I loved books, loved stories, loved being read to at an early age and then reading for myself — that's true for most writers. But looking back, I can see a parallel interest, one I never considered related to all of that reading I did.
We lived near my mother's parents, and once or twice a week we'd go to my grandparents' house for dinner. Afterward, the adults would play cards. My sister and I would watch some TV (Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color), but our grandparents liked to have the Lawrence Welk show in the background, and that usually drove us to other pursuits. My grandparents didn't stock games for us (there was always a spare deck of cards), but the hall closet held two jigsaw puzzles. If my memory is correct, one was a picture of Quick Draw McGraw, a cartoon horse-turned-sheriff, and his sidekick, Baba Looey; the other was a picture of Howdy Doody. They were each missing a few pieces, but with nothing better to do, we assembled them, broke them up, and assembled them again.
Quick Draw and his pal.
Around that same time, my mother introduced me to a game that reappeared in my second grade classroom. Mrs. Alper would carefully print a long word on the blackboard — the one I remember is Constantinople (once the home of famous libraries, then inspiration for Yeats, it remains a favorite setting for video games) — and give us a set period, maybe five minutes, to make all the words we could from its letters (I can taste it, one pint total, pale ale).
We all got a little older; our grandparents started receiving Modern Maturity, the original magazine of AARP, and when we visited I would do the word search, which involved finding meaningful combinations of letters in the midst of an apparently chaotic page presented in rows and columns. Like everyone else who's tried them, I soon discovered there were two ways to tackle the job: I could either scan the page casually, hoping to find what I was looking for, or I could start, say, at the upper left corner and work my way across to the upper right corner, then drop down to the second line, then the third, pausing at every A to see if it was, in fact, the first A in Acrobat, or whatever I needed to find. That method always worked, but it was tedious, and the combination of tediousness and guaranteed success pretty much ended my interest in word searches.
It wasn't until many years later that I came across a quotation from John Le Carré that helped to explain why a young brain intrigued by stories might also be intrigued by puzzles: "Creating order from chaos is the innermost room of a writer's desire." By then I had moved on to the newspaper's jumbled words (which my mother and I worked together each morning before my sister and I left for school), crosswords, and cryptograms (which for many years seemed too intimidating to even attempt); later I discovered the double acrostics in the back of Harper's Magazine. By then I knew about writers captivated by puzzles: Edgar Allan Poe's interest in coded language, mathematician Lewis Carroll's fascination with logic problems, Ben Franklin's and Vladimir Nabokov's admiration of chess. This was no fluke: count Georges Perec, Margaret Drabble, and Nick Hornby among the puzzle-obsessed. Poet and MacArthur Fellow Heather McHugh has even written a sonnet that is, in its entirety, an anagram of one of Shakespeare's.
A maze drawn by a young Lewis Carroll.
Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual includes a rumination on jigsaw puzzles, and is in itself the execution of a meticulous design.
Now it seems obvious: writing a poem, essay, story, or novel is something like composing a puzzle. Not only does the writer need to choose what to include, but he needs to arrange the pieces artfully, strategically, both to lead the reader forward and to encourage her to notice what needs noticing, and to deceive her a bit, throw her off the scent. It isn't only detective stories that rely on subterfuge; every well-written poem or story creates tension and anticipation, which involve encouraging the reader to imagine what's coming next, then either fulfilling that expectation or surprising her. Take the old blues lyric,
I ain't never loved
But three women in my life:
My mother, my sister,
And the woman who wrecked my life.
From the previous verses, the listener knows to expect — so anticipates — the final rhyme. Even if we aren't actively trying to guess what the singer might say next, some part of our brain thinks mother… sister… wife. "The woman who wrecked my life" isn't just unexpected; the lyricist has focused our anticipation so precisely that we understand, without the singer ever saying it, that his wife = the woman who wrecked his life.
Of course, the listener doesn't need to think this through; the listener can just smile or laugh and appreciate the song's cleverness. But any serious songwriter, from Cole Porter to Irving Berlin to Carole King to Randy Newman, thinks about these things.
And I do mean serious: the strategic arrangement of information is as important to a speechwriter (see the rhythmic development of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Lincoln's Gettysburg address), dramatist (see Marc Anthony's rabble-rousing speech in Julius Caesar, and the general unfolding of character in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and novelist. E. M. Forster needs us to wonder about what happened in the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India, and more recent novels like Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin and Marisa Silver's Mary Coin depend on the reader anticipating how the various characters' stories will ultimately come together.
I don't mean to imply that a good piece of literature is merely a puzzle. In the same way that I lost interest in word searches, and in the way books of sudoku can become numbing, composed puzzles, their answerability guaranteed, offer limited rewards; and few puzzles are worth doing twice, unless we're especially bored (sorry, Grandma). But the best poems, stories, and novels are rereadable — or even require rereading — because something about them is elusive. They lead us not to a neat answer but to a larger question, one the wise author doesn't pretend to be able to solve.
A Muse and a Maze is, among other things, the meeting point of my lifelong interests in writing, reading, and puzzles. The book is ultimately for writers, and for readers interested in how writers work, but it would have seemed incomplete without actual puzzles — a crossword, some (unusual) sudoku, a maze, and assorted word games. There's even an acrostic that isn't answered in the back. Why? I wanted to share my fascination with my most recent puzzle discovery. Readers can send in the answer and be entered into a drawing for a beautiful and ingenious custom-made wooden jigsaw based on the book's cover, made by Liberty Puzzles. And while it was tempting to pay homage to old Quick Draw McGraw and Baba Looey, this puzzle comes with all the pieces.