Samantha Sharf | Finding creativity in crosswords


Elements of Style | Will Shortz’s visit inspired a fresh look at popular word puzzles


samantha

Samantha Sharf
Elements of Style

Photo by Samantha Sharf


“Guys, guys, guys, guys!” shouts Ted as he approaches his friends, Marshall and Lily, at a fancy cocktail party. Behind him walks a man with a sly smile, a receding hairline and a full mustache.

Ted explains that this is “Will Shortz, editor of the Times crossword.” Excitedly, Ted continues, “You know how I have been saying they always use Ulee from Ulee’s Gold because of the vowels? Well, tell them Will. Tell them.”

“It’s because of the vowels!”

“It’s because of the vowels!”

Full of nerdy and endearing passion, for me, Shortz’s cameo in a 2010 episode of the popular sitcom, How I Met Your Mother cemented the fact that crossword puzzles have become a part of pop culture. I was forced, then, to contend with a reality I have struggled with throughout college — these word puzzles are here to stay.

It’s not that I have anything against crosswords themselves. It’s really that I do not like what they are not. When I watch a classmate pick up a copy of The Daily Pennsylvanian and turn directly to the half page of puzzles, I know they are not reading my column or the front page news story on Shortz’s visit.

Frustrated by this fact, I have long told myself that crossword puzzles are for boring people — squares — and kept my distance.

However, when Troy Majnerick, associate director of the Office of New Student Orientation and Academic Initiatives, told me that his office received requests for close to 1,000 VIP tickets to see Shortz speak at Irvine Auditorium last night, I realized I might be missing something.

Could there be more to puzzles than procrastination?

College junior Robert Gianchetti was among those who received VIP tickets. He describes solving a tough puzzle as “rewarding.” Explaining his lifelong interest in an email, he added, crosswords are “a fun way to spend some free time during the day, while also learning about new words and expanding my horizons.”

Majnerick, on the other hand, admitted that he had not thought much about puzzles before his office began planning the Year of Games, which sponsored Tuesday’s event. As he researched potential activities that would fit with the theme year, Shortz’s name constantly came up. Majnerick also began attending events such as monthly tournaments hosted by the Penn Scrabble Club.

A semester into the Year of Games, Majnerick has developed an interest in word puzzles. He even has several games of Words With Friends — a popular smartphone adaptation of Scrabble — going. A sports fan, Majnerick describes his new interest with words like “camaraderie,” “fandom” and “pride.” He likes that these games allow “old friends [to] come together over a genuine interest.”

After hearing Shortz speak on Tuesday, it is clear that no one has a more genuine interest in puzzles than this enigmatologist — a person who studies puzzles.

In addition to serving as The New York Times crossword editor since 1993, Shortz is the Puzzle Master on Nation Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” and the world’s only enigmatologist. He received the world’s only degree in enigmatology from Indiana University in 1974, as well as a juris doctorate from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1977.

Shortz began his talk by discussing some of his favorite Times puzzles. He described one creative crossword titled Night Lights, that was printed on a Sunday in 1996. Instead of designing a crossword that followed the usual one-letter-per-box format, constructor Eric Albert instructed solvers to replace sections of words that spell “star” with a “*.”

The clue for 23-Across, for example, was “flan” and the answer was “cu*d.” Seven such clues appeared. When the puzzle was completed correctly, the stars could be connected to form an image of the big dipper, which was also the answer to “It’s depicted by parts of today’s puzzle” (68-Across). What I like most about Albert’s puzzle is its wonderful self-referentiality, a quality also found in the best works of poetry.

Until last night, I had never thought of puzzle making as a creative endeavor. But like writing, there are rules that govern crossword making which give rise to opportunities for tremendous ingenuity.

Inspired by Shortz, I decided to give a crossword a try. It was kind of fun.

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