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English Professor May Puzzle You

English Professor May Puzzle You

Posted: January 8, 2013

If the crossword puzzle in Wednesday's New York Times frustrates you, you can blame David Ben-Merre (pictured), assistant professor of English. He started solving crossword puzzles in junior high, and he took up composing them several years ago. “I needed a break from writing my dissertation,” he said.

Ben-Merre has published one so far, in a bar association journal; another is scheduled to appear in the James Joyce Quarterly. Breaking into the Times has been especially exciting. According to Ben-Merre, the Times’ crossword puzzle editor, Will Shortz, introduced an element of fun into the long-revered crossword puzzle. Shortz, who is also puzzle master for NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, created his own individualized major, enigmatology, at Indiana University. “He’s interesting and friendly,” said Ben-Merre. “Sometimes when you solve one of his clues, you get a smile out of the answer.”

Ben-Merre said that he was curious about how crossword puzzles were made. “I learned by trial and error,” he said. He submitted a number to the Times, and received in return a lot of rejections. He also got some feedback, such as “I liked the theme, but the themed answers weren’t symmetrical.” The puzzle that appears in the January 9 edition was accepted several months ago.

The Times’ crossword puzzle progresses in difficulty throughout the week, with the easiest appearing on Monday. “The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday puzzles are themed, but straightforward,” said Ben-Merre. “On Thursday, the puzzle is themed, but it’s also tricky; it might include an ampersand or a number, for example. On Fridays and Saturdays, there is no theme and the clues get harder.” On Sunday, the grid size leaps from 15 spaces across and 15 down to 21 across and 21 down, with few blacked-in spaces.

Ben-Merre starts his puzzles with a theme. His puzzle in the bar association journal had a constitutional law theme and drew on two court cases: Gideon v. Wainwright and Miranda v. Arizona. “So the four themed answers were Gideon bibles, Adam Wainwright, Carmen Miranda, and Arizona iced tea,” said Ben-Merre.

“You need to make your puzzle symmetrical for the Times,” said Ben-Merre. (Almost all crossword puzzles require the blacked-in boxes and themed answers to be placed symmetrically.) His puzzle’s theme is “Did or Didn’t” and it contains six themed answers.

“Will Shortz wanted me to change one of my themed answers,” said Ben-Merre, “and that, of course, meant I had to revise practically the whole puzzle.”

Was that frustrating?

“No,” said Ben-Merre. “It’s a hobby, so working on it was fun. I hope to submit a couple more this month.”

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