dental hygiene

Becoming a real writer is like growing up and going to the dentist.

When I was a kid, going to the dentist was about enforced suffering. Being gifted, as I was, with bad(ish) teeth, and a propensity to bring those teeth into regular contact with as much sugar as I could find, I spent a fair bit of time lying back and being mangled by those sadistic dental monsters with their cold, gleaming instruments of torture.

Although it was torture, it was also in some ways easier back then, because I had parents making me go. There was an inevitability to it.

Nowadays, though, no one is making me do it. I have to willingly pick up the phone and set a date with dental destiny, and then I have to drive myself there and willingly plop myself down so the smiling dentists with their perfect, gleaming white teeth can have their way with me. No one will scold me if I don't, and the only consequence for procrastination is the possibility of greater problems further on.

It's sort of the same with writing.

When I was younger, other people made me write and then, when I'd given them my writing, they told me if it was acceptable by assigning me a grade that determined, for all to see, my writing's relative suckiness. I had the choice to ignore what they'd taught me and to ignore their assignments all together - but there were immediate consequences.

Now, however, no one makes me write, and there is no one to grade my papers. What is more, my writing still kind of sucks. As any writer worth his or her beans will tell you, there aren't really many good writers out there - just good re-writers.

That's where the dentist comes in. There are few things quite so unpleasant as the attempt to attack your own writing with the detached honesty of a high school English teacher. This is because good re-writing forces you to attack your very self, to repeatedly come to what you thought was your best representation of yourself and rip it to shreds - to root out all your failures and weaknesses and self-deceptions, exposing them to the cold light of your best editorial instincts.

The capacity to ignore problems is endless, because it hurts to admit to weakness. It is way easier to stuff a suspicion of failure and gloss over the problems in a bit of writing than it is to take out the red pen and slash away at your creation with first a chainsaw, then a hacksaw, and then a scalpel. And no one is making you do it.

Here's the really bad part, though: it doesn't get any easier.

Well, let me qualify that: it does get easier, but only if you continue to follow all the same paths you have before - to find a formula that worked once and continuously re-apply it to every situation. These sorts of posts, for example, get easier for me, because I have written them many times before. But formula is the death of Art. It is stagnation. So instead of sticking with this formula, I write my Fiction Fridays, attempting as I do to tell stories in new and interesting ways - to risk, with every paragraph, the distinct possibility of utter failure.

In my other writing time I am attempting, as well, to break into screenwriting. Partially, I think, because filmic fiction can be radically new and different every time, and partially because it's just something I really suck at. I write a screenplay and once again am confronted point-blank with my own laziness and fear - my tendency to mistake wordplay for wisdom and cleverness for truth.

Yesterday, I made myself go to the dentist and act pleasant while the man in the pale green mask ground off a significant amount of my dentalbone and attached a temporary crown. Believe it or not, it hurt a little (although definitely not as much, I am told, as the root canal I'll most likely be getting in another week or so). When he was finished, though, I felt great. I had made a hard choice for a better future. I was king of the world (at least, until the Novocaine wore off).

Honesty is difficult. It is difficult to tell the truth about yourself, to yourself. It is also, I think, the beginning of wisdom. So pick up a pencil, today, and write. And then, more importantly, re-write.


Note: Sometimes I don't want to do the hard work of honest self-examination, so I send incomplete, first-draft garbage off to be read by other people. This is selfish, irresponsible, dishonest and lazy. If I have done this to you in the past, you have my apologies.


  1. I am following your journey with admiration. I find your post script note needlessly self-effacing however; it is very common for writers, famous or not, to share their unfinished writing with those whose opinions they trust. Five off the top of my pointy head: Tolkien, CS Lewis, Hemingway, Kerouac, King - but there are many more.

  2. Thanks, Mark. It's not like I feel like I can't show something imperfect to someone else... that would be delusional, I think. It's just that sometimes I do it because although I know, subconsciously, that I've not yet made it as good as I can without help, I'm either too lazy or too scared to get on with it. I don't like reading bad writing, myself, so why would I subject my friends to it?

  3. Ha, I know what you mean. I can identify with the too lazy too scared sentiment.


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