By Mark Lieberman
As a child, Peter Turchi spent hours with his mother playing word games. Sometimes he would deconstruct long words until he discovered the other words within them. Other times, he would speak in pig Latin, shifting the first letter of a word to the end and attaching the suffix “ay.” Or he would take a simple collection of words – “I know you order everything,” for instance – and twist them into as many combinations as he could.
Aside from passing the hours of Turchi’s childhood, his mother’s word games had a lifelong effect. He’s spent his adult life studying the English language and the written word. In his new nonfiction book A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic, he explores concepts as diverse as the construction of narrative and the complexity of wordplay. Turchi, 54, discussed the book at a Politics & Prose event on Jan. 26.
Turchi, 54, intersperses illustrations from Charles Ritchie and puzzles that illustrate key concepts among the standard text portions, intending to create a product that’s as visually appealing as it is linguistically engrossing.
“Trinity University Press has spent too much of the money on this book,” Turchi joked. “It’s a beautiful book – I can say that because I didn’t design it.”
Turchi wrote the book in order to explore the tension between “order and disorder,” a phrase Turchi derived from the Goya exhibit he visited while in New York last week. Each chapter focuses on a different theme. In “Seven Clever Pieces,” Turchi argues that people are less like jigsaw puzzles, to which he said they are often compared, than they are like tangrams, dissection puzzles comprised of seven jagged pieces. In “The Pleasures of Difficulty,” Turchi parses the reasons why humans are interested in challenging their minds with complex puzzles.
“I have a Sudoku in here that only has one blank square,” Turchi said. “Nobody would pay for a Sudoku with one blank square. We all want a little bit more of a challenge than that.”
And in “The Treasure Hunter’s Dilemma,” Turchi recounts an experience he had with a fiction writer that shaped his view of a story’s effect on the reader.
“The best fiction leads the reader not to an explanation but to a place of wonder,” Turchi said.
Turchi, a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston and Warren Wilson College, made reference to a wide range of thematic influences, literary and otherwise during his talk. Quotes from Mark Twain, Geoffrey Chaucer, Truman Capote and Oliver Wendell Holmes serve as the backbone for Turchi’s analysis. The author mentioned Paul Zollo’s book Songwriters on Songwriting several times during the talk, drawing parallels between the musings of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan to the complicated philosophies of well-known writers. And scholarly work from language professors like Marcel Danesi also play a role in Turchi’s analysis.
Despite the sophisticated array of reference points, A Muse and a Maze should not be perceived as didactic, Turchi told the audience.
“It’s not a textbook, God forbid,” Turchi said.
Turchi’s previous work explores similar territory. A Muse and a Maze is a spiritual sequel to Turchi’s 2004 bestseller Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, which the New York Times Magazine called “one of the best non-fiction books ever published.” In that book, Turchi drew a connection between the devices writer and cartographers use to communicate meaning. But Turchi wasn’t immediately sure what the follow-up would be about. Indeed, the book didn’t start out as a meditation on puzzles.
“I thought this book was going to be about writing and visual art,” Turchi said. “There’s no plan.”
When he’s not parsing the history of storytelling in his books, Turchi has shared his love of writing with college students for more than 20 years. Sometimes his students unconsciously shape his stories. Turchi said one of the chapters in the book responds to a frequent desire among creative writing majors to write a “linear story.” The problem is, according to Turchi, linear stories don’t exist.
“In my investigation – I feel like Bill Belichick here – there is no story that holds our attention for very long that is truly linear,” Turchi said. “As we all know, one of the things we appreciate about narratives is when they surprise us or when they subvert our expectations.”
With his frequent attempts at deadpan humor, Turchi frequently had the audience at Politics & Prose laughing. After reading a quote from Mark Twain that contains a profanity, Turchi jokingly apologized and called for the moment to be removed from the event recording. Later, as he praised Harry Houdini for his accomplishments as an escape artist, he mocked the legendary con artist’s decision to change his name from Eric Weiss to Harry Houdini in homage to the French magician Jean Robert-Houdin.
“It’s a little bit like a little boy who wants to be a baseball player naming himself ‘Babe Ruthie,’” Turchi said.
Though Turchi said talking about the book is easy because he’s so familiar with the subject matter, writing the book wasn’t always an easy task. In a chapter entitled “How From Such Wreckage We Evolve The Eventual Effect,” Turchi addresses the common refrain that even writers who enjoy their work struggle to meet deadlines and get their words on the page in a way that satisfies them. This passage reflected Turchi’s experiences with writing as well.
“No matter how much the book may be celebrated, what the writer remembers is the torture,” Turchi said.