Friday, March 21, 2014


“How many hours a day do you write?” is one of the most frequent questions I encounter when I speak at schools. That’s a tricky one to answer when you write nonfiction. The truth is, because research is such a major part of the process of creating nonfiction, nonfiction authors may go weeks or months without writing, and yet we’re working all the time. That’s the case for me, at least. My writing months are the treasured few in a given year that follow the sometimes interminable phase of research.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of emptying and solving our family’s wooden tray puzzles. Some were easy. Some were not. I learned as a child which ones I could do quickly and which ones were more difficult. As my puzzling skills improved—and I began to memorize the layout of each puzzle—I took the logical next step to increase the challenge and dumped all the puzzles out together and proceeded to sort the jumble of pieces into their respective frames. That was fun. It took time, but it was so satisfying to turn the chaotic pile of colored wooden shapes into familiar scenes.

I still puzzle: here's my 2012 holiday diversion.
In my teen years, I returned to puzzling, but this time they were the 500-piece cardboard variety. My father and I worked on puzzles recreationally, perhaps with a football game or TV show playing in the background. We loved the work—the incremental progress that could be measured by locking each piece into place, the strategy required to best solve a particular design, the satisfaction of placing the final piece into place.

Many years later, after I became an author, I realized I could not have found a better way to prepare my mind for a life of research and writing. Every project I undertake is a new puzzle. Each fact collected adds an element of understanding to the project. The more I collect, the clearer the picture becomes of what I am trying to create.

The Big Sort--organizing note cards before writing.
But the picture—that’s the one difference between puzzling and authoring. We know exactly what a jigsaw puzzle should look like by the image portrayed on its carton. A book is another matter. Authors start with topics and a basic knowledge of a subject, but the details and nuance that follow add a dimension of creativity to our work that eclipses the jigsaw puzzling experience.
My office--the epicenter of puzzling and writing.

I’m in the puzzling phase of a project right now. Completing the reading. Converting the facts I’ve found into notes. Drawing connections in my mind. Those interconnected steps will empower the words that begin to flow in a few more weeks. I have no doubt that my childhood passion for and practice of puzzling helped to make me the writer I am today. Patient. Persistent. A puzzler.

How many hours a day do I write? Throw in the puzzling and it’s more than a full-time job. On any given day you'll find me, metaphorically at least, spilling the pieces of the project onto the floor to see what picture emerges.

Posted by Ann Bausum

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