The crossword puzzle-making community's'real exception'

Anna Shechtman was among the first female crossword puzzle creators that had a puzzle published by the New York Times.

The crossword puzzle-making community's'real exception'

Anna Shechtman was among the first female crossword puzzle creators that had a puzzle published by the New York Times. While she has been able to continue to make crossword puzzles more diverse and innovative, she has also had to face her own challenges with anorexia.

Grande Dame of Music is the clue.

Ariana is the answer

It is Anna Shechtman, a crossword creator and journalist aged 31,'s favorite clue. It reflects the changes that she has made to the crossword puzzle world.

Anna is now a journalist at the New Yorker magazine. She has a PhD in English literature, film and media studies and describes herself as an avid viewer of reality TV, including Love Island.

She is determined to make crosswords more inclusive, and to use language that resonates more with a wider readership.

She says that solving crossword puzzles brings joy because you can see the same thing you recognize in the newspaper grid. It became a project to bring that moment of recognition for more and more people who look and feel like me and consume similar cultural artifacts.

The world of crossword puzzle creators was historically dominated by men. Anna says that she is part of a small group of creators who bring a wider range of voices to the puzzle.

She says, "It is an index of the maker of every crossword puzzle."

Anna was raised in Tribeca in Manhattan, with her father, an art historian mother, and an older sibling.

She says, "It's an extremely loving family and also very kind of New York Jewish in all kinds of stereotypical manners." "Debate was a priority and education was highly valued, so opinions and ideas were valued right from a young age."

At 14 years old, she fell in love with crossword puzzles. She went along with her mother to Angelika Film Centre in Soho to see Wordplay, a documentary about crossword puzzle creators and their devotees.

Anna says, "The film really introduces the crossword world to the very eccentric members. I had this strange cinematic identification with them." "You need to feel touched to find creative inspiration within a 15x15 grid. I felt their excitement and their eccentricity through the screen.

"There was something about the key to something infrastructural and foundational about language. It was almost magic."

Anna started creating crossword puzzles in American style, which are different from those found in the UK.

She says, "It's about making sure every letter is connected to at least two words in the grid. This is its own masochistic building process." It's a lot different than the British-style crossword where the difficulty lies in creating the little riddles that contain each clue.

Anna created all her crossword puzzles from scratch using graph paper and "many many dictionaries". She was 25 at the time.

It's almost as if words are a type of math equation. You have to ensure that all letters on the page interlock while still being words. Now the process has become digitised and I started using this crossword-constructing software that everyone has been using."

Anna considered it cheating because the software speeds up the process, even though it still requires a lot of human input.

"It was because I realized that I was making myself less competitive as a crossword builder that I started to use the software."

She says that the first puzzle she created by hand was based on the theme "midterm".

"The puzzle's thematic answers had the word term' in their middles, so that's the play of midterm - mastermind, determined watermelon. It was a puzzle I thought I had solved and gave to my mom to solve."

Anna was not sure that her family understood her passion.

"My older sister used to troll me. She just thought I was too cool. She says she has changed. "There were many things that I didn't understand, and many things I didn't, but it was my thing."

After developing anorexia as a teenager, Anna said that crossword puzzles helped her to cope with stress and became a "coping tool" for herself.

Her college boyfriend at the time, who was also her "most devoted problem solver," then sent one of Anna’s puzzles to Will Shortz (the renowned crossword puzzle creator, editor, and editor at The New York Times).

Anna says that Shortz was very enthusiastic, and especially since I was 19 years old. He rushed the puzzle to print to get it out because he wanted me among his teenage constructors. He was clear that if I did the revisions quickly, I would be the youngest woman to publish in The New York Times crossword.

"I was actually not that fast because I was doing it by myself and became the second youngest person to publish in The Times."

Anna had anorexia, despite the rigidity of the word grid. Anna sees her eating disorder's history and her devotion to crossword puzzle solving as being intimately intertwined.

Anna's family became "very afraid" of her physical condition. So, she decided to begin a process called refeeding that her doctors recommended in a controlled environment. She would eat three large meals per day, and then she would complete a crossword puzzle.

I found that crossword puzzles gave me a sense of freedom from my body. She explains that she entered into a virtual word matrix, which gave her a kind of compensatory high.

"I realized that what I was doing was hard and difficult. It made me feel virtuous and allowed me to escape the discomforts associated with embodiment."

Anna said she loved school but was unable to continue because of her eating disorder.

"I lost the trust in my family. It was the worst time of my life, not only for me, but also for all the relationships that were so important to me.

Anna says that the most disturbing thing about Anna's eating disorder was her feeling that it had become an essential part of her self-identity.

She says that the most frightening thing about losing weight was not gaining it, but actually not knowing who I would become without it. These perverse thoughts would make me think, "Well maybe I wouldn’t be as smart without it?" Perhaps I wouldn't get the same good grades? Perhaps I wouldn't have the ability to engage in this intellectual niche that was my passion with crossword puzzles.

"All these things I valued about myself, I believed wrongly, deludedly. They were attached to my eating disorder, making it even more difficult to recover."

Anna's second crossword puzzle, Anna's Second Crossword Puzzle, was published in The New York Times. She had just been admitted to rehabilitation for women with eating disorders at the age of 20.

She was worried about creating crosswords as she began her recovery.

She says, "With crossword puzzles, there's the conceit you can control the uncontrollable language. That to me, seemed again like the foolish attempt to control the uncontrollable human body."

"So, when I came back from rehab, and really loved my fragile, but stable recovery, I was concerned that I might relapse if it meant I had to go back to crossword puzzles.

Anna said that, as with everything else in her life, she had "recover it and redefine its meaning" in recovery.

"Just as my relationship with my sister and my mother had to heal, so did my relationship with crossword puzzles.

Will Shortz asked Anna after she had graduated college if she would like to be his assistant at The New York Times.

Anna says they were very different. Anna says that he was a 62 year-old man who grew up in rural Indiana on a horse farm. I was 23 years old and grew up in Tribeca, lower Manhattan. Our frames of reference could not be more different.

Anna and Will would either accept or reject crossword admissions and then rewrite as many as 90% of the clues once they were accepted. They would be able to sit together and struggle with words definitions.

She uses the example of "Bro" to illustrate the difference between their approaches to defining a clue. Anna says, "What comes to my mind for me and Will Shortz are going be drastically different definitions or reference."

"His - this is how it was clued for many years in the Times- was something like: 'Sister sib. Relative of sis. My clue was "Party-loving young man in slang." Perhaps it would be "bruv" in the UK, one of many terms that I learned from Love Island.

Anna says she had "amicable" arguments in the past with Will but eventually said they would be thinking about the audience and who they imagined as "average solvers" for the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Anna began to see herself as an "outlier" in crossword-making communities. Her journey from writing crosswords to therapeutic and private became more public.

She also realized that there were other female trailblazers like Margaret Farrar (1897-1984), who was a genius at the crossword puzzle and became the first editor of The New York Times' crossword puzzle section.

Anna says Julia Penelope is the other woman I admire. She is a linguist, and she was creating her own crossword puzzles that she considered lesbian-separatist crosswords. These puzzles included words such as herstory and womyn. Her puzzles were not published in The New York Times so she self-published them.

Although Anna has been at the forefront of a new generation of more demographically-diverse crossword constructors, she says it has also been wonderful to imagine herself as part of this long line of women cruciverbalists.

The BBC Action Line can provide support and advice for anyone who is affected by any of these issues.

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