Daily Archives: December 19, 2020

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Cross Words by Jenny Jensen

December 19, 2020 by in category On writing . . . by Jenny Jensen tagged as , , , , ,
a woman sitting in the middle of a pile of books with  a crossword puzzle behind her.

In these times of pandemic lock down we’re all searching for something that will absorb us, entertain, teach–challenge us.  I’ve dabbled in baking (very mixed results), sewing (mended everything mendable), crafty things (be glad you’re not on my Christmas list), knitting (have you seen the price of good wool?). They all passed the time between books, but none inspired a passion and I didn’t feel particularly challenged.

My grandmother and my mother were both avid cruciverbalists. Not only does that sound exotic, it felt like I’d be carrying on a tradition. Those esteemed women fearlessly challenged their brains daily. I bought a puzzle book with 99 crosswords claiming to “be enjoyable at all solving levels”. Perfect! I could limber up and go on to the hard stuff.

I felt I had gotten the knack with the first 30 puzzles. Sharp flavor, four letters–TANG. This is a breeze. The next 56 began to take some effort: Central parts, six letters, fifth being ‘e’.  Hmmm.  I consider all things central and am not arriving at those 6 letters, the fifth of which is ‘e’. Then I crossed words with Tile problem and MILDEW gives me ‘L’ for the fourth letter. I hit on nuclei. I got it! Central parts: NUCLEI pl.  I am strutting like a peacock, never mind that it isn’t a commonly used word. “The nuclei of the garden are the tulips and the erotic statue.” Naw. Clearly this is a new language.

I like to think I am an honest sort, so I keep count of how many times I peek at the answers page. Eight times over 86 puzzles; a mere misdemeanor. Many of the clues involve rather esoteric and antiquated knowledge. I feel I can be forgiven for not knowing every letter of the Greek alphabet or the lessor characters of 19th century French drama. I now include recent pop music titles among esoteric knowledge. I do not know a single Abba song title. (This leaves me feeling hopelessly uncool, but never mind.)

Still, I’m getting better–that is, until number 87. I feel like I’m taking an exam in advanced astrophysics–and it’s in Brail. Philanthropy source, 11 letters. I get there finally with the help of crossed words: BILLIONAIRE. It’s so obvious, so clear and so disheartening that I’d agonized over this. Then a light bulb goes on and I realize crosswords do not involve a new language. It’s still English (except for those pesky Greek letters). What is needed here is an entirely different thought process, a less rigid way of considering words.

I need to be flexible, more elastic than Silly String, more malleable than Play Dough. How else can you arrive at ROLE as the answer to Office? It’s all those English words with multiple meanings, all the nuances of our language that makes for rich, lyrical writing. It’s the forgiving nature of our language that allows us to get by with radical interpretation, lets us stretch the truth, so to speak. I’d been ignoring what I already know and what I love so much about writing.

Puzzle 88 is next and it looks daunting. It’s a giant grid with one and a half pages of clues. I’m going to be like water and with each clue let my mind flow over and under, through and past pedestrian definition until I arrive at the clever stretch, the humorous bent, the deceptively simple answer. It’s poetic.

I’m determined to join the ranks of my foremothers and become a cruciverbalist. I may pull out all my hair, but I intend to get there. I am definitely Faced off, 10 letters.


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