Robe, Coffee, Crossword
May 5, 2022 § 17 Comments
By Melissa Ballard
Don’t worry. You won’t be asked to remember those three words. This is not part of a cognitive assessment. It’s how I start my mornings: put on my robe, make coffee, and sit on my living room sofa with the newspaper crossword.
I’ve tried doing actual writing first thing in the morning, but I’m not cut out for it. I could barely fill one page with my illegible cursive, much less the three pages suggested by authors like Julia Cameron. When I read the legible bits later in the day, the content showed no promise.
But I do like the idea of waking up while sitting with words. Sometimes I read a poem or an essay while I sip my coffee, but there’s something about holding a mechanical pencil with a good eraser, folding the page of newsprint, reading that first clue, and gradually filling in the blank spaces. This is a luxury I did not have when I worked, so I enjoy it in retirement.
I’ve learned some tricks along the way:
- Start at the beginning but be willing to change course
Sometimes, I read several “across” clues and am stumped. So, I switch to the “down” column. Or I work my way back and forth, building on my completed answers. Sometimes I concentrate on one quadrant at a time.
- Know when it’s time to take a break, switch tasks, change location
If all else fails, I put my crossword on the kitchen table and do other things, like write. I look at it again while I’m eating lunch and, often, I can finish it.
- Give it a second thought
Most words have multiple meanings. They can be used as more than one part of speech or pronounced in more than one way. This morning, for example, I read the clue “Polish prose.” My first thought: “I don’t know a single word of Polish.” I went to the next clue. Later, I came back to “Polish prose,” and remembered the first letter of a clue is always capitalized. I filled in the answer: “edit.”
- Be brave, make mistakes
William Stafford, Mary Tyler Moore, and others have said some version of this. Working with a pencil and a big eraser reminds me to forge ahead. I can always make changes if I need to.
- Celebrate that one word that opens the rest of the puzzle.
Sometimes, I suddenly know an answer I didn’t think I’d ever get, and filling it in allows me to “see” much of the rest of the puzzle. It’s almost magical.
Fun fact: these tricks, or strategies, also work when I’m writing.
Sometimes a clue or an answer will give me an idea for an essay or a new path for a draft, so I write it in the margin of the puzzle. Sometimes I add more words. If I’m really inspired, I’ll scrawl some phrases in the blank journal I keep nearby.
Justifying my morning crossword habit as prewriting rather than procrastination is such a small thing. Yet, if writing has taught me anything, it’s that the small things, the details, matter.
This morning, as I erased my last mistake and finished the puzzle, I wrote “free-for-all” in the margin. A reminder that my writing is never this linear, neat, or easily completed. That I will always have too many “eternal drafts.”
Still, tomorrow morning, I will begin again: robe, coffee, crossword.
Melissa Ballard has written essays for Appalachian Review, the Brevity blog, Full-Grown People and other publications. Her work is forthcoming in Berea College Magazine.