The Zen of jigsaw puzzles
M.A.C Farrant finds human metaphors in jigsaw puzzles.
October 17th, 2023
Farrant’s 93 short stories, inspired by her “puzzling,” are full of humour, irreverence and insights into the puzzle that is life.
INTRO: Puzzles “found me,” says M.A.C. Farrant (at right) in her new book of short stories Jigsaw: A Puzzle in Ninety-Three Pieces (Talonbooks $17.95). “I wasn’t looking for them. But if a door opens, I always figure walk through it. You might end up in a closet, but you might also end up heading in a playful new direction, one you hadn’t considered before,” she adds. (If you want to know why there is a cow lounging on a sofa on the book jacket cover, read story #22, “With Reference to Cows.”)
BC BookWorld: Was the Covid lockdown really the first time you attempted a jigsaw puzzle?
M.A.C. Farrant: No, the Covid puzzles weren’t the first. There was one other, an ill-fated jigsaw years ago of a bear holding a salmon. It was Christmas and I had a Christmas card image in my head of a happy family working together on a jigsaw puzzle over the holidays. When the kids saw the pile of unsorted pieces on the card table, they balked, then laughed and said: “No way, not ever!” Terry (my husband) and I carried on with the puzzle but managed to only piece the sky, the head of the fish and a few trees. By then it was nearly March and the puzzle had become a burden. You could spend hours and hours working on it and find only one matching piece so that soon enough night would be falling with no supper in sight. It was a revelation when I told myself that some things in life could go unfinished and Terry agreed. Actually, pretty much everything could go unfinished, we decided, and especially this jigsaw puzzle, which we had come to hate.
BCBW: How often do you work on jigsaw puzzles?
MF: I came to my current interest in jigsaw puzzles as a jaded innocent. That one experience years before had killed my interest in them. Then, mid-way through the pandemic, friends loaned me two Wentworth Wooden puzzles, the elite of jigsaw puzzles with their “whimsy” pieces, inviting images, and smaller piece-count: 250, or 500. My friends thought the puzzles would help take my mind off case counts, death tolls, and variants. And they were right! Not only that, I enjoyed doing them.
So that is how it started, how jigsaw puzzles found me again. And this curiosity and playfulness about jigsaw puzzles are what propelled me to write the book.
Now, I’ve become a happy assembler. I enjoy the fabulous sense of completion when I finish one. It’s called the “puzzler’s high”, I’m told.
BCBW: What is the most insightful thing you learned from puzzling?
MF: There are several:
- Jigsaw puzzles are something we can control, unlike most of life, and most definitely, unlike time.
- The picture on the jigsaw puzzle box is your guide to solving the puzzle. In life the guide is seldom as clear.
- Working on a jigsaw puzzle is like riding on a train; it’s a single-track experience. Over and over you are sorting through and then interlocking puzzle pieces. This can be an exciting thing to do because your journey has a destination. Unlike your life, you know exactly where the journey ends.
- In assembling a jigsaw, start with the edges then everything will fall into place.
- As a beginner, never attempt a puzzle that has over 250 pieces. Once you have completed the requisite ten thousand hours of puzzle labour and are now a Master Puzzler, you can you move onto the larger puzzles.
- Working on a jigsaw puzzle is an act of devotion.
BCBW: How long did it take you to recognize the metaphor for art in jigsaw puzzles?
MF: This happened pretty quickly, after my initial research into the history of jigsaws, that is, and coming upon some astounding facts such as, the global dollar value of jigsaw sales in 2019 was 687.2 billion and that in North America seven jigsaw puzzles are sold every minute. Every minute! The jigsaw puzzle industry is an enormous one. What, I began wondering, is going on?
Jigsaws as metaphors, speak to our continual efforts to solve the miraculous puzzle of our own lives and in attending to the questions these puzzles pose. For example, The Puzzle of Good and Evil, Of Staying Sane, Of Discord, Of Love, Of Raising Children, Of Beauty, Of Why Are We Here? Of What Happens Next? These puzzles are endless!
A jigsaw as a metaphor can also be a mystery, a conundrum, a riddle, an enigma.
BCBW: When did you get the idea to tell your short stories about people, jigsaw puzzles and the puzzle that is life?
MF: As I leaned into the subject of jigsaw puzzles, both actual and as metaphors, many subjects presented themselves. Besides art as guides to the ineffable, roads and pathways, other things appeared: Buddhism, faith, bits of memoir, science, the universe, haiku poems, surrealism, and chickens. Even cows beckoned and found a place in the book.
BCBW: Not everyone becomes as enamoured with puzzles as you did (your husband, for example, became a “jigsaw dropout” after completing his first puzzle). What is it about your personality that makes you a “puzzler?”
MF: I, too, was a jigsaw dropout but, really, that state of mind can change. Jigsaws can enter your life as a source of meditation, pleasure, even joy. For me, curiosity, perseverance, focus, and the need for play in my life, (and the need for occasional distraction from the world scene) are what I now bring to a puzzle.
BCBW: Anything else you want to add?
MF: Yes, I’d like to return to the cows. They began wandering through the book as I was writing it like a herd of friendly muses and were such a delightful presence that I had to include them. There was something earthy, solid and grounding about them and I hope some of these qualities entered the book. Cows are why there’s an image of one on the cover—a painting by American artist Ethan Harper.
They took such a hold of me that, in support of the book’s release, I created several videos about a fictional Literary Cow Festival, which are posted online at thinairfestival.ca. My “interview” with Artistic Director, Bill Bovine (aka Bill Farrant, my son), is my favourite of the three I did. Here’s a bit of that interview:
Bill Bovine: I was quite taken aback by the cow on the book cover. It’s a fine representation of my friend, Larry, may he rest in packaging. Did you have any contact with his family? Were they aware of his likeness being portrayed on the cover?
Author: No, uh, this is an artistic, uh, endeavour, uh, the painting. I think it’s a generic cow. Any, uh, likeness to your friend, Larry, is I, I, I, uh, believe, purely accidental.
Bill Bovine: Fair enough, fair enough.