I am a devoted crossword puzzler. I got the bug during graduate school at the University of Georgia more than two decades ago, when the daily campus paper gave my classmates and I a welcome distraction from term papers and quantitative research methods. Each day we combined our efforts, taking advantage of one another’s unique internal file cabinet of random factoids, esoteric knowledge, and other peculiar tidbits.
I’ve since developed a few tried-and-true crossword puzzle rituals and routines. First task after boarding an airplane? Flip through all the nearby copies of the in-flight magazine until I find one with a blank crossword, all the empty squares gleaming like pristine shower tiles. Reading a newspaper in the city I’m visiting? Find the crossword and settle in. And every Sunday, after I pore over the Arts & Leisure, Travel, and Sunday Styles sections of the New York Times, I lay the magazine out flat on the table and turn to the second-to-last page for the Sunday crossword, one of my most cherished weekly rituals. I tend to work on it over the course of the ensuing week, as it is always the most challenging. When I’m able to fill in all the blanks without the assistance of google, I feel triumphant.
Crossword puzzles require both creative thinking and precision. There is only one possible answer to each clue, but the way to reach that answer oftentimes requires me to examine the clues from multiple angles. The other day I ran into the clue “Japan capital” for a three-letter answer. After a bit of mental maneuvering, I got it: Japan capital. Capital as in currency. Answer: yen. I love the little tricks crossword puzzles play on me, luring me into clues that, at first glance, look easy (Japan capital? Tokyo! Of course!) Figuring out these plays on words feels especially gratifying, like finding a hidden door that reveals the treasure I’m in search of.
There is much evidence to support the benefits of doing crossword puzzles. Doing crossword puzzles “keeps your brain young.” They can improve one’s mood, lower the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, and enhance verbal skills. Can I just be honest here? Completing crossword puzzles makes me feel smart. The moment I fill in the last letter of a challenging puzzle I envision all of my brain cells sparkling like loose glitter. This, in turn, makes me feel like I’ve moved a few steps farther away from the possibility of losing my mind in old age, which happens to be one of my biggest fears.
I only have one rule for my crossword puzzles: no pencils. I know it makes perfect sense to use a writing implement that offers the ability to correct errors. No one would think less of me if they saw me working on a crossword puzzle with a standard number two. In fact, I would probably appear very rational—smart in my decision to play it safe and wise to reduce the risk of ending up with a messy, scribbled puzzle done in ink. Using a pencil makes it easier to try things, right? If my first answer ends up being wrong, no worries! Just turn the pencil over and rub away my mistake, reopening the row of blank spaces as if they were never occupied by my errant choice of letters.
The issue is one of commitment. With a pencil, I don’t have to be totally confident in my answer. I can take a stab at it. I can guess. Using a pen requires me to fill in my answers with certainty. Writing in pencil means I’m saying maybe—maybe I’m right, maybe this is it. But if not, it doesn’t matter anyway because I didn’t fully commit to my answer in the first place. With each letter I fill in with a pen, I am taking a solid, confident step forward. This is the answer I’ve deduced. I believe in my logic enough to move forward with no hope of erasure.
My insistence on writing in ink requires a specific approach to solving clues. If I have an idea for an answer but I’m not 100% confident about it, I immediately consider the surrounding clues. Once I confirm two or three answers in the same neighborhood, seeing them click into place with the original answer I was considering, then I start filling in. I have to pull my perspective back just a tiny bit and consider different options and possibilities before I put pen to paper.
In this way I am neither tentative nor reflexive. I am, instead, calculated and patient. This approach serves me well as a puzzler and also in all kinds of other situations. Anytime I’m willing to take a broader view, gather relevant information, and look at the problem from multiple angles I am able to take the next step forward with that much more confidence. This doesn’t mean I won’t still get it wrong, but I would rather be left with scribbled out letters in ink, or whatever other kind of mess I might end up with, knowing I did the best I could—that my actions weren’t haphazard or reactive, but thoughtful and considered.
I’ll never win an award for all the crossword puzzles I’ve completed. I can’t say it does anything to contribute to the betterment of the world. But every time I sit down with a blank puzzle, I get to practice skills that will go with me everywhere—curiosity, creativity, and quiet consideration. I learn how to think before I act, how to be still with not immediately having an answer. And then, once I’m ready to write, I don’t go in halfway. I write boldly and confidently. . .in pen.