“Ah— another crossword for me to test?” Despite my wife’s near-Oscar-worthy attempt to project a sense of pleasant anticipation, her words and demeanor betray a bit of dread and fatigue.
And how could they not? After all, together with a small, carefully selected crew of friends and colleagues, Jane has “volunteered” to review my crossword-puzzle creations on countless occasions. I suspect she feels a lot like the parent who repeatedly professes to be mystified by an offspring’s nowhere near-perfected magic act.
In a sense, she and the rest of the test crew are all unwitting enablers of my slavish devotion to
cruciverbalism, which is a fancy word for the art of creating crossword puzzles.
Like most obsessions, this one begins innocently enough, and then gradually overpowers you. Having long enjoyed and shown some ability to solve crosswords, especially those run in The New York Times, I decided to set out to achieve a challenging, yet attainable, post-retirement goal: To construct and sell at least seven crosswords to The New York Times.
Why seven puzzles and not three or 10? Well, it’s because Times puzzles are constructed and edited differently depending on the day they are published. Mondays are the easiest, and Saturdays the most challenging, both in terms of the words used in the solutions, called “fill,” and the degree of erudition and/or cleverness required to parse the clues. Sunday puzzles are bigger (21 squares by 21 squares instead of 15 by 15) but are essentially equal in difficulty to those that run on Wednesdays or Thursdays. Having one of your puzzles published for every day of the week is somewhat akin, in sports terms, to performing the hat trick, hitting for the cycle or winning the Triple Crown.
I also joined the National Puzzler’s League (npl), an organization for word nerds that has been in
existence since 1883.
I’d heard Will Shortz, the renowned Times crossword editor, talk on National Public Radio about his involvement with the npl, and it sounded like a great source of information and contacts.
In 2010, when the group held its annual convention in Seattle, I attended and an npl acquaintance who knew Mr. Shortz quite well was kind enough to introduce us. We had a brief, congenial chat, during which I mentioned my seven-day goal. After several seconds of awkward silence, he responded simply: “Well, that is awfully ambitious”.
And, indeed, it certainly has proved to be awfully ambitious. I have now submitted more than 100 puzzles. Mr. Shortz has run exactly four. And how’s my week going? Well, I’ve managed to knock off Monday, Tuesday (twice) and Thursday (although I have also constructed and submitted many puzzles with the idea that they would be suitable for use on the remaining days).
Occasionally, someone who thinks he might want to try his hand at this asks me whether it’s been a worthwhile experience. The answer is, “Absolutely!”
On the one hand, the learning curve is quite steep and the competition is sizeable. The rejection rate, even for seasoned constructors, can be brutal.
And the pay is not so great: At $300 for a daily or Saturday and $1,000 for a Sunday, cruciverbalism has to rank as the world’s worst paying construction job.
But the company I get to keep — Mr. Shortz, his staff and my fellow constructors — is terrific, and the joy of success is unparalleled. Seeing your name on a puzzle in The New York Times or having occasional email or telephone conversations with Will Shortz is great. Most of all, it’s just enormously enjoyable to come up with a great puzzle theme idea or a new tricky clue, like this one for a 3-letter answer: soccer squat.
Can’t figure it out? You will — there’s really nothing to it.