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This week’s Ink Well crossword puzzle is the final one. Here’s a farewell essay from Ben Tausig, its author. Look for a new puzzle in Washington City Paper starting next week by Brendan Emmett Quigley.
Each pressing of “send” felt like tearing down a beautiful and still very livable home. The Annapolis Bay Weekly the eaves, Cincinnati City Paper the moldings, Chicago Reader the foundation itself. I remembered crafting each part as they fell to the earth. By July 2014, I decided, the weekly crossword feature I’ve been writing for just under 10 years would need to be disassembled. The decision was so organic that I couldn’t deny its correctness—I start a full-time job as a professor of music in the fall, plus childcare—but the physical act of clicking the mouse remained stubbornly painful. There are a few reasons for that, most of them maudlin; this is my chance to tell you why our weird relationship, as cohabitants of the house now slated for demolition, has been special.
Ink Well, the name of my outgoing puzzle feature, began as a moonshot idea stoked by the bad vibes of menial employment. From a boxy PC on a cubicle desk, I pitched a hipster crossword to the San Francisco Bay Guardian and, once they signed on, used their name to convince other clients to come aboard. Some of the bigger catches included Washington City Paper and the Chicago Reader, both of whom have remained clients for all 10 years, and whose staff are remarkably sharp-minded and professional. In 2005, no client seemed more impressive than the Village Voice, both because of their reputation and because I lived in New York and could grab a copy of the paper each week—sometimes I could even catch a stranger on the train solving the puzzle. The issue in which I debuted had my name on the cover, near a picture of Kanye West. (Kanye still hasn’t published a New York Times puzzle, by the way—it’s been remarkable to see our careers go in different directions.) My run at the Voice ended unceremoniously after six months, when the paper was purchased by libertarian disrupters who fired everyone and cut everything. At times, working with alt-weeklies has been a lesson in the mercenary politics of a journalistic sector on the brink. Refreshingly, however, most of the papers I’ve worked with have been supportive, and have understood the long game of developing a relationship between puzzle editor and solvers, which is all about sowing trust. (If you put in effort, will you be rewarded with a satisfying answer, or will you feel like you could have struggled forever and still been confused? It takes years to convince people your work is worth the elbow grease, and just one slip-up to make them doubt you forever.)
As an outgoing feature creator, it is that relationship that I feel pangs about leaving behind. Yes, I’ll miss the job of writing a regular puzzle, the particular rhythm it gave to the past 500 weeks (!), the way my ears were perpetually open to theme ideas. But far more, I’ll miss setting traps that I knew would be labored over and enjoyed and of course unraveled by you. I’ll miss being able to tell jokes in a voice that felt natural to me, and that resonated through the crossword as a medium. Unlike acting, in which one is always representing a different self (a scenario that seems stressful by comparison), puzzle construction gives you the freedom to inhabit a very comfortable version of yourself. The best evidence that it worked in my case were the emails that asked, for example, if I was Jewish (I am) or if I like music (I do), or that pulled out a clue/answer pair that navigated the exact middle point between conventional trickiness and juvenilia that I personally prefer. I also got an envelope full of dried leaves, specialty puzzle commissions and, once, scanned nude portraits of a solver working a crossword in bed. I’ve had correspondences from several people in prison or recently out, the (purported) inventor of recycling, very minor celebrities, kids, and quite a few octogenarian solvers who apparently enjoy dildo puns.
I felt like I was talking to you from across the room, as one would with a friend. We didn’t need to face each other—that would have been awkwardly formal. Sometimes I got frustrated with the world and wrote a political clue, but I always tried to respect your intelligence and be funny rather than rigid. Sometimes I was wrangling tragedy or sickness or a baby with one hand while filling and typing with the other. Other times I was happy and blissfully undistracted; there are fields (like teaching) where it seems inappropriate to share one’s mood overtly much of the time, but puzzles are conventionally so voiceless that I let my feelings out a bit more, just to do things differently. That was therapeutic, too. I’ll miss the space where we hung out, because I don’t think it can be built again exactly like it stood before. I appreciate that you listened to me and hope I entertained more than frustrated you. I ask you sincerely to keep in touch—firstname.lastname@example.org—with stories and questions and whatever else.
The end of this feature is not quite the end of my life in puzzling. I’ll continue editing the American Values Club crossword, formerly in The Onion and now independent. Editing is less time-consuming than construction, or at least more predictable—creating a theme can take as little as five minutes, or as long as several days, but editing is almost always about a minute per clue. The humor of the American Values Club is similar to Ink Well, and the rotation of constructors is top-flight. Transitioning most of the way from constructing to editing feels like the adult move to make, which might be delusional, but I’ll give it a try anyway. And I’ll still be writing an AVCX puzzle every couple of months. I hope that at least some of those who have enjoyed the free weekly puzzle will follow me to the AVCX. The subscription model is an unfortunate, Brave New Economy alternative to the more public space of urban free weeklies, but until we happen upon a sheikh patron willing to put a down payment on “information wants to be free,” it’s what we’ve got.
Enjoy the final puzzle. Go back to the Google Groups page and tackle several years of old puzzles for free. Sign up for the AVCX. But most of all—since you’ve never seemed like one yet—don’t be a stranger. Thanks for solving.