Saturday, January 15, 2011
CONFESSIONS OF A FAILED CRUCIVERBALIST
When I retired last spring, I added to my bucket list the goal of creating a crossword puzzle that would be accepted and published by The New York Times. I thought I could do it: I’m pretty good with words; I like to solve puzzles both verbal (crosswords, acrostics) and mathematical (Sudoku and, especially, KenKen); I’m good at following rules; I’m not uncreative.
I have since created three Sunday puzzles and one weekday puzzle that, in theory, meet the basic puzzle criteria of the Times: 15 X 15 (daily) or 21 X 21 (Sunday) squares in size, axial symmetry, a mix of high-culture (opera, medieval tapestry) and low-culture (baseball, rap) answers, not too many blacked-in squares, not too many crosswordish clues or answers (Konrad Adenauer’s nickname, Irish airline).
I thought my puzzles were pretty good. I sent one of my Sunday ones to the Times, waited three months, and finally heard back from them. It was a nice rejection from Will Shortz’s assistant, complimenting me on the puzzle but saying it wasn’t right for them. If you don’t know who Will Shortz is, then you’re not really a crossword fan.
I then sent my second Sunday puzzle to the L.A. Times, one of the two other newspapers that accept unsolicited crossword puzzles. The puzzle editor there also complimented my puzzle (in a rather perfunctory way, but nicely). He said he had already used my theme in a previous puzzle. I think it was his way of saying (nicely) that my puzzle was as common as bacon and eggs.
I sent my third Sunday puzzle to the puzzle editor of Newsday. I thought it was an especially brilliant puzzle. I also thought I had an inside shot because the editor lives where I grew up, on Long Island. Hell, my brothers delivered Newsday a million years ago. I quickly received a curt email rejection that basically told me that there was nothing good about my puzzle and there was too much wrong with it for the editor to make time even to offer me any advice other than to tell me to find a crossword puzzle “mentor” who could help me learn how to make a proper puzzle.
A mentor? Huh? I thought that, if you were a crossword-doer, you just read each paper’s puzzle specs, made a puzzle, and sent it in, kind of like a letter to the editor that stays within the word count. Then you got published.
No, no, no, no, no.
It turns out that there is an entire hierarchy of puzzle-makers around the world and a vast subculture that cultivates and sustains it. I had figured there were maybe 300 people in the U.S. with the interest, time, and skill to make a crossword puzzle. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Of the 306 million people in the U.S., approximately 300 million make crossword puzzles. They are doing it right now. Of those, 290 million are better at it than me. There are thousands of people who do nothing but make crossword puzzles. I believe they do not eat or sleep. Sex for them is just a convenient three-letter word with a little extra cachet for containing an “X.”
There are scores of crossword puzzle websites. The best is Cruciverb, which you can find at this link. All serious crossword people live on Cruciverb, which is of course a pretentious Latinish way of saying “crossword.” On another site, there is a man who maintains and updates a database of all New York Times crossword puzzles since, like, 1993, including all the clues ever used for all the answers. Here’s the link. When I wanted to use “limo” as an answer in one of my puzzles, I used the clue “a long way to drive.” Clever, no? Actually, it was. The New York Times has never used that as a clue for "limo," at least not since 1993. That clue is, so far, my proudest crossword accomplishment.
The people in the crossword subculture are fanatics. Fanatics, I tell you. They each make puzzles by the dozens. Every day. They deconstruct every day’s Times and L.A. Times puzzles as if they were Finnegan’s Wake, in long comment strings that are downright political in their fervor. (There’s a crisis in the NY Times crossword puzzle! A scandal! Some people have been receiving the puzzle earlier than others!) Not surprisingly, the comments are very well written. There are a gazillion blogs devoted to crossword puzzles. The New York Times has its own crossword blog (here). One of the comments on the Times site today is in the form of a limerick. A very clever damn limerick.
There are crossword-puzzle-making superstars who receive all the adulation of NBA all-stars. They are the LeBrons of les grids. They make puzzles with almost no blocks (the black squares) or with super-clever wordplay in the answers and brilliant pun-tastic inter-referential clues. The Newsday puzzle editor is so revered that he even stars on ocean cruises devoted to teaching people how to make puzzles. People pay big money to learn from him. These are people I dislike.
An hour ago, I finished today's NY Times crossword puzzle. Today is Saturday. Saturday is Challenge Day for crossword puzzlers. The Saturday puzzle, if you don’t already know, is by far the hardest of the week, with clues that could mean anything. (Clue: “No wear for waifs.” Answer: “plussizes.”) Solving the puzzle took me about two hours of very hard brainwork. I needed a shower afterward. I was so proud of myself that I expected a trophy presentation to follow the shower. Most of the people on the crossword websites finished the puzzle in 15 minutes. I hate them all.
Now I’m discouraged. I thought I was going to be able to check “crossword, Times” off my bucket list fairly quickly. But it turns out I’m in competition with people as freakishly talented as Mozart. Millions of Mozarts.
I’m very fond of the Internet. It has brought together people of kindred spirit who elsewise would never know others like them existed. There are hugely populous subcultures now devoted to everything—from the Fibonacci sequence to fibromyalgia. This is, on the whole, good; it creates a sense of belonging, of community, of shared effort and appreciation. But it does have its drawbacks. Those of us who are dilettantes, unwilling to devote every waking minute of our day to Chinese checkers, say, or cockfighting or, yes, crossword puzzles, have no chance against these masses of experts and fanatics egging each other on.
I suppose I should be grateful to the Newsday editor who replied so rudely to me. He has forced me to face the world of crossword puzzles realistically—kind of like the hero/villain of The Iceman Cometh who sets about exploding the pipe dreams of all the ne’er-do-well alcoholics in the bar where the play is set. What was that guy’s name again? Six letters. Starts with an “H.”