I Became a Nut-Job

The embarrassment of being a crossword geek

David Levinson Wilk: "Frankly, I couldn't even finish a Times puzzle that appeared after Tuesday."
  • David Levinson Wilk: "Frankly, I couldn't even finish a Times puzzle that appeared after Tuesday."
  • Image by [email protected]

I wrote a crossword puzzle when I was 19 years old, and the New York Times published it. The event wasn’t exactly the second coming of a young Mozart (and Little Stevie Wonder was littler), but I had Lord Byron beat (he published “Childe Harold” at the ancient age of 24), and I felt ready to answer to triumphant pats-on-the-back and general remarks about my youthful intellect and precociousness.

It was interesting, then, to see people’s real reactions when I gave them the news of my crossword debut. They only had two. If you weren't a crossword solver, you put forth some expression of benign confusion, such as “Huh! How much does something like that pay?” or “Neat—you must be good at math.” However, if you were familiar with crosswords — and New York Times crosswords, in particular — you and I exchanged some form of the following dialogue:

You: “Oh? Wow. Great. What day?”

Me: (rather sheepishly) “Umm...Monday.”

Here, you managed the weakest of smiles before walking away. I'm serious. People did this.

The embarrassing truth (as regular Times solvers know) is that a Monday New York Times crossword puzzle is the easiest to complete of all the days of the crossword week (they get progressively harder as the week goes on). The crosswords that run Monday through Thursday are all generally “themed,” which is to say they usually have a few conspicuously longer answers that bear some relation to one another. (The theme of my Monday puzzle was rather cutesy, five entries that all had to do with how you end a letter — SINCERELY, ALLMYLOVE, BESTWISHES, YOURSTRULY, and HUGSANDKISSES.) The puzzles that appear Friday and Saturday tend to shed themselves of a theme, aiming instead for groups of long answers that bisect one another due to a drop off in the quantity of the puzzles' black squares. The Sunday puzzle — the most popular among Times crossword solvers and the one that Bill Clinton was known to do without fail each week during his presidency—returns to a themed format but is a larger grid and has clues that are trickier than Wednesday's puzzle and easier than Saturdays.

But our former president would never have seen my by-line because I was a lowly Monday crossword writer. This, after simply wanting to produce something, a common feeling for a frustrated young writer who knows that the idea of sending out bad college-level fiction to Granta is...well, it ain't happening.

But having made it a regular exercise to do the Times crossword in my lecture classes sophomore year (without question, time more productively spent), there were wonderful, revelatory moments I experienced as I sat hunched over the puzzle torn from its page in the Times' “Arts” section. While the rest of the class considered the works of Chaucer and Milton without me, I would, at times, catch myself smiling, having understood, for example, that NOON was the answer to “Hands up time?” These moments are the few I can recall from that year when, sitting in a classroom, I honestly felt, “Hey, I get this.”

So I made an impulsive trip to the school store and purchased some junky graph paper, which I brought back to my dorm room and, for the next few days, worked over an amateurish puzzle. It wasn't brilliant, but I was proud enough of it to send it in an envelope with three greedily licked stamps (just to be sure it got there all right), to Will Shortz, the crossword editor at the Times. When I received a letter of acceptance and a check ($75, for those who are interested), I was, of course, elated. But then, when my puzzle ran, and I was labeled only a Monday-crossword writer, how was I to feel? People asked me if I planned on submitting another, with the intention of moving up in the crossword week. “Are you kidding?” I'd reply. “Those guys are nut-jobs,” I'd cackle nervously, referring to Wednesday-through-Sunday authors. “The mind of a Saturday-puzzle constructor...that just isn't normal.”

And I partly believed this to be true. I wasn’t lying, either, when I said I didn't want to be a “crossword puzzle writer.” I knew almost nothing about crosswords. Frankly, I couldn't even finish a Times puzzle that appeared after Tuesday. But while I dreaded being pigeon holed as an authority on crosswords (or worse, a dork), I also desperately wanted to make people realize that my puzzle wasn't a fluke, that constructing one took real skill, and that my creative thinking was more complex than just HUGSANDKISSES.

In short, I wanted to be able to say “Wednesday.”

So, quietly, I got to work. I began sending the Times submissions, terrible ones, dumsy attempts at higher crossword sophistication. One puzzle actually had “butt” as its theme—BUTTHEAD, HEADBUTT, BUTTRESS, BUTTAFOUCO, CALVINBUTTS. I think there were eight or nine entries with “butt” appearing somewhere in each. Will Shortz, understandably, passed on it.

My frustration and anxiety were finally put to rest, oddly enough, by some DJ’s coincidental airing decision one afternoon on oldies radio. The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” was playing, and, as I hummed along, I soon recognized the opening bars of the Beatles’ “Please Please Me.” The moment was stunning— and somewhat horrifying. Having established what was probably the one connection between the two songs, I understood at that moment that I had somehow developed the abnormal thought processes I professed to fearing in others. Somewhere, along the way, I had become a nut-job myself. I made this realization en route to a bookstore, where I thumbed through a music encyclopedia and found Betty Everett’s “Shoop Shoop Song” and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.”

It was a Wednesday puzzle. Shortz altered a number of my clues, making them harder to fit the Wednesday level of difficulty. I was dazzled by the changes. My clue for INLAWS went from “Family members by marriage” to Shortzs “Strained relations?” “Attorney test” for LSAT switched to “Would-be J.D/s hurdle.” I even had NOON in the puzzle, for which I offered “Hands up time?” as a clue, but that was shelved and in its place appeared “Shootout time.” Suddenly, I aspired to speak this language the way Shortz, a god to many, does. But was I willing to suffer the -embarrassment of being a crossword geek? Yes, apparently. An e-mail I found recently, sent years ago to an old girlfriend breaking the news of my crossword publication, has a closing that reads: “1 Across: Popular Beatles song refrain— LOVELOVELOVE.”

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