From Houdini to Whodunit: Peter Turchi on “A Muse and a Maze”

Beware of a writer with a neat narrative about how he wrote his book. We tidy things up, we prepare concise answers to expected questions, we don’t mind distorting facts for the sake of a good story. Sometimes we even lie to ourselves.

When I started writing what is now A Muse and a Maze, I thought my essays about writing were linked by the fact that they all discussed visual art. They weren’t. As I pondered that problem, I wasted time in many ways. One of them was doing puzzles. Over the course of my life I have, at various times, devoted attention to a variety of puzzles: first word searches, then jumbled words, logic problems, chess problems, double acrostics, crosswords, Sudoku, and cryptoquotes. I might go weeks or months without doing a puzzle, then for another stretch of weeks or months I’ll do one every day.

I’m not sure how much time passed—too long—before I thought: “Why puzzles?” And: “Is the pleasure I get from solving puzzles in any way related to the pleasure I get from writing?” I decided to write an essay to answer that question. Then I read a few books about puzzles—jigsaws and crosswords, and puzzles in general in Marcel Danesi’s wonderful book The Puzzle Instinct. I started to see more connections.

I’ve played table tennis most of my life, though I only started playing halfway seriously when I was in my thirties—too late to be much good. But I played in a club in Asheville, North Carolina, for years (and still do, when I’m in town) and occasionally in a club in Phoenix when I moved to Arizona. I knew that Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle and frequent puzzle commentator on NPR, plays table tennis.

One night I was at the club in Phoenix and felt pretty sure I knew who I was looking at, on the far side of the gym. When he finished his game, I introduced myself. I told Shortz I was writing a book about puzzles and writing. He looked perplexed. I told him I was looking for someone who would create a custom crossword for the book, and he said, “Why do that, when you might not get a good one? I’ve got just the thing.” He gave me permission to reprint the crossword that appears in the book, one in which the clues comprise a story—a goofy one, but a story nonetheless. He said I should get in touch if I needed anything else.

Over the next year Shortz put me in touch with Thomas “Dr. Sudoku” Snyder and Michael Ashley, an acrostics composer, both of whom provided work for the book. On my own I tracked down Dave Phillips, a designer of mazes. As I did all of that, the metaphor of writer as puzzle composer became increasingly clear. I talked to people about it, and as they asked questions I shored up weaknesses in the argument.

Finding a title for the book was, for some reason, terribly difficult. I worked on it for years. For most of that time, I thought the title needed to sound like “Maps of the Imagination” or “The Writer as Cartographer.” “The Writer as Puzzle Composer” was an awful title, and “Puzzles of the Imagination” was worse. I decided to go in a different direction, to try to find a turn on a familiar phrase that would seem playful, surprising.

 One night, so anxious about the need for a title that I couldn’t sleep, I thought of “Dazed and Confused”—not as a title, but as a description of my mental state. Then I thought “Amazed and Amused,” which led to “A Maze and a Muse.” I remember waking my wife—or trying to. She barely stirred.

“I’ve got it,” I told her. “ ‘A Maze and a Muse.’ The title. Or ‘A Muse and a Maze.’ For the book.”

She smiled, then went back to sleep. I knew the puzzle was nearly solved.

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