In a Word: Backpocket Crosswords

Jigsaw Java puzzle demonstration

I stood before the audience at Jigsaw Java in Redwood City and asked, “Can anyone give me an eight-letter word?”

“You mean any eight-letter word?”

“Yes. Just pick one — out of the air.”

Someone shouted, “I-L-L-S-P-E-N-T,” and I wrote it in the appropriate space on the blank crossword puzzle I created and drew on a large whiteboard.

I heard a woman whisper, “Are we talking about your childhood?” We all laughed.

I continued, “Now, give me a four-letter word where the third letter is “I.”


Little by little, word by word, this audience of mostly seniors worked with me to fill in the puzzle. I wondered out loud, “Shall we continue, or have you had enough?”

“Yes, let’s go on!” they eagerly replied.

After about an hour, we finished the puzzle — with 58 “across” and 52 “down” words — and the group burst into applause. Their faces reflected pride, joy, and intellectual stimulation — feelings that had possibly been missing from their lives. One woman was about 80 years old and blind, but she was the best in the bunch; I watched in fascination because she kept it all in her head.


As long as I can remember, my favorite hobby has been making crossword puzzles. I enjoy every aspect of them: designing symmetrical grids, filling in words, and making up clues. The idea to publish a puzzle book began at an outdoor music festival while I was listening to the music and working on a puzzle. Before long, a crowd gathered, asked me questions about what I was doing, and wanted to help!

In 2004, I created and published Backpocket Crosswords: Handmade Puzzles — a collection of 24 handmade (not computer-generated) crossword puzzles with common words and user-friendly clues. During the production of this book, I happily cruised the Internet to craft clues, and generated an index to check that no clue was repeated, even though the same word may have been used in several puzzles.

I dedicated the puzzle book to the Radiology Oncology Department at Seton Medical Center in Daly City. While my husband Tom and I waited for his radiation treatments, we — and others in the waiting room — worked on the clues, which seemed to calm our nerves, raise our spirits, and even get a couple of laughs.

When I do crossword puzzle demonstrations, like the one at Jigsaw Java, I see the pride light up in the eyes of my audience. They tell me they never thought they could actually make a puzzle, but the proof is on the whiteboard in front of them.

© 2010 Joanne Shwed

Photo courtesy of Thomas A. Ekkens

Originally written for CoastViews magazine

Click here to order Backpocket Crosswords: Handmade Puzzles and other Backspace Ink publications.