11/18/2014 08:19 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

How Puzzles Help My Writing

A confession: virtually every day, I spend anywhere from a few minutes to, well, more than a few minutes solving puzzles. These days the puzzles are likely to be KenKen, crosswords, one of Liberty Puzzles' ingenious jigsaws or Tower Madness, a strategy game, an addiction I had shaken until recently, when I discovered they had released 30 new maps to play: 30 new puzzles to solve.

Occasionally I tell myself that crosswords and some of the other puzzles exercise my general knowledge and vocabulary, and I hold out hope that the researchers who claim working puzzles is good for the brain are right, that the time I've spent staring at problems and slowly arriving at answers is time spent fighting off dementia. But I have my doubts.

So why do it? And what does puzzle solving have to do with what I'm supposed to be doing, writing fiction and nonfiction?

First: solving puzzles offers the pleasure of success. Like anyone else who does puzzles, I gravitate toward the ones I find challenging, up to a point. I don't do Easy Sudoku, word searches, or the sort of crossword that asks for a three letter word to complete the title "The Cat in the _ _ _," because life is short. If the answers come to mind faster than I can write them, there's no problem to solve, no friction, no challenge. On the other end of the scale, I don't do jigsaw puzzles of 5,000 non-interlocking pieces that promise to form a picture of 12,000 marbles (too tedious), or diagramless crosswords, because I haven't spent enough time with them to figure out how to get started. Call it a lack of ambition, call it the failure of a narrow mind. I'm willing to spend only so much energy on a puzzle, especially if the only reward is having the puzzle finished.

The satisfaction comes from having a clearly defined problem, knowing what I need to do to solve it, and then plugging away. Unlike a lot of things in life, when it comes to puzzles, victory can be had, often in a matter of minutes. A worthy foe -- say, the New York Times weekend crosswords -- might take longer, but the feeling of success is greater. I do the weekend crosswords out of the same impulse that inspired me to walk the Grand Canyon from rim to rim.

What has this got to do with writing -- especially when it feels like nothing more than procrastination?

Writing fiction, for me, is about imagining parts of a story -- a character, a problem, a narrative voice -- and then, often slowly, discovering other parts of the story: the people that character lives among, the other problems she faces, what she wants, what's keeping her from it. An unwritten story isn't quite a puzzle, not at first. There's no picture of the whole, and there are no clear rules to tell me how to finish it. So it's a slow process of trial and error, coupled with bursts of inspiration and invention. Illumination and insight are followed by new complication. Finishing the story is exhilarating, but even along the way there are ecstatic moments a little like a problem solved.

Writing is most like puzzle solving, for me, because they both require engaging with frustration, or persisting, of pushing beyond the first possible solution to the best possible solution. That's not to say that any choice in a story is obviously right or wrong, but a choice can feel right or wrong, and that informs the next decision, and the one after that.

Writing nonfiction is even more like puzzle solving, as the purpose of an essay (or blog post) is usually clear. Sometimes there are constraints -- length limits, deadlines, topics to be addressed. Journalists might not think of their work as puzzle solving, but there are elements of puzzle solving in it -- just as there are in math and science, in home construction and accounting, in preparing a court case and packing a suitcase. To see the challenges we face as puzzles can help focus our attention; and to solve them as if they were puzzles, breaking them down into component parts, can make the most daunting tasks seem more manageable.

Writing isn't just about solving puzzles, though. To the extent that a story or novel, a play or a screenplay, means to lead the reader or viewer into a world full of questions and surprises, writers make puzzles. As models of our experience, stories and novels aim not to reduce that experience, or to simplify it, but to reflect its pleasures and sorrows, and to bring its mysteries into sharp focus.

Peter Turchi is the author of A Muse and A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic.