On weekends, I work crossword puzzles. I’m particularly devoted to the Sunday puzzle in the New York Times. I subscribe to the print edition of the Times largely for the pleasure of filling in those little squares, though it is also my news source of choice both online and in print.
I once toyed with subscribing to the online puzzle (it isn’t included with an online subscription to the paper), but I get no joy from scrolling through clues or typing my answers. I like to be able to see all the clues at a glance and I like the scratch of my Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil on the page. It’s very satisfying.
I once cancelled a subscription to another newspaper because it repeatedly dropped a clue or two from its crossword during the layout process. This happened multiple weeks in a row and left me nearly weeping as I called customer service once again to complain. I’ve worked in newsrooms. I understood how it could happen, though it seemed like it shouldn’t happen with electronic layout. When I worked in a newsroom we used printed copy and razors and wax to lay down the page. We always double checked the crossword puzzle.
It is common knowledge in newsrooms that people who work crossword puzzles are a little bit nuts.
I have a friend who also works the Sunday NYT puzzle most weeks. A few months ago, she sent me an email bemoaning a spate of “annoyingly easy” puzzles. She theorized that Will Shortz might be resting on his laurels and rubber stamping whatever came across his desk. And it’s true, the puzzles do seem to have gotten easier lately. It’s not just the Sunday puzzles. Today, I tackled the Saturday puzzle, supposedly the most challenging puzzle of the week. Saturdays are busy and I often don’t bother with the puzzle. Today, though, my cat woke me up at 5 a.m. I finished reading the news before the sun came up. I figured I might as well give the puzzle a few minutes of my time. It was one of those puzzles that looks daunting at first glance—lots of 16-letter answers spanning the full width of the grid. I figured I’d solve a few of the gimme clues and then give up and go on with my day. Nope. I solved it in no time. I’m not one of those people who times herself while working any puzzle. I often take breaks to eat or fill my coffee mug or walk the dog, but I can tell you I solved this one so quickly I didn’t break for any reason. I wondered if someone had accidentally printed a Monday puzzle by mistake.
What the hell, Will Shortz?
I don’t trust things that come easy. Everything worth doing ought to be challenging. I’m not looking for impossible tasks, but I need to expend some effort or what’s the point? If a puzzle is so glaringly simple that anyone can solve it, why should I bother? This is true of crossword puzzles and it is true of writing. Writing is challenging. Anyone can sit down and put words on a page, but choosing the best words and finding the best way to tell a particular story is hard. I fail constantly. I’m always going back and deleting a bad first effort. My motto is try, try again.
In the past I’ve worked crossword puzzles where my eraser gets more use than my pencil lead. It’s been a while since I’ve worked a puzzle that challenging, but my writing challenges me every day. I’m currently revising a tricky third of my novel-in-progress. I don’t write in pencil, but if I did the eraser would be getting more use than the lead. Interestingly (or maybe not?), this section of the novel deals with clues and unraveling of the meaning of those clues. It’s a puzzle and a challenging one, so I suppose I ought to be grateful for anything I can easily solve. I’m not. I want the challenge. I want to feel like my brain has stretched a little after I finish my crossword puzzle and when I wrap up my writing day.
Writers, like people who work crossword puzzles, are often a little bit nuts.