I’m a word person and a wannabe writer. Not surprising, then, that I love crossword puzzles. I solve the Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle every morning. Although the puzzle can be solved online, I print the puzzle from the LA Times Games page and solve it by hand. I’ve been doing the LA Times crossword puzzle for more than twenty-five years. In addition to the LA Times puzzle, I subscribe to two crossword puzzle clubs, I buy books of New York Times and other newspaper crossword puzzles, and family and friends often give me crossword related gifts, like the Mensa 10-Minute Crossword Puzzles Page-A-Day Calendar. I always have a crossword puzzle on hand. I carry crossword puzzles in the pocket of my shoulder bag along with glasses, checkbook, business cards, and cell phone so that I can work on a puzzle when I am waiting for a medical appointment, for my car to be serviced, traveling on an airplane, or for any other reason I find a few minute’s time.
I solve crosswords with a pencil; though, for years I used a ballpoint pen—a problem whenever I entered the wrong letter or word. If I had to change a letter or word several times, the letters became impossible to decipher. So, I went back to using a pencil. I keep an eraser handy, too.
Over the years, my crossword solution technique has evolved. When I began solving crossword puzzles, I started with the first across clue, then moved to the next across clue, then the next. When I got to the last across clue, I went to the first down clue, working my way to the end of the down clues. Later, I changed the technique: I solved the first across clue, then attempted to solve the down clue beginning with the last letter of the clue I had just solved. Currently, I solve the crossword in a pattern where I solve the first across clue, then the first down clue, then solve the across clue that begins with the second letter of the down clue I just solved. When I get stuck, I move to a new spot in the list of across clues.
I love the the way I feel when I solve a crossword, especially when I haven’t had to look anything up. Is looking things up cheating? Not according to the late Margaret Farrar, editor of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle from 1949 to 1969. Looking things up, Farrar contended, is how people learn.
What’s best about crossword puzzles is that when I am solving a puzzle I am in the “moment,” in the “zone.” Crossword puzzle-solving is the one time during the day when I am focused on a single activity. Everything else fades into obscurity. I am there. Being present (there) for me—and, I suspect, for many—is a problem. Many times, no matter what I am doing, my head is somewhere else. I’ve tried various forms of meditation, all of which proved unsuccessful. One morning, not too long ago, I realized that I had worked on a crossword puzzle and been oblivious to my environment and the passage of time. This is a meditation, I thought. My impression was confirmed when I read Natalie Goldberg’s Zen master’s advice about sitting meditation: “Why don’t you make writing your practice? If you go deep enough in writing, it will take you everyplace.” There’s the challenge: to transfer what I’ve learned from my crossword puzzle experience to writing.
I never imagined a crossword puzzle could be a tool for self-awareness, a source of enlightenment. Margaret Farrar would be pleased.