Soleil Saint-Cyr ’21 Sheds Light on Journey to The New York Times

Student Council President Soleil Saint-Cyr ’21 has always had an affinity for thinking outside the box. In eighth grade, her love of sudoku quickly blossomed into a passion for crosswords, as she began solving The New York Times’ free puzzles. Once her seven-day free trial of their full puzzles expired, Saint-Cyr begged her parents for a full-time subscription to access The New York Times’ crossword—known as the puzzle to solve in the crossword community.

Fortunately, her parents relented, allowing Saint-Cyr to solve puzzles to her heart’s content. Although her calendar is packed during the school year, Saint-Cyr tries to solve crosswords as often as she can, describing them as a “welcome distraction from stressful assignments and activities.” She currently completes puzzles from two main sources: The New Yorker and The New York Times. The New Yorker’s puzzles are more relevant in pop-culture references, whereas The New York Times features classic clues.

The Times’ puzzles are published in order of difficulty, with the puzzles increasing in difficulty from Monday onward. “I can finish a Monday or Tuesday puzzle in under ten minutes, so I use them as a study break. With a Friday or Saturday puzzle, though, I often sit there working through it for over an hour,” Saint-Cyr explained.

Saint-Cyr is drawn to crosswords, in part, because she finds joy in learning new words and their applications in the real world. One particularly memorable puzzle focused on “trompe l’oeil”—an art technique that takes on the form of an optical illusion—piqued her interest, prompting her to launch a quick Google search on the technique.

Three weeks later, Saint-Cyr found herself in an art workshop, in which employees held up a painting and asked if anyone knew what art form the painting featured. She eagerly responded, “Trompe l’oeil,” much to the surprise of every employee. “I was taken aback that I could do something so random in my free time, while still learning practical knowledge and fun facts in the process,” she said.

As Saint-Cyr delved deeper into the crossword community, she began to read Word Play, The New York Times crossword column, when an announcement caught her eye. Crossword aficionado Ross Trudeau, a constructor whose puzzles have appeared in several notable news sources, encouraged aspiring, typically underrepresented crossword constructors to reach out to him for instruction. Saint-Cyr, stuck in quarantine during summer break, decided to take advantage of this opportunity and begin exploring the world of constructing.

After direct messaging Trudeau on Twitter, the two scheduled a Zoom meeting in which Trudeau walked Saint-Cyr through the process of constructing and editing a puzzle. As she listened to Trudeau’s pointers, she developed a newfound appreciation for constructors’ dedication to their unique craft. “People really put a lot of time and energy into these puzzles—they don’t just haphazardly throw words in there,” she said.

The process of constructing a crossword, Saint-Cyr explained, is tedious. She first picks a theme and chooses a few key words as the starting point for her puzzle. Saint-Cyr then determines the shape of her puzzle and utilizes CrossFire, a powerful constructor software, which tells her possible word choices for a given row or column. She then selects each word based on the clues she has in mind, the theme of the puzzle, and its level of difficulty.

Once she has settled on the basic layout of the puzzle, Saint-Cyr faces the most challenging aspect of constructing: clues. “Clueing often relies on being humorous, having a lot of random knowledge, like quotes, and exercising creativity,” she said. From pop culture references and celebrities, to definitions and locations, the clues she incorporates into her puzzles truly run the gamut, enabling her to construct crosswords that are engaging to solve.

In August 2020, Saint-Cyr collaborated with Trudeau on her first puzzle, a Chadwick Boseman tribute piece. Boseman had just passed away, so it was imperative that the puzzle be completed in a timely manner for publication in The New York Times. While Trudeau came up with the terms and configuration of the crossword, Saint-Cyr was tasked with creating clues in just three days. The title of the crossword, “Wakanda Forever,” comes from the movie Black Panther, in which Boseman played the starring role of T’Challa, the Black Panther and king of Wakanda—a fictional African nation. Several clues in the puzzle highlighted Boseman’s accomplishments and widespread impact, but Saint-Cyr also brainstormed unique clues to highlight other important public figures, including Gladys West and Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

While the Boseman puzzle was not published in the Times, Saint-Cyr continued working with Trudeau, who posted one of the crosswords the two created on Twitter. The puzzle caught the attention of New York Times Associate Crossword Editor Wyna Liu, and she proceeded to contact Saint-Cyr via direct message, offering her the opportunity to be a part of the Times’ Black Constructors’ Week.

When designing her puzzle, Saint-Cyr invested considerable time in developing thought-provoking clues that would shed light on black history in a meaningful manner. “Crosswords are a very important part of history; they were actually popularized in World War II so that people would have something to do in the newspaper that wasn’t so depressing, so I made sure to [discuss the] black experience as a greater part of the American vernacular.”

One way in which Saint-Cyr achieved this goal was utilizing fairly common words to describe or allude to an aspect of black history. She included a Malcolm X quote—“Early in life, I had learned that if you want something, you had better MAKE some noise”—as a clue for the word “Make.” “Make,” a common four-letter word, can be described any number of ways, but Saint-Cyr chose to place it in the context of civil rights activism by way of Malcolm X’s quote.

Saint-Cyr did not solely include black historical figures such as Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks for the overt desire to educate people. Rather, she “integrate[d] black people, history, and culture into [her] puzzles to show that these figures and their contributions to American life deserve to be, and should be, common knowledge.” she said. “This is information [one] should know—not only as a person who solves crossword puzzles, but also as an American citizen.”

Finding a theme for The New York Times puzzle proved to be a challenge, so Saint-Cyr called Trudeau to brainstorm. “At some point during our call he said the phrase ‘hive mind,’ and I thought ‘Huh, that’s a fun phrase,’” she said. “Hive mind,” a term derived from the collective consciousness in beehives, inspired her to make the theme of the puzzle “hive,” which is alluded to in certain terms like “homecoming QUEEN,” “essential WORKER,” and “DRONE.” Upon completing the first draft of the puzzle, Liu and Saint-Cyr sat on Zoom for hours making revisions, preparing for publication in the February 1 issue.

Saint-Cyr hopes that by being both a black constructor and the youngest woman to ever have a puzzle published in The New York Times, she can invite a diverse group of people into this niche community.

“The number of texts I’ve gotten saying ‘Hey, I’m really interested in doing this, how do I get started?’ has been amazing. Showing not only black people, but also young people and women, that they too can contribute in this space, is very significant and meaningful to me.” Saint-Cyr said.

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