Jigsaws And Writing

Jigsaws And Writing

By John Dallas Hicks



At the University of Nebraska at Omaha, I took a night class in Literature taught by Dr. Michael Skau, a slender, bearded, jeans-wearing professor of about 40 years of age. He liked cigarettes, beer, and the beat poets.  Aside from being known as a scholar of the beatnik writers, Dr. Skau was known as a poet.  From time to time, he would join a few university poets at on-campus poetry readings where he would read some of his “God” poems, as he called them.  He wrote poems to God.  I attended one of these readings, and I was impressed by his creativity and nerve, the latter for I couldn’t be bribed to stand before that distinguished audience and read my poetry.  But then I wasn’t on familiar terms with God.

Sometimes a group of students would join him at a bar near campus after our Wednesday night class.  One evening I joined them. When I found myself sitting next to him in the bar, I asked him why he wrote poetry.  With a cigarette in one hand and a beer mug grasped in the other, he smiled benignly at me and replied, “I want to leave something behind.”

At the time, I wanted to ask him how long he thought his writing would survive him and whether he thought he could enjoy his readership when he would already be stone cold dead.  I wanted to press him further: What can anyone leave behind anyway?  We yearn, fret, strive, inflate our pride, embroider our illusions.  We prosper, we despair. We revel, we suffer.  Yet when death blackens our cosmos forever, what of us endures?  Only brief, unread epitaphs loiter on our gravestones until the vandal Time effaces them.  All science and art will vanish with our species at some distant date.  For the lone man or woman, what avails our yearning for meaning and permanence?  We pass with our shadows.

I would have liked to have challenged Dr. Skau, but I chickened out.  I straightened up, shifted away, and allowed him to resume a conversation with a pretty coed.  In retrospect, however, I think I had the broad brush strokes right. What do writers leave behind them?  When I was a schoolboy, I delighted in the lives of common insects such as the dragonfly and the praying mantis as described by the naturalist Edwin Way Teale.  I still enjoy reading his books about nature not only for their close observations of animals but also for his writing facility.

To my way of thinking, one can open a book to any page written by Edwin Way Teale and discover a lovely sentence with a poet’s cadence.  “A continuous carpet of birds peeled from the highway before us.”  I serendipitously located the previous sentence in Teale’s Wandering Through Winter, a book that won the Pulitzer prize for General Nonfiction in 1966. 

In the summer of 2014, I searched the Omaha public library for books by Edwin Way Teale. I found only one of his books, a book called The Lost Dog in the juvenile section.  Someone at the library had decided that all of Teale’s books, excepting one, were not worth retaining or replacing.  They were “litter-ature.”  At one time, the library stocked his books, but now the many volumes of this superb writer had been sloughed from the body of knowledge like dead skin.

I used to believe the evanescence of art was reason not to bother putting forth the effort to create, for it would come to nothing.  But further reflection brought me up short when I considered the masterful design of a butterfly wing or the gay brilliance of a marigold bloom.  So what if they are ephemera?  The transience of an insect or a flower does not diminish their esthetic value.  Even on the large canvas of nature, that which is not fleeting eventually flees: hence the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the leveling of mountains, the destruction of planets, the quenching of stars, the dying of the light universal.  The grandest of all in nature live less than a day or longer than human comprehension may grasp … and is lost.  The sentiment on a Hallmark card and mightiest galaxy in the universe share the same oblivion.

Creativity doesn’t need a reason to exist; it is a consequence of existence.  Notwithstanding, one can write as a calling, for money, for therapy, for the living, for the dead, for posterity. Maybe I write for all of the reasons mentioned, or it could be that subconscious currents move me and others in ways of which we are absolutely unaware. Nevertheless, if I were to cite a conscious motive to explain why I write, I would say I write to solve a puzzle.  I like word puzzles.  Crossword puzzles don’t appeal to me, but completing a poem, story, or essay usually holds my interest long enough to put it together. 

I once had a friend Doug who liked to do jigsaw puzzles.  He would spread the pieces on a smooth flat surface and spend hours over many days linking the pieces.  Typically, he wouldn’t finish the puzzle in one sitting.  A single puzzle could take weeks, depending on its difficulty.  He told me he would pause by the puzzle when passing by it and try to fit a few more pieces together. 

My approach to composition is similar.  Instead of small pieces of cardboard, I manipulate words.  Over time, I fit the words into sentences and the sentences into paragraphs in an attempt to produce a coherent picture.

When Doug finished a jigsaw puzzle, he would not dismantle it immediately.  He would leave it undisturbed and admire it and point it out to visitors in his modest way.  The puzzle might depict a little harbor full of fishing boats or a garden resplendent with flowers.  After a few days’ appreciation, he would crumple the puzzle and disjoint the pieces. On to the next puzzle…


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