Dinners with Darth (or The Dark Side of Novel Writing)

For Christmas my son received a 1,000-piece Star Wars puzzle. Being a total Star Wars geek, I enthusiastically volunteered to help him put it together. We began in hyperdrive, assembling the border and Darth Vader’s white-hot light saber in just a few hours. Darth’s helmet and armor emerged during the holiday week, with only a few pieces missing. By mid-January, we hadn’t made much more progress, and I decided we’d had enough dinners with Darth at our dining room table. I slid the puzzle onto a sheet of cardboard and brought it up to my bedroom, where Darth remained on the floor for several months watching me sleep with his one completed eye.

A few weeks ago, annoyed by walking past an unfinished puzzle every morning and night—and more than a little creeped out by the unwanted visitor in my room—I invited Darth back to the table. My son examined the puzzle for about five minutes before deciding he was done. I was more determined, plus I wanted to set a good example. We finish what we start. Every chance I had, I combed the pile of puzzle pieces looking for the slightest variation in color or pattern on each one that might give a clue to its place among the whole. I made slow progress, separating like pieces into plastic bags and identifying parts of Darth’s belt and the flames that climbed up his cape. Both of my children asked me repeatedly not to inspect the puzzle (or the contents of the sorted bags) while we ate meals. It was impossible to resist. It was always in those off moments, when I wasn’t entirely paying attention, that I suddenly noticed an unusual tab and simultaneously spotted the blank into which it might fit.

It is now almost July, and the puzzle remains half finished in spite of our best efforts. It seemed like a perfect metaphor for where I’ve found myself in the process of writing my first novel. Novel writing most certainly is like tackling a complicated jigsaw puzzle. There are the parts that come together effortlessly in the initial rush of enthusiasm. The rest? Let’s be honest: It’s a slog. There’s a reason writers often quote Dorothy Parker’s famous phrase, “I hate writing, I love having written.”

Writing well, so that every piece is in its place, is no simple endeavor. The puzzle of my novel hasn’t opened to me fully in spite of having a full draft finished for about a year. I’ve also had to “clear the table,” in this case my desk, to allow for other priorities over the course of these last 12 months. As for the remaining pieces, I suspect they’re going to be like those hundreds of nearly identical chips that belong who-knows-where on Darth’s imposing personage. I’m sure I’ll be scrutinizing both the puzzle and the words I’ve written for countless hours more. Because somewhere at the end of those hours, a perfected whole exists. Even if I can’t yet see it.

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