Section: Magazine

Pen or Pencil?

In Peirce Hall on a quiet Monday morning, a student opens The New York Times with a flick of her wrist and folds the crisp pages in half. She pulls out a pen. The week is just beginning, and with it, another week of crossword puzzles.

“I’ve always been good with words,” says Erin Ginsburg ’15, who does crosswords almost every day. “I think I just saw it and thought, I should give this a shot.”

If you’re like me, you have never completed more than one Monday crossword, and the challenge of a Saturday or Sunday puzzle is daunting. Throughout the week, the crosswords in The New York Times grow more difficult. However, the Sunday puzzle — Ginsburg’s favorite — is different. With the difficulty level of a Thursday puzzle, the Sunday puzzle is not the most challenging, but it is the largest.

You’ve probably seen these puzzlers around campus, curled over a paper in Wiggin Street Coffee or on New Side. I’ve always observed them with awe. How do they do them? And why? And is that pen?

For some students, like Audrey Nation ’15, the crossword puzzle habit began when she gained free access to the weekday New York Times as a Kenyon student.

“It’s just so great that they have it here for students,” she says. “I may as well take advantage of it.”

Nation, who worked on the puzzles daily her first and second years at Kenyon, now focuses her energy on the puzzles early in the week. “It’s sort of slowed down, but I still try to do them at the beginning of the week,” she says. “I don’t always get to them but I like to have them in my pocket just in case I get time to work on them.”

Nation’s writing utensil of choice, unlike Ginsburg’s, is the pencil. “I don’t trust myself enough to use pen,” she says.

Kelsey Hamilton ’15, who took up crosswords as a child, emulating the behavior of her mother, will work in pen earlier in the week. She often switches to pencil later in the week. “Usually by Wednesday or Thursday I work in pencil because I don’t feel as confident on those,” she says.

Ginsburg, Nation and Hamilton agree, however, that the puzzle is a private art, something they try to finish on their own before looking for assistance from friends.

“When I’m doing it, I want it to be myself,” Ginsburg says. “While people mean well trying to help, I would rather fail on my own, because it’s a challenge for my brain.”

Hamilton, on the other hand, occasionally accepts assistance from friends or the Internet. “I do it by myself for as long as I can, then if I’ve sat with it for ten or fifteen minutes and haven’t come up with anything new, then sometimes I’ll go over to a friend,” she says. “I don’t use a cell phone unless I’m severely stuck, but then I don’t count that as a finished puzzle.”

Students aren’t the only ones on campus who enjoy spending a few hours in between classes on these word puzzles. Some faculty members have years of crossword experience.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Professor of English Jennifer Clarvoe is one of these longtime crossword enthusiasts. A published poet, Clarvoe has an understanding of words and metaphor that translates well to the format of the crossword. After all, she “works with words for a living.”

Inside her office in Sunset Cottage, the walls lined with books, what started as a brief conversation with Clarvoe on crossword habits turns into an hour of discussion. It is a dreary afternoon, but her fervor brightens the room.

Clarvoe spends her summers in Boston with her husband, Tony Sigel, who works at the Harvard Art Museums. During these months, when she gets The New York Times delivered, she finds time to work on the crossword every day. During the academic year, her husband saves the crosswords from his newspapers and mails a pile of them to Gambier.

“It’s the time of year that I will be carrying around a nice little stack,” she says, pulling out her journal filled with small handwritten notes and slips of paper, looking for her current stash to show me. “I think I’ve exhausted them right now — I’m going through a dry spell. But often the Sunday ones back up. I can do the weekday ones any time, but the Sunday ones are fun to do when it’s a Sunday and you’re relaxed.”

Clarvoe attributes her knack for crosswords to her background, describing words as “just a part of the family texture.” But she isn’t the biggest crossword fan in her family. That title goes to her sister. Gesturing to a stack of papers on her desk, she reminds me her family is “not grading papers the rest of the time.”

Clarvoe also sees parallels between doing crosswords and navigating real-world relationships.

“It’s like dealing with different kinds of people in the world,” Clarvoe says — some who may “give you a straight answer,” some who may have “a funny way of looking at the world,” and some who may be “deliberately out to trick you.”

“So you don’t want to start with the one who is deliberately out to trick you,” Clarvoe says. “You just want to start with the straight question and answer, which is the Monday puzzle.”

For students like myself or faculty who may feel intimidated by the blank, black-and-white checkerboard, the campus crossword mavens have some advice.

“Just practice,” Nation says. “You get to know what types of things they are asking for. It’s worth trying, and trying again if you don’t get it one day, and trying again. It’s very rewarding.”

Certain clues are also bound to be repeated. “You just get a feel of what answers they’re looking for,” Hamilton says — for example, if the clue is “irritates,” the answer is always going to be “ires.”

Clarvoe may not be far from the truth in comparing crosswords to life. If the art of the crossword can teach us about relationships, it can also teach us about the power of perseverance. As Ginsburg reminds us, mastering the hobby is built upon of years of failure.

“You just have to do them,” Ginsburg says. “You have to fail a lot until something works — it will just click.”


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