piece Lego Pirates of the Caribbean Black Pearl ship before lunch. And a few weeks ago, he recounted the entire Hobbit movie for me scene by scene. (The good news is now I don’t need to see the film. The bad news is it took him an hour.)

Why am I telling you this? Because he’s having real trouble with his writing assignments. Not spelling and grammar and vocabulary, but putting his thoughts on paper in a logical manner, the kind of thing teachers expect on a regular basis. From what I understand, he’s finding it nearly impossible to get started. Apparently he just sits at his desk, staring into space, paralyzed. Something about “too many thoughts in my head.” Homework isn’t getting turned in and reports are languishing. School faculty, not to mention his parents and grandparents, are getting concerned.

And so, as the writer in the family, I’ve been tasked with helping him find a way out of his dilemma. Not an easy job to be sure. How do I put the concept of writing into terms he can relate to? After all, it’s something that’s always come easily to me, just as math comes easily to him. (I, on the other hand, barely survived 10th grade geometry.) I’ve been wracking my brain for more than a week. And then it came to me.

The current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains definitions of more than 600,000 words. (I looked it up.) The average American uses roughly 8,000 of them in daily oral and written communication. (Ditto.) I started thinking of these words as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. How do we go about assembling a challenging puzzle? First, we look at the picture on the box (big idea). Then we dump the pieces (words) out of the box and turn them right-side up. Then we move them around, looking for images (themes) that go together. Only then do we start building the border (framework). Once that’s finished, we fill in the middle (structure) in an orderly way, typically from the outside in. And when we drop in that last satisfying piece, we have a cohesive complete picture that tells a story.

At least I think that’s how it’s done. It’s been many years, after all. But I’m going to take a shot. Wish me luck.