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SwatTalk: "Crossword Puzzles and the Politics of Language"

with Anna Shechtman ’13

Recorded on Tuesday, May 21, 2024



Debbie Bacharach ’88 Okay, everybody, I'm gonna get started. Welcome. It's great to have you with us, I'm seeing, you know, the numbers going up and up, of people coming in, so thank you so much for joining us for this SwatTalk on "Crossword Puzzles and the Politics of Language," featuring Anna Shechtman, Class of '13. My name is Debbie Bacharach, I'm the Class of '88, and the parent of Class of '24, and I'll be the moderator tonight. Before we hear from Anna, I just wanna go over a few preliminary pieces of business. SwatTalks is a speaker series brought to you by the Swarthmore Alumni Council, of which I'm a member. And tonight's session will be recorded, so you'll be able to find it online on the SwatTalks page on the website, Swarthmore College website, within two to three weeks. And if you're interested in watching previous talks, you can also find them on the SwatTalks page. For those of you who are new to SwatTalks, or for our regulars who just need a reminder, tonight will go like this, Anna's gonna hold the floor for the first half hour or so, answering some of my questions, of which I had tons after reading this amazing book. And then she'll spend the second half hour answering any questions you might have. And please ask your questions by using the Q&A feature, the chat will not be working, so the Q&A feature on the bottom of Zoom. And please put your name and your class year so we can celebrate you. And I'll collect those questions, and we'll pose as many of them as I can to Anna during the Q&A. So, I'd like to introduce our topic and Anna. Crossword puzzles have become battlefields in today's culture wars, because they patrol the borders of common knowledge and proper usage. And what words and phrases are deemed to be puzzle-worthy is ultimately a fraught question. Are crosswords and mainstream newspapers too white, too straight, too male? Can words, stripped of syntax, carry all this baggage? Quick answer, yes. How did puzzle making, a pursuit once identified with flappers and housewives, come to be dominated by men? And will diversifying the demographics of today's crossword constructors, like Anna, necessarily diversify the words included in the puzzles themselves? So, the history of the crossword puzzle offers a dramatically clear view onto the politics of language, how and why words become such political objects, drawing communities together, and fracturing them with equal force. So Anna Shechtman, Class of '13, has found herself at the center of these debates, hailed as the Queen of Crosswords, Shechtman had her first puzzle published in the New York Times when she was a Swarthmore sophomore. After graduation, she went to work for the paper's longtime Crosswords Editor, Will Schwartz, and later helped found the New Yorkers Crossword Section, to which she now regularly contributes. And she's also the author of, "The Riddles of the Sphinx: Inheriting the Feminist History of the Crossword Puzzle," a new book that provides a dazzling overview of the crossword puzzle's place in American life and letters. So, we are gonna start with Anna talking just a little bit, and then I have a bunch of questions.

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yeah, thank you so much, Debbie. I think what's really exciting about this, there's so much that's exciting about this, I'm a Swarthmore Booster, I feel like I could be giving tours still. And as Debbie and I have been communicating, it's so clear that we have so much in common, most likely, it's we were trained, and became humans, on this most incredible campus. So, I'm gonna talk a little bit about this book, "The Riddles of the Sphinx," and how it came to be, which does emerge from a couple of strange facts of my biography, one of which Debbie mentioned, which is that after graduating from Swarthmore, I was asked to be Will Schwartz's assistant, a job that I accepted excitedly. And it's really where I learned the dramatic gender imbalance among crossword constructors. That's usually what we call ourselves, constructors, sometimes cruciverbalists, although rarely with a straight face. And so I learned there that fewer than 20% of all constructors were women. Which actually confirmed some of my suspicions, even though I hadn't been scrutinizing bylines, it just seemed like the kind of thing that men did more than women, which is something I hope we can get into, what sort of demonstrations of intelligence are culturally coded in what ways. But the other thing that I learned there, in part because Will is a big collector of crossword ephemera, as I think you would hope he would be, is that the puzzle really started out as a form of women's work. And the majority of crossword constructors for much of the 20th century were women, often bored, overeducated, housewives overeducated for their work, who were looking for something to do to, you know, keep their minds active. And the puzzle was also, around the same time, and what's been known as the puzzle craze, crossword craze of the 1920s, strangely associated with first wave feminism. So, somewhat different from the more conservative forms of work that these housewives were doing, sort of testing their knowledge in something like the Western canon, there's these novelty songs, postcards, let's see, cartoons that affiliate the crossword puzzle with the new woman, and especially the flapper, whose sort of desire to date, and dance, and not marry, and work, were as inscrutable to patriarchy as first-wave feminism itself, or as inscrutable to patriarchy as the crossword puzzle was. So you have a novelty song, for example, "Crossword Mama," the chorus of which is, "Crossword Mama, you puzzle me, but Papa's gonna figure you out." So, you can see all the cultural associations that are sort of accruing around this new puzzle form in the '20s. And so I was interested in that, how does a cultural form masculinize, how does the labor associated with it, or attached to it, go from being women's work, to a form of labor that's produced mainly by men? And then the other sort of motivating question, I guess, going into the book, has to do with an even more rarefied fact of my biography, which is that at the age of 15, when I started writing crossword puzzles, I also stopped eating, and I developed, over the course of five years, a very pernicious eating disorder. And I knew, I should say, thankfully, I'm in a very solid, many years long recovery, but I knew that those two phenomena were linked. And it was actually only through my research on some of the very strange women who developed and innovated around the crossword puzzle that I really began to understand just how sort of unarbitrary the connection was. As so many of them were negotiating their appetites, really, for power, for knowledge, obviously, for many of them for food, around the crossword puzzle form. So this book tells their story and mine, as an addition to that larger historical arc around the masculinization of the crossword field. So I'm gonna, I know Debbie has a million brilliant questions, and I'm just gonna read a little bit from the book before we get started. So, the first section is called "Black and White Thinking." 20 letters for a myth, the question, "Which creature has one voice, and yet becomes four-footed, and two-footed, and three-footed?" 20 letters for what Freud called the question, "Where do babies come from?" 20 letters for, in Greek mythology, its solution is man, but in Freudian theory, its solution is woman. Answer: the riddle of the Sphinx. The Sphinx poses a riddle, and she presents an enigma. In the myth of Oedipus, written by Socrates, and revived by Freud, the Sphinx is a hybrid figure, part human, part lion, and part bird, she's as inscrutable as her words. She guards the entrance to Thebes, a threshold that Oedipus must pass if he is to return home and fulfill his prophesized fate, the patricide and incest for which his story is more often remembered. If Oedipus fails to solve the Sphinx's riddle, she will descend from her perch and devour him, as she has so many men before. But Oedipus solves it, the creature with one voice, who becomes four-footed, and two-footed, and three-footed, is man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age. Oedipus prevails, and the Sphinx falls to her death, or, in some tellings, she devours herself. The riddle of the Sphinx, in other words, is a zero-sum game. It's a contest for which there is only one victor, one victim, and one solution, which amounts to the death of the creature who is both a woman, and not properly human at all. Language is the Sphinx's doing and her undoing. Her riddle is meant to create logical order, baby, adult, old man, from the wavy incidents of human life. But she is disorderly, at once bestial and cerebral, she is a symbol of man's fear, and his fantasy, of women's appetite and her mystery. Like the Sphinx, the crossword puzzle constructor creates problems with language. To write a good crossword clue, a hard clue, one that frequent solvers will recognize because it's appended with a question mark, signaling its deception, the puzzle maker has to loosen a word or phrase from its common set of association. She has to unsettle its forms, attending to the chance encounters between synonyms and homonyms, idioms and cliches, before she can set them down again. She reverse engineers the solver's process, a task that involves scrutinizing a clues language for its ulterior meanings, latent puns, and allusions. Seven letters for a complex character? Question mark. Answer, Oedipus. A complex character, a trope of literary fiction, is typically a protagonist with conflicting motives, and therefore, one would imagine, psychological depth. Because of the clue's question mark though, the solver knows that she's being misdirected. She must take each word on its own, rummaging through its various meanings with the dexterity of a human thesaurus or a literary critic. Character could mean personality trait, "She had an unpleasant character." Alphabetic letter, like a Chinese character. Or eccentric, "She's such a character." Or as in this case, it can mean literary personage, Oedipus is the titular character of a play by Socrates. Complex, meanwhile, could mean structure, "She lived in an apartment complex." It could be an adjective, "I'll never understand, it's too complex." Or again, in this case, it could mean neurosis, "She has some sort of complex." Throughout this process, unearthing the mundane magic of language's over-determination, the solver arrives at a solution, Oedipus is the character of a Freudian complex. The process repeats itself, clue by clue. Seven letters for Sphinx-like? Question mark. Answer, riddles. In other words, the crossword constructor makes chaos out of language, and then restores its order in the neat form of a solution. This relentless activity, tearing language apart and piecing it back together, was what I enjoyed most when I started making crosswords at age 15. Before discovering the grammar, to say nothing of the art of writing clues, I simply wanted to get the words to intersect, and the letters to interlock in the squares of my graph paper notebook. I'd squint at words until they lost their meaning, until they were only a string of letters to be arranged and rearranged into units that were recognizably words again. I didn't imagine a solver for my puzzles, because initially, I wrote them for myself. An aspiring Sphinx without an Oedipus, I wasn't working to exhaust anyone else's mental effort, so much as test my own. Without a solver in mind, I wasn't creating any real solutions, but false problems. "What's a three letter word that ends in Z?" "What's a synonym for X?" To distract from real ones, and to tire my restless mind. I was consuming my time, energy, and eventually, what I wanna call my sense of self, with word games. I wanted to retreat into the recesses of language, unsettling and resettling its forms, and I wanted to devour myself, to tear myself up, and start anew. Thank you.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Thank you. Woo, that last image is really hard. But it does lead into one of the questions I had, which is, you have a quote that says, "Puzzles represent the concerns of the maker." So you just said that, at that point, it was distracting you from your real problems, but can you talk a little bit more about how these puzzles represent the concerns of the maker, how they're cultural?

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yeah, of course. There's a few ways to address this, I'll start with how I began, which is using graph paper and pencil, and a very, very dulled eraser. And you know, the goal was really just to create words, real words that intersect on the page. Now, how to define what a real word is, or what a puzzle-worthy word is, is, as you mentioned, actually a very political question, and one that I debated with Schwartz over constantly, what makes it into the Times crossword puzzle? But that's secondary, that comes in the editing process. Initially, what I was doing was wanting to fill the grid with words that appealed to me, and what interests me. So you would see, I remember an early puzzle was themed around midterms, and I had the word "term" nestled in the middle. So, like watermelon, mastermind, or determined. That was a product of my high school brain, right? Very fixated on midterms. There was another puzzle that I made that, this maybe gets us more into the questions about what I understood my future as a "smart woman" might look like, or what forms of identification I had for other older women when I was growing up. And one clue says, "It hangs on Billy Bob's neck," if anyone knows that. I guess, as strange as I was at age, you know, 16, the answer is Angelina's blood, because Billy Bob Thornton had a little vial of Angelina Jolie's blood in his necklace. And then the other one was, she was Wellesley college's first commencement speaker, and the answer is Hillary Clinton. And then it said, what links these two clues? And the answer was, "They're both type A." Which, again, I think sort of has said something about those maybe slight feminist vacuum of the '90s, and early 00's that I grew up in, that my ideals about what an ambitious woman could be were Angelina Jolie or Hillary Clinton, that's a pretty binarized version of femininity. But you can also see how much that stems from, you know, that that is a sort of index of my mind, and maybe even my unconscious at those ages. Now the question of how a puzzle reflects the interests or concerns of its maker is shifted or transformed slightly, because most constructors use crossword constructing software to help them with their grids, and that changes the equation. So, we can talk about that, but we don't have to right now.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Well, so, you mentioned that you have a chapter called, "When Computers Replaced Women." So, yes, can you talk more about what difference that made?

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yeah, of course. So I was a real holdout, I kept writing puzzles by hand up until 2015, or '16, when I started writing them for the New Yorker, which asked me to make two themeless puzzles a month. And I don't know if there are puzzle aficionados in the audience, but themeless puzzles are big, wide open grids, very few black squares, much harder to write by hand. And they were not publishable, the themeless puzzles that I was writing by hand. So I started to use the software, and it just completely changed it. So these software programs are either called Crossfire or Crossword Compiler, those are the most popular ones, and they allow you to import various dictionaries, rank the letters, or rank the words in the dictionary, to essentially train an algorithm to say, this word is very good, or this phrase is very good, put it in a crossword puzzle wherever you can. This word is "Crosswordese," or a word you would only see in crossword puzzles, and not particularly in everyday use, try to keep that out of the puzzle. And then once you've trained that algorithm, you press a button that's actually called autofill, and it populates the grid for you. There's still a lot of work that actually goes into it as a constructor, it's a bit... The best analogy I have is that it's like a digital camera, where the machine is doing a lot of the work that humans usually, or historically, have done, but there's still a lot of human intervention. But the work of... You know, in some ways, it was secondary, those questions of what words are puzzle worthy, how do I wanna get my interests into the grid? That was secondary to just the work of crossing letters. Now what's really primary is ranking that word list, and the puzzle maker learns, which is to say like, the politics of our project really rise to the fore, now that it's just saying, "Good word. Bad word. Good word. Bad word." What is a good word? That's ultimately gonna be highly subjective, which is to say, highly political. And, you know, the puzzle maker learns, by trade, a sort of truism about algorithmic work, which is that the algorithm is never neutral, and so the sort of standard databases that people like, download into these programs, stem from the New York Times, well, all the words that have ever been in the New York Times. And so you learn that if you just use that database, and click autofill, your puzzles are gonna be sort of overwhelmingly, or the words that are in them, are gonna be overwhelmingly influenced by the puzzles that are, as I said, like 80% made by men. There's also been a bunch of kind of unsavory epithets that have made their ways into Times puzzle. So, there's a lot of curating of those word lists, and also some really interesting efforts that have been made to remedy its various exclusions.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 So, can you ground this a little bit for us, and give us an example? I'm interested in what you would consider a good word, what Will Schwartz might consider a good word that you don't think is a good word, and examples, like specific examples, of clues or words? I mean, obviously, you know, epithets, no. But influenced by cultural bias, gender bias, or race bias.

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yeah so, Will was a fantastic first boss, but he also has very strong opinions about what words are puzzle-worthy and not. And they're not just... Well, I'll say he has a real sense of his audience, and like he used to say to me, that he wanted the puzzle to be as democratic as possible. Right? To have as many people be able to solve the puzzle as possible. And so he had a sort of understanding of how to achieve that, which, to my mind, was a little bit wrongheaded, although as a 23-year-old assistant, and I'm certain I never said the words wrongheaded in his presence, but the idea was that if any word is sort of marked as coming from a particular culture, or subculture, loosely defined, like women's culture, or queer culture, or black culture, that including them would actually limit the number of people that would solve the puzzle, because, as he would say, those words are niche. Now, if you're a feminist, and someone calls your culture niche, I think your spine will start to shiver. But it was for a particular purpose, right, he wanted it to be inclusive. But paradoxically, that policy of inclusion actually ended up instituting a sort of tacit policy of exclusion. And this is not just the Times, there was, for a very long time, male editors at the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the LA Times. And so, with some of my friends, in what we sometimes call the Cross World, I collected some lists of words that had been deemed not puzzle-worthy by these editors. And I think I won't have to editorialize much, you'll just see, it'll be illustrative of the kind of the conversation we've been having. Okay, so these are words that were deemed not puzzle-worthy. Bell Hooks, Marie Kondo, Latinx, Sula, the Toni Morrison novel, Lorelei, clue to the protagonist of Gilmore Girls, Garter Stitch, SNIC, male gaze, that was one I fought with him about. HBCU. Howard Zinn, Crossing Nihao, and Bomni, Riot Girl. And this is my personal favorite, and this is not Will, an entire puzzle whose theme centered on WNBA themes. So, you can see that, I mean there are two things, who is the puzzle for? Right? That's a really loaded question, but one that also think also applies to all forms of publicity and publication. Who's your audience? But also what's a puzzle for, is it to reflect something like mainstream culture? Again, that's a very, I was sort of trained in cultural studies, so what is mainstream culture? It's a very difficult question to answer. And a complex question. Is it meant to open up new worlds, and new sort of cultural reference, to solvers? I know I've learned so much from solving crossword puzzles, they even inspired me to fall into how many YouTube rabbit holes, you know, based on an answer that I didn't know. Or is it meant to sort of prove to the solver, almost religiously, you know, every day, that they're very, very good at solving the New York Times crossword puzzle? And I don't say that so dismissively, there are many people for whom the ritual of the puzzle is, you know, brings them a tremendous amount of joy, and you know, the fact that it's fairly repetitive, or that it's all set to the voice of Will Schwartz, 'cause he edits up to 95% of the clues in the puzzle. That's part of the appeal. So, coming across Nihao and Bomni, or coming across Riot Girl, and not knowing it, will disturb that ritualistic function. Which ends up being a sort of, this question of what is puzzle worthy, it's an extension too of a much kind of different framing of relevance, or of appropriate words, than when the puzzle started at the Times, it was a late kind of puzzle, it was invented in 1913, the first Times puzzle was in 1942. But its editor, Margaret Farrar, established what's called the Sunday Breakfast Test. And that meant for her that, you know, with the sense that it was a daily ritual, often done over breakfast, that a puzzle shouldn't include any words that are gonna turn the solver's stomach, which meant no references to the body, no references to religion or war. Actually, a very strange sort of paradox of her position is that the Times did not want a kind of lowbrow puzzle, they thought it was a kind of debased form, and a gateway into other debased forms, like classifieds and comics. Heaven forbid. But, so she was actually meant to include words that are somehow sophisticated and timely, but not having to do with war, or disease, or the body. Now, this is 1942, so that's sort of, excuse the pun, she is, you know, working at cross purposes. So these questions about what gets into the puzzle are historical, but the norms have evolved. So now, you know, some pretty racy words that have been put in a crossword puzzle in the Times now, so that what is or isn't, so the Sunday Breakfast Test has sort of changed over time. I remember I actually, Will Schwartz let me put the word shtup in a puzzle.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Wait, say that word again? I didn't hear it.

Anna Shechtman ’13 Shtup, like the -

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Oh, shtup.

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yeah, thank you. Which, I'm not sure, maybe he just didn't really know what it meant but, but yeah, no, we got some letters. No, he totally knew what it meant, and so his version of the Sunday Breakfast Test, well, has evolved in many ways. I've been asked to not put NRA in a puzzle, because even if you clue it as like, or that it's the subject of X, Y, or Z protest, it's still seen as like a possible endorsement. There are some constructors I know who just will not put the letters T-R-U-M-P in a puzzle, even if it's clued as a verb, or like blanked card, they just won't, they won't do it, for, actually, the same reason, they do not want their stomachs turned over breakfast. That was a long answer to your question.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Okay. I'm gonna bring in some of the questions and comments that we're getting here, 'cause they're really fun. And then, you know, if we have more time, I'll go back to what I've got here. Where did it go? Okay so, Bob Herring Smith, '74, "One reason I do crossword puzzles is to learn things, something that doesn't happen with Sudoku, for example. So I'd be happy to have some clues, answers from niche cultures, in order to learn something about them. Not a question, I realize, but maybe a case for allowing some 'bad words' in a puzzle."

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yeah, yeah. I feel the same way. I'll also say though that, just to circle back to this question of mainstream culture, and is that something that a publication like the Times should aspire to, there have also been a number of indie puzzle sites that have popped up, especially over the last five years. There was a big puzzle boom during COVID.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Yeah.

Anna Shechtman ’13 As I'm sure many of us participated in. And so some of those are sort of meant to be representing for, you know, there's a indie puzzle called Queer Qrosswords, the crosswords is spelled with a Q, the visual pun is hard to articulate, it's hard to convey, and where all of the constructors identify as queer, and the puzzles themselves, the words that are in them, are sort of meant to be sort of inside jokes, right, or they're meant to be for insiders. And there's real value to that, right? There's another, it's actually recently ended, but there was a group called "The Inkubator," again, I-N-K-U, you get it. They made puzzles sort of for women, by women. And those editors, you know, I talk to them a lot in the research for my book, and asked them specifically, is the idea that women constructors will be sort of making puzzles with words from women's culture in them. And they said, "Well, yeah, that is the expectation. Also, we know that those kinds of puzzles tend to get maybe not published in certain outlets, so we want to make sure there's a platform for them." But they also said, if we have to, these are their words, this is Tracy Bennett and Laura Brownstein, are their names, said, "If we have to woman up the clues, we will." And one of them said, and if that means that someone from Gen Z has to look, gets to learn who Bella Abzug is, all the better." So, there's sort of a pedagogy at many different levels operating here.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Wait, so someone had a comment just on that. They're pouring in now, so it's gonna just take a moment to go find. Oh? Maybe it disappeared. Someone, I will find it in a minute, but someone said they get the pleasure out of learning new things from these clues. Okay, now I'm just gonna go all over the questions. So, Clinton Logan wants to know, "Are crossword puzzles popular worldwide?"

Anna Shechtman ’13 That's a really good question. So, there's a bunch of different ways answer this. They're extremely popular in the UK, although in the UK, they have two different kinds of puzzles that are really prominent. One is the cryptic crossword, and there are some cryptics that are available in the U.S., this is a bit of log rolling, there are some that are available on the New Yorkers website. And those are really a different project. Not all the words cross at every letter, but each clue has to be decrypted twice. I could spend more time explaining them, but suffice it to say that they have those kinds of puzzles, and then the American style puzzle, which I think they call the "simple puzzle" in the UK. And around the world, there are these sort of two different forms, whether it's the cryptic or the American-style puzzle. It's really interesting to see which has really caught on. There's a sort of loose history of cultural colonialism and soft power that you can trace by seeing like, oh, do they do the British style, or the American style? One thing that I did just learn though is that, even though the cryptic styles tend to be really popular in India, that they actually get the syndicated LA Times puzzle in India. And so even though I think most Americans, the loyalists are really very attached to the Times puzzle, the LA Times actually has far more solvers worldwide because they're syndicated in India. Anyway, there's a whole, when I was at Swarthmore, I thought about doing, like, applying for a Watson to study international puzzles, but that never happened. But it's a really great question, and more research is needed for sure.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 So, Maya Kikuchi, Class of '20, has a follow up question. She wants to know if you ever do, or construct, cryptics, and why did the New Yorker get rid of their Sunday cryptics?

Anna Shechtman ’13 I don't have an answer to the last one.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 It was massive.

Anna Shechtman ’13 They haven't really changed their puzzle, recently they changed their puzzle out at the New Yorker, you don't totally understand it, 'cause it wasn't involved in the sort of fairly substantial layoffs that were involved. We have a very substantial puzzle editing team there, which is pretty amazing, but also I think goes to show how important puzzles have become to sustaining these legacy media institutions. For those of us on this call who spend an extra however many dollars a month to get our Times subscription, you know, that's underwriting investigative journalism in this country. That, and recipes. I don't make cryptics, and I actually rarely solve the "simple puzzles" anymore, probably 'cause when you do construct them, and they do tend to be pretty repetitive, or at least you become really familiar with the kind of grammar of the clues, so that even if you don't exactly know the word, you can get there pretty easily. I'm tired of them a little bit. I hope that doesn't sound too, I don't know, arrogant? But I have totally not tired of, nor mastered, the cryptics. So.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 That'll be next.

Anna Shechtman ’13 That's next. Yeah.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Bob Mueller, Class of '68, picked up on something that you said earlier. He says, "Writing by pencil and paper seems to depend upon, or appeal, to different parts of the brain than computer work, and has switching over from hand to computer affected your enjoyment of the work, or simply lightened the load?"

Anna Shechtman ’13 That is an incredible question, because it really kind of hits the nail on the head for me in terms of my reluctance to switch to software. I think maybe there was some sense that there was like, "cheating" involved in using the software, but not really. I mean, I'm such a advocate of like, it's not cheating, it's learning, when you're actually looking up answers to put in the crossword. So that wasn't really what was holding me back, I actually really enjoyed the physical and mental sensation of writing them by hand. And this gets to sort of part of the biographical aspect of the book, which is I really had this sense that when you're looking at graph paper, and you're trying to get words interlocked on it, and you're tearing up words into these strings of letters, which of course is work that computers are very good at doing, tearing up words into strings of letters. You know, I think I liked doing it because I actually felt a little bit like a computer, or I felt like I was entering into this sort of matrix of language, and therefore did not really feel the sensations of embodiment, and certainly not the sensations of fullness or hunger, which were albatrosses for me at the time. So, switching to the software definitely expedites it, but it also doesn't have that sort of discreet sense of like, you've entered into the word matrix, and now you leave it. It's more like tending to your inbox, right? You're sort of constantly ranking, or you're re-ranking words, you find a new word out in the world, or you hear a new slang word from your student, and you it in your word list, and then re-rank accordingly. I recently got rid of the word bae from my word list, B-A-E, sort of an early '00s love term, affectionate term of endearment, because, you know, a lightly outdated slang term is so much worse than a slang term, so. Once I started having to clue it with like, term of endearment in early '00s slang, that seemed like it was time to remove it from the word list.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Since you brought us back to this sort of joining of your personal health journey and your crosswords, which, frankly, I don't remember reading that part about entering the matrix, and being able to leave the body in the book, so that was really exciting for me. But now that you're healthy, putting aside maybe the issue of the computer versus hand, how has your relationship to making crosswords changed?

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yeah. You know, the second puzzle that I published was, the second Times puzzle I published, was published while I was in a treatment center, inpatient treatment center in the infelicitously named town of Paradise, Utah. And it was... You know, when I got back from treatment, how to say this? I was sort of solicited immediately from a lot of different outlets to write crossword puzzles, because editors were looking to diversify their bylines, knowing how few women were writing them. And so, you know, I would say the most effective treatment that I had while I was in Utah was group therapy, and living and supporting other women in the goal of our recovery. I got very lucky that I was living with a group of women who were also committed to recovery. But it was also the first time that I experienced real intimacy with other women, outside of my mother and my sister. But then to kind have the whiplash of just barely starting to really identify as a woman, without the ambivalence or anxieties that were attached to that while I was still very sick. And then being asked to like, represent more women in this particular form, and write crossword puzzles that were sort of "womany," or "woman up" those clues, you know? That was a really strange phenomenon, but a mantle that I ended up embracing, or getting excited about, in part because I guess I had to redefine, like everything in my life, I had to really redefine it in terms of health. It's one of the most sort of tragic things about eating disorders, is that they really, they redirect all of your relationships, just about everything, and redefine it in their own terms, or in the terms of sort of maintaining the disorder. So in addition to sort of redefining and developing my relationships with say, other women, or my schoolwork, my body, I also had to redefine my relationship to the crossword puzzle. And what once was maybe a cathartic, very private, maybe symptomatic activity, became a much more public one as I was publishing more, and also a much more political one, as it became clear to me, you know, that this was a project about common knowledge, and that common knowledge is a political field. And so that move from a private, cathartic, symptomatic activity, to a public political one was one that I felt confident embracing, but only after I'd been to treatment, and was really pursuing my recovery, and embracing being a smart woman, and not feeling like I had to make any, not feeling like I had to tame my appetites, and tame the body of language, right? It was a different project than that earlier one.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Okay. Thank you. That was -

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yeah.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 I'm gonna switch gears a little bit. Sarah Palmer, Class of '91, says, "You've gotten me thinking about how questions don't always have just one viable answer. And wondering whether a crossword puzzle can encompass multiple meanings and aspects of a concept, or even if there can be multiple solutions possible within the same crossword frame."

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yes, the answer is simply yes to that. There's a puzzle form called the Schrodinger Puzzle, the most famous one, essentially, there are two answers to every down and across in a certain puzzle, or a certain spot in the puzzle. The most famous one was during, my goodness, am I gonna get U.S. political history correct here? It was during the '96 election, when the answer was something like, today's winner, or today's headline, and either Clinton wins, or Bob Dole wins, either of those were technically correct based on the downs and the acrosses. One of my favorites though, is this book ends up being really invested in psychoanalysis as sort of understanding the crossword as a kind of cultural unconscious. So, one of my favorite puzzles is one that just came out in the New Yorker, maybe less than a year ago, by someone named Andy Kravitz, and it was a Schrodinger puzzle that was Freudian themed. And so the down answers, it was completely valid, or viable, for the answer to one of the clues, which was something like, what a pipe is to Freud, or what a pipe signifies to Freud. It could have either been... No what a cigar signifies to Freud, sorry about that. It could either be cigar or penis, and of course, everyone was gonna put penis in there. This was not passing Margaret Farrar's New York Times crossword puzzle test, obviously. But then because it was done online, they could have a popup button that said, "Interesting that you chose that." So yes, Schrodinger puzzles, they're a delight.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Okay, so Anne Whiteman, oh, Anne Bauman Whiteman, Class of '82, says, "What are the distinctly different challenges of creating the mini-puzzles, and have you ever created those?"

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yes, when I went to grad school, I was the test solver for the minis for a little while. The distinctive challenges for the minis is keeping them interesting. You know, the constraints are so much more when there are only five letters. It's a little bit like Wordle, right, there's like just only so many words. It's part of the reason why the words in a themeless, or why themeless can be so much harder, is not just that they are, you know, they're obviously bigger than a mini, but they have so few black squares that the words can be really long, which means that you can have really elaborate phrases that are just sort of gratifying, because you would rarely see them, or you wouldn't think to see them in a crossword puzzle. It's really hard to put a word that you wouldn't think to see in a crossword puzzle in a mini, just 'cause they're gonna end up being, for the most part, pretty standard, everyday, common usage nouns. So, yeah, keeping it not boring for yourself or the solver is the hard part.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Okay so, Iku Awul says, "My first puzzle ran in the New York Times." Can I go woo hoo! Yay! "Without the word region Ogaden that was in one version of it, because I was advised that the New York Times would say it was a no go. How do you suggest beginning constructors who would like to be published balance what they think is okay with what the publishers might?" Which I feel like is the central question that we've been talking about.

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yeah, yeah. Well, I actually have a friend who applied, or added footnotes to his submissions, and I know the Bill did not like that. So, you know, footnotes sort of saying, "This had this many hits on Google." Or this is... you know. It's hard. It's a hard balance to strike. You know, there have been some changes made at the puzzle since COVID, or since March 2020, when some friends and I wrote an open letter to the Times, thinking, I mean, there's a lingering anxiety throughout this book and the work that I've been doing, that we're sort of politicizing a pastime, or over politicking, you know, that we're taking ourselves in crossword puzzles way too seriously. And I think feminists will, or it's been a useful reminder for me that the idea that feminists are humorless, or that they are improperly politicizing things that are not political, just to say anything other than like the ballot box, or the assembly line, that it's comforting to me to know that I'm in this tradition of people who are willing to risk taking certain things seriously for the sake of equity and inclusion. So, with that in mind, we actually wrote an open letter to the Times to ask for certain structural changes that would make it more conducive to that sort of editorial staff, and the workflow more conducive to more constructors from different backgrounds. And also so that not one person would have to sort of stand in as a kind of token, or representative, for their whole, say, gender. And a lot of those changes really have been made, and so Will, at the moment, is surrounded by much a much more diverse editorial crew. Which is just to say that, don't censor yourself, you know? Like, put it in the puzzle, see what he says, and maybe he will, bolstered by his editorial team. There really is movement in a really exciting direction.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 So, Kip Davis is gonna talk about, we've been talking about the words, and whether they're puzzle-worthy, and they make it past, you know, the Will Schwartz test, or the Breakfast Test, but then there's the other half of it, the clueing, what clue you give to that word. So he says, "The other half of a crossword construction is how the clue is constructed. Eda James, for instance, is not a jazz singer, and for me, the DEA is not a patriotic organization. The clue really shapes an opinion about the word. And can you speak to that?" And he's Class of '75.

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yeah, absolutely. Yes and yes, I mean, I agree with those sentiments. As I mentioned, you know, it differs according to different publications, but the Shorts will edit up to 95% of the clues of a daily puzzle. Which is a very strange phenomenon, 'cause you will send them a puzzle, and now there are proofs that are sent so that I could type back and say, "No, DEA is not a patriotic organization," you know, or whatever it is. I would not want that running under my byline. Oh, DAR, right, yeah. I would not want that running under my byline, and the change can be made at that level. But for years, from 1993 to 2000, the puzzle would just run with like up to 95% of the clues being ostensibly under your byline, but set to the house style, which really is the voice of Shorts. And not only is it strange, 'cause sometimes you can't solve your own puzzle, but other times you'll feel, right, like, like the opinion, or the sort of politics that are espoused by the clues are not your opinions or your politics, or don't represent your opinion or your politics. So, thankfully now there is that intermediary process of actually getting to, I dunno, someone finally introduced the Times Puzzle and Games section to Google Docs, and we're very grateful to them for that. But at other outlets, like I've been really grateful to work at the New Yorker, where it seems like the desire to have something like a constructor's voice represented in the grid, and not a sort of house style, is what motivates them. And they do also, I have to say, protect us quite a bit. You know, there's one word that is a very common crossword word, and I did not know it had a second ulterior meaning that basically meant a drunk. And they were like, "Do you really wanna put that in the puzzle?" And of course I didn't, but I also didn't know. So they also serve the editorial role of protecting us, which is what I believe a good editor does.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 I'm jumping, 'cause I really want Steve Smith's question answered. You mentioned so many interesting crossword women in your book, and the book is organized by a sort of women's history of crossword makers, can you speak about, oops, can you speak out about one or two of them who you found fascinating, insightful, and what you learned from them and their stories, in, you know, three minutes?

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yes, of course. Okay, how to do this quickly? So, I briefly mentioned Margaret Farrar, but I wanna talk about her a little bit more. She was the founding editor of The Times Puzzle, and also the wife of John C. Farrar, the publisher of FSG. She was just a woman of many contradictions that played themselves out over the course of her life. She was an editor of the very first Simon and Schuster books. Maybe it's 'cause I'm a media studies historian that I really loved this story, but she was the editor of the very first Simon and Schuster books, which were puzzle books, although they didn't want to put their name on it, 'cause they thought it was too low brow. But once their first four books were all bestsellers, they started to put their name on it. They started to diversify into other things that weren't just puzzle books. She invested that money, and it became the seed money for FSG. And then she also became the first editor of the Times Puzzle. And so there is a world in which you could say that Simon and Schuster, the New York Times' ability to still survive into the digital era, and FSG, were all sort of created on the backs of Margaret Farrars's puzzles, which is kind of incredible. But she was so reluctant to identify as a worker, because she was a pretty socially conservative, decorous housewife, and really, really proudly the wife of publisher John C. Farrar, that she ends up being a strikebreaker late in life during the newspaper guild strikes of the '60s and '70s, and so the union essentially kicks her out, or that's her understanding of what happens. And so even though this tremendous amount of work that she did in order to like really establish these cultural institutions, her desire to identify first and foremost as a mother and wife, and not as a worker, 'cause I should say, she didn't espouse anti-labor politics in general, she's like, "I don't work," you know, ultimately led to her firing. Another figure who is no less complicated is this woman named Julia Penelope, who was a linguist, and an English professor, and taught some of the very first women's literature classes in the country. And she is just the most complicated woman, in that she's a really, like a very strict nominalist. She identified in very rigid ways. "I am this kind of woman, I'm this kind of lesbian, I'm this kind..." You know, this. And "I'm butch, or I'm..." And every time she took a new label, she then repudiated the old one and all the people who identified with it, and was really very polemical about that repudiation. And vicious, even. And ultimately ended up extremely socially isolated from the women's movement, and the lesbian rights movement, even though she was a co-founder of the Women's History Archive, which is an incredible organization. But late in her life, when she basically was no longer associated with those movements, because no one liked her, she ended up, her last sort of pedagogical space was the crossword puzzle, and she made a book called "Crossword Puzzles for Womyn," W-O-M-Y-N, 'cause she was among the movement for really registering women's politics in language, with the understanding that language is an instrument of patriarchy. And so she wrote these lesbian separatist crossword puzzles that were consciousness raising devices. But again, another irony of them is that they're really unsolvable unless your feminist consciousness has already been raised. Like, the answers are really sort of niche references. I just said niche in the spirit of Will Schwartz. They are very, very local references to events that were happening on the ground, at like "now" movement, "now" conferences in the '70s, you know, or Lavender Menaces disruptions in the '70s. So, I mean, they're incredible historical documents, whether or not they're effectively pedagogical consciousness-raising devices are an open question. But these women are so complicated. And suffice it to say that they're also incredibly brilliant. There's one woman at the end of the book, and I promise I'm wrapping up now, her name is Ruth Von Full, and she was a champion crossword puzzle constructor, or champion crossword speed solver. She set the Bogey Time for the New York Herald Tribune, so every day in the Herald Tribune paper.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Go on.

Anna Shechtman ’13 Yeah, but she ended up writing, she ended up becoming a self-taught Joycean scholar, and writing a haiku that was published in Harper's, that said, "What a paradox is an unbending person who can't unbend." Which I think ends up being a kind of beautiful, strange motif for all of the women in the book, who were ultimately quite rigid about pursuing their goals. Many times, their goals were to be smart, and to be very legibly smart, and their rigidity led them into various contorted positions that isolated themselves from others, and even from from their own ability to be smart, really. So yeah, what a paradox, and I include myself in that set of women. They're not exactly role models, but they're tremendous. and they were great to sort of live with as I was writing this.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 So there are a bunch of questions I didn't get to, so if you ever have a chance to look at the chat, people, I'm sure, would appreciate you knowing what they had to say. But I wanna end with Mark DeWitt's comment, which is, "Not a question, just a thank you, and commendation to you for caring about the effects of your puzzles on those of us who do try to solve them. In a sense, you're protecting us as you educate, edify, and challenge us. And it never occurred to me that the author would care about my emotions as my brain twists and turns to answer odd or esoteric clues." So, I thought that was a lovely way to end, and thank you very much for all that you've told us about, and I really hope people go and read the book, 'cause it's very, very interesting.

Anna Shechtman ’13 Thank you. I really appreciate it, Debbie. This was really a total pleasure.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Yes. All right. Thank you all. And we will see you soon at Swarthmore. Bye.