Not many puzzle editors are recognizable enough to voice cameo as themselves on The Simpsons. Yet in the 2008 episode “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words,” Will Shortz did just that.
The New York Times crossword puzzle editor since 1993 and NPR puzzlemaster on Weekend Edition Sunday since 1987, Shortz is unquestionably America’s most famous current creator and editor of crosswords, puzzles, and other brainteasers.
On a personal level, ever since the quarantine year of 2020 when I began regularly attempting the NYT Sunday crossword on a weekly basis, Shortz has had a hand in providing me (at minimum) hundreds of hours of enjoyment. By the time it will all be said and done, he’ll probably have given me thousands of hours of enjoyment.
Turns out he had this all planned out from the start.
As a 13-year-old in January 1966, Shortz completed a class assignment to write a short essay about becoming an adult. Signing his name with the now-unrecognizable “William Shortz,” he wrote of his desire to become a professional puzzlemaker someday.
Shortz tells A Step in the Write Direction:
In the 8th grade, when asked to write a paper about becoming an adult, I inscribed about 200 words on the subject “Puzzles as a Profession.” I’d already decided by age 13 that that’s what I wanted to do with my life.
The teacher gave me a B+. In retrospect, that might sound funny considering that I’ve gone on to a successful career in puzzles. However, in the teacher’s defense, the assignment had been to write about becoming an adult, not what career we wanted. So for a competent essay that didn’t quite follow the assignment, I’d say a B+ was about right.
Copied below is both an image and a transcribed version of Shortz’s 1966 school paper. Note the teacher’s comments along the left-hand margin in red pen: “I thought you would connect this to the topic: becoming an adult. Obviously, you did not understand me.”
Puzzles as a Profession
I have always liked puzzles and I have planned to write a book of puzzles. I have read about people that make puzzles and it sounds like an interesting profession. People that make them would have plenty of leisure time.
I have made many types of word-puzzles and brainteasers. I have also made crossword puzzles and other types already invented. I own three brain-teaser books, eight crossword puzzle books, and three puzzle magazines.
In Newsweek, there was an article about Dmitri Alfred Borgmann, a man that makes and works many kinds of puzzles. For instance, he makes anagram, pangrams, palindromes, word squares, crossword puzzles, crostics, and many other kinds. He has many references: dictionaries in many different languages, encyclopedias, books full of names, and others. He makes a substantial income and, I suppose, has a lot of fun.
An article in Time Magazine tells about a man in Illinois that has a race, using puzzles as clues. First prize last year was an eighty-nine cent treasure chest full of pennies and plastic chips.
For starting a profession of making puzzles, you wouldn’t need much money. All you would need is paper, pencils, clipboard, maybe a desk, a dictionary, encyclopedias, and an odd assortment of other things.
Making puzzles is a great life from my point of view — easy life, fun, and leisurely.
Find the daily New York Times crossword which Shortz edits here, and Shortz’s weekly Sunday “verbal puzzles” on NPR here.