Notre Dame sophomore to have crossword published in The New York Times
Kelli Smith | Friday, September 27, 2019
Jack Mowat loves crossword puzzles.
A Notre Dame sophomore from Omaha, Nebraska, Mowat grew up bent over puzzle after puzzle with his grandmother. They started with word searches, but once Mowat was old enough to advance to crosswords, the duo discovered a new passion.
So when Mowat received an email this June informing him his own crossword puzzle would be published in this Friday’s edition of one of America’s largest newspapers, Mowat couldn’t control his excitement.
“All of a sudden I saw that and I was like, ‘Oh my god, oh my god,’” Mowat said. “So I showed my whole family and then took a screenshot and texted all my friends. I was like, ‘This is it.’”
Mowat said the New York Times informed him three months ago about the decision, but he was only just recently told about the exact date it’ll be printed.
“It was crazy,” he said. “It was crazy.”
True to his childhood, Mowat brought his love of crosswords to Notre Dame his freshman year, solving every day’s New York Times puzzle with his roommate and hanging them, completed, on their wall.
“My friends all knew that I was a fanatic,” he said.
He transitioned from avid solver to “constructor” one year ago, he remembered, after stumbling upon a New York Times article meant to teach others the basics behind it.
“I dove in and I made my first puzzle [and sent it in],” he said. “… It takes about four months for [the New York Times] to let you know by email. But … a couple weeks after my first one they were like, ‘this is no good’ and it did get rejected.”
Mowat’s first published piece happened a few months later, after he found a mentorship program that paired him with veteran constructor Jeff Chen. They collaborated on a puzzle that was eventually picked up by the Wall Street Journal.
But Mowat was set on one mission.
“When I picked [the New York Times article] up last year, I kind of set the goal for myself,” Mowat said. “I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to get a puzzle in the New York Times. I’m going to do this. This is going to be fun, I love doing this.’ But I didn’t think I’d be sitting here a year later like, ‘OK, I’m in the Wall Street Journal and here’s my [New York] Times debut.’ It’s just — it’s been absolutely wild.”
Despite the initial struggles Mowat faced — he sent the New York Times multiple crosswords over the last year, all of which were rejected — he said the final puzzle, which he created solo, only took him “about two weeks.”
“Some of it is luck, especially with themeless puzzles,” he said. “And that’s one of the things that Jeff Chen had told me … a lot of this was learning how to have that gut feeling and be like ‘this is not going to work.’”
The process of creating a puzzle is “very iterative,” he said.
“You sit down and there’s three to four parts, depending on whether you’re building a themeless puzzle or themed puzzle,” Mowat said. “… [Then] you’re like, OK, here’s my idea. OK, here’s an entry. Here’s a couple more entries. Am I satisfied with these — what’s my strongest, what’s my weakest entry? You know, going over that, again and again, then moving on to the grid.”
The creative part is trying to give people an “aha moment” through the cleverness of his word choice and clues, he noted, which is what he finds hardest.
“It’s kind of like digging for gold — this giant expanse of all the different possibilities and words that could fit into that specific grid,” Mowat said.
A civil engineering major, building crosswords has translated into Mowat’s academic life as well, with a variety of skills crossing over between his two passions.
“[With crossword constructing] I have this final product, and I feel good about it,” Mowat said. “… It’s like civil engineering for me. You start building, design the building, that whole process happens. The building gets built. There it is. I’m proud of this thing. That’s what lives in me, that’s what I like doing.”
Mowat said the acceptance rate for getting a crossword published in the New York Times is around 7%, with the publication receiving about “125 submissions a day.”
“I’m a little nervous [about Friday], yeah,” he said. “I want people to enjoy — I want people to do the puzzle and finish the Friday puzzle. Because a lot of people really love themeless puzzles … I want them to do it, and as they’re doing it, finish and go, ‘That was a good puzzle.’ Because I do that.”
Beyond Friday, however, he said he’ll “definitely” continue constructing crosswords — all with the dream of becoming like one of his favorite constructors, with more than 50 puzzles published in the New York Times.
“I don’t think I have the gift that some of them have, but I have the will,” Mowat said. “I have the love of it. So hopefully I’ll be able to keep this as a hobby, have a number of puzzles published and just kind of be part of that.”