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Confessions of a word nerd and crossword maker
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Confessions of a word nerd and crossword maker
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Confessions of a word nerd and crossword maker
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Articles
11 March 2015

Confessions of a word nerd and crossword maker

David Astle shows us the inner workings of his wild and wonderful mind.

Written by David Astle

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

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I see everything in lower case. Every word has its own shape—that’s important to me. That also means every word has its own handles and levers that you can grab onto and make into other things.

I’ll give you an example. “Didgeridoo,” for me, is one of the most beautiful words in the English language. It sounds like the object and the instrument for one, and it looks like the object and the instrument being played—with the two “d”s as the knuckles and the “g” as the knee. If you look more closely at the word you’ll see it’s got “geri” inside it, which is a Spice Girl, and Geri’s there sitting beside “do” which is a note in the tonic scale. And if you take out “geri” and “do” you’ve got the English singer-songwriter “dido.” Now that’s just music inside music! The word sounds like music, it looks like music, it has music in it! It’s a symphony of shapes!

My daughter’s name is Tess Astle and when you play around with “Tess Astle” you get “tasteless.” Now, I could not believe this when I worked it out three hours after we named her. I thought, Shit, what am I going to do?! I won’t tell her. I’ll never tell her! That’s what I’ll do. Pretend the problem doesn’t exist!

And then when she was about eight, she came back from school and said, “Dad! You wouldn’t believe it! We did anagrams. I’m the only one in the whole school whose name is an anagram!” I was like, “Oh yeah, you know what that is hey?” “Yeah! And guess what!? My name has two! Tasteless and stateless!” I love her to this day that she was so excited her name was an anagram.

Finn, my son, is very articulate but not necessarily wired the same way. I came out of the office one day and said, “Finn, I just made the most amazing discovery!” and he said, “What!? What!?” Because normally when a parent says that it’s like, “We’re gonna be rolling in it!”

My discovery was that if you look at “Klingon”, which is an artificial language, and you take away the first and last letters, you get “lingo.” And Klingon is a lingo! So it’s the only word in the English language that can lose its head and tail to define itself. And Finn, when he heard this, he went, “So what’s for tea dad? Steak again?”

I’ve always worked with words: in journalism, advertising, I’ve written books. But it’s the crosswords that really let me play with words the way I see them. I’ve always got a lot of joy from wordplay, ever since I was a kid. Mum was disturbed. She thought I needed professional help.

I actually find puzzle-making meditative, because you’ve got this grid that’s blank and you can try to control it but ultimately the grid ends up controlling you. You’ve just got to give yourself over to it. It’s the same as writing a story. You might have this perfect idea in your head, but when you start to write it the characters bitch and moan about how they’re being treated and they say, “Look that’s just not right!” So you need to fully immerse yourself in the puzzle or the story and then step back and feel the music so that when you’re ready to launch in again you get the tempo right and the pieces fit.

I love the torture of working on a hard word puzzle. You know when you’ve got a writer you love because they always deliver, but they don’t always deliver on time? If it’s Neil Gaiman for example, and you think, I know what’s going to happen, but then it doesn’t happen? You’re not disappointed because you trust Neil Gaiman. It’s the same with doing a puzzle. If you’re not progressing, but you trust the setter, that’s ok. Because there’s joy to be had in persevering with someone you trust. Jonathan Franzen, who’s a crossword maniac, he calls it the al dente difference—you look for a meal that requires chewing. You don’t want something that slips down the throat. You want something that can be enjoyed, slowly. Savoured.

To be a setter means you need to be solvable. That’s the relationship. You can’t be impossible. It’s the same as a piñata. The best piñatas take some hearty whacks from every kid three times and then the lollies go everywhere. Bad piñata: every kid is exhausted and there’s this paper mache pig still swinging around.

My wife and I worked at the same publishing house in our twenties, but we didn’t get on initially because I’m very chatty and she was in charge of deadlines. But you know what connected us? She had no idea that I made crosswords, and she was having a bit of a glum weekend and turned to the crossword for some joy. Three days later she saw on my desk the original matrix of that crossword. And she said, “What’s that doing on your desk?” She had this kind of goose-fleshy moment. And I said, “Well, I make crosswords.” And she was staggered. “You made that crossword!? ‘Head banger’ was my favourite clue!”

And we suddenly realised, despite being kind of daytime enemies, like Itchy and Scratchy in the office, we had this beautiful symphony that was waiting to connect. So my crossword actually did my first line for me! And the clue was “head banger.” I’m indebted to that for the rest of my life. I imagine my sense of humour has probably worn thin after 23 years but she still does my crossword to this day, the sweetheart.

David Astle

David Astle is a full-time word nerd. He makes crosswords for two Australian newspapers, writes a regular wordplay column and once hosted the cult television show, Letters and Numbers. He’s also written a bunch of books where he gets his word geek on in no small way. When we chatted with David earlier this year at the Melbourne Writers Festival, we found ourselves smiling so much our faces hurt. He sees words as others see images, set in a landscape of wild imagination. This article is a write-up of that conversation.

Feature image by Amandine Thomas

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