Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The construction zone

Of the many different creative activities one could pursue, I am aware of only one that tests the following:
  • patience,
  • vocabulary,
  • foreign language skills,
  • mental dexterity,
  • the ability to mislead,
  • verbal panache,
  • a tolerance for being found quaint,
  • and an ornate, almost mathematical approach to word analysis.

So what is this pastime, recently called "possibly the most addictive and rewarding hobby on the planet" by Ben Tausig of The Onion?

It is crossword puzzle constructing. (Writing puzzles is known as constructing.)

Solving crosswords, of course, involves a lot of the same areas of expertise. But constructing and solving are two different things. Constructing is concealing; solving is revealing.

Constructing requires you to put the grid together. It's an intricate process, more art than science. You often get a section almost where it needs to be, but then find that neither STUO nor STEO is a word, so you have to backtrack and try another angle.

Until I tried constructing, I'd never understood the random happenstance that is an ingredient in a finished crossword grid. Many of the words in a puzzle are there simply because they fit. I found I had to abandon words and clues I wanted to use because there was no good way to squeeze them in.

Also, of course, a constructor has to write clues. For someone who likes to write, this is the fun part, or rather, the second and more consistently fun of the two parts.

Despite conventional wisdom, your better crosswords these days don't have particularly obscure words, as was more common decades ago. (Ancient Peruvian coin? Papal vestment? Don't know 'em, don't want to.) While it may test your knowledge of trivia or the occasional oddity, a modern puzzle is likely to include mostly commonplace words as answers. It's the clues that tend to be clever, oblique, or misleading: "It turns into a different story" (SPIRALSTAIRCASE) or "Latin quarters" (CASA) or "It can make you a new person" (SEX).

My journey toward constructing puzzles has been "1970 #1 hit penned by Paul McCartney" (THELONGANDWINDINGROAD). I got Games magazine as a kid, but I preferred the brain-teasers and contests in the glossy color pages to the newsprint pencil puzzles in the middle. I never really did their crosswords, but the pencil section did give me the great gift of learning to solve cryptic crosswords.

A cryptic is a special type of wordplay-oriented crossword. For years I preferred cryptics over ordinary crosswords, especially after discovering the great Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, an endlessly creative pair of puzzlemaking virtuosi. Their decades-long run of stunningly good cryptic crosswords in The Atlantic is over, but to widespread celebration they have resumed constructing cryptics for the Wall Street Journal.

Still, regular crosswords were always around. My college newspaper carried the syndicated L.A. Times puzzle, which proved to be a boon during the occasional boring lecture. In one class my friends and I would often race each other through the grid, each solving on our own copy of the school paper. The competition was friendly and I was known as a dependable source of help for anyone with the courage to stage-whisper "14 Down" in a smallish classroom. One woman even found it cute.

In law school, too, there was usually a New York Times floating around thanks in part to a tight-knit older handful of my classmates who'd all attended Ivy League colleges and/or New England prep schools. When they weren't spending weekends back east, their reverse provincialism was such that they'd never be caught dead with a Chicago Tribune; it was all about Harper's, the New Yorker and of course the paper of record. Their quick wit and world-weary patricianism made them entertaining company in the atrium of our school and I summarily dubbed them the East Coast Establishmentarians Society. My midwestern roots notwithstanding, I'd regularly help an E.C.E. or two finish a New York Times crossword.

I particularly remember one NYT puzzle from my law school years, the ingenious November 1996 Election Day crossword from Bill Clinton's reelection bid against Bob Dole. Across the middle of the grid were two seven-letter answers jointly clued as "Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper (!)". The answer worked as either CLINTON ELECTED or BOBDOLE ELECTED, with the crossing words making sense either way.

For example, crossing the first letter was _AT clued as "Black Halloween animal," which worked as either CAT or BAT. Crossing the second letter was "French 101 word," which could be either LUI or OUI. Law school was pretty intense and I rarely did puzzles in those days but I did do that one (in Constitutional Criminal Procedure, I believe) so I had the pleasure of discovering the remarkable gimmick for myself. Years later it is still fondly remembered, and stands as an example of the freshness and originality of the Will Shortz era at the Times (1993-_).

I should mention for the record that I did pay attention to class from time to time in both college and law school.

For much of my adult life I didn't do a single crossword. If I felt like doing a puzzle, cryptics provided a stimulating mental workout compared to which regular crosswords were too straightforward to hold my interest. The New Yorker had a small cryptic for a while; I always did that. The November 2004 death of my grandfather, a great man in so many ways, and one who relished a good crossword, only further attenuated my affection for the black-and-whites. We shared an appreciation for them when I was a kid and without him around they weren't the same.

But somehow, a few years after he died, I started doing them again after happening upon the syndicated New York Times puzzle in our local Murdoch-owned tabloid, the Chicago Sun-Times. The Times puzzle is considered the gold standard and I knew it was easiest on Monday and got harder every day. I discovered to my surprise that I could get pretty far into the week before I had trouble with the Times puzzle.

It soon became a skills test. My confidence increased as I found that Thursday no longer stirred fear in my heart. Friday became my new frontier. Then Saturday. I liked doing them with a pen so I'd work ahead in my mind to prevent mistakes and end up with a nice clean grid.

I soon realized that regular crosswords could be just as entertaining as cryptics. The key was to seek out the ones that were interesting to me, which in my case happened to be harder puzzles.

Some weeks I found the Friday tougher than the Saturday. Some puzzles I found grindingly difficult, but the challenge was highly enjoyable. Others I found difficult, but only annoyingly or boringly so. A puzzle could be funny, or novel, or informative, or humdrum. I gradually learned that although crosswords look more or less the same at first glance, there are in fact many different flavors.

I found myself looking for copies of the Sun-Times on my commuter train or picking them up on non-commuting Saturdays at Starbucks, where I'd celebrate the end of the week by methodically dismantling a dastardly puzzle.

Occasionally someone would leave a Friday or Saturday New York Times laying around the coffee shop, and I'd have a tricky decision to make. The syndication puzzle runs on a five-week delay, so by doing that day's puzzle in the Gray Lady, I'd deny myself the fun of doing the same puzzle five weeks later in our local paper. It was the classic battle between instant and delayed gratification.

Experience taught me that I didn't much like the deflating feeling of tracking down a puzzle only to find I'd already solved it. Thus I generally exercised will power in these moments, preferring to have one steady source. I made exceptions only during my (not infrequent) weekend trips to New York City, where doing the New York Times puzzle, in the New York Times, in New York, was too tempting to pass up.

After a year or so in the newsprint jungle, I simplified my life by subscribing to the NYT puzzle online. Where the Sun-Times omits names of NYT puzzle constructors, the Times itself and its online version give them due credit. I found myself learning the styles and personalities of different constructors, enjoying for example the grueling tests of Bob Klahn and the fresh fill of Mike Nothnagel.

The next thing I knew, I was in New York City playing in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. And the Chicago tournament that happened a few months later. And commenting regularly on a crossword puzzle blog.

And now I've taken the obvious next step. After years of solving other people's puzzles, I constructed my first puzzle the other day. It took me a few hours to create, a process I found surprisingly interesting and satisfying. Like Mr. Tausig says, I could see getting more into this hobby, one so similar to and yet so different from solving.

Constructing is, of course, a higher commitment of time and effort than solving. It's also a good deal easier to solve a routine puzzle than to construct it. Something like 50 million people a day solve a crossword puzzle, while there are thought to be only several hundred living, published constructors at any given time.

So how's my puzzle? The fact that it exists is, to me, the most exciting thing about it. Since I wrote it, I have no perspective as to either how good it is or how hard it is. However, I think the average crossword solver would probably get a kick out of it.

I can't share it with you yet because, like many delusional people, I would like someday to see my name in the New York Times. However, after my puzzle has been rejected by that paper, and Newsday, and the L.A. Times, and the Weekly Reader, I will post a copy here.

For now, I will just say that it looks a lot like the grid above. In fact, exactly like it.


zadok said...

Crossword construction is an art form that requires more patience than I can muster. I am amazed particularly by constructors like Brendan Quigley who quickly incorporate current events into their constructions. He had Jihad Jane in a published puzzle within a week of the rest of us learning of her existence.

Elaine said...

So, Ben-- you're a tease?