That’s the consensus of my dentist and her assistant, Marie. I had my annual check-up this morning. I walked into the office with heavy steps, carrying all the dread and trepidation that had been percolating since my last visit. Had I not already been flat on my back when she said it, Marie could have sent me there with her verdict: “Everything looks great. Teeth are fine, gums are healthy.” I expected something else. I expected her to say, “I’m sorry, you’ll be losing all your teeth sometime in the next three weeks. Enjoy these last few days of chewing.”
I left feeling squeaky clean and forgiven all over, much the way I imagine the Israelites felt late on the afternoon of Yom Kippur when they all trudged home from the annual sacrifice. “Ah–a clean slate! Look at how bright and unblemished we are!”
Kept running my tongue over my slippery whites, you know, the way we all do right after that vicious buffing. For a short time I considered not eating again–ever–just to keep that clean surface clean. But then I got a hankering for bacon. You know what hankerings do to convictions.
While on that examining chair/bed, staring at the cartoons taped to the ceiling and trying hard not to apologize to Marie for every Milky Way bar and bowl of Chocolate-Peanut Butter ice cream I’d consumed over the last year, I tried to distract myself with a deep thought. But I couldn’t find one, so instead I began comparing writing and dentistry.
Here’s what I came up with:
When you bring a piece of writing before the eyes of a judge, or, better yet, let’s say judges, such as a group of six very experienced female writers (okay, I’m talking about my critique group here), it’s very much like setting yourself before a dentist’s x-ray machine. The first task of a critique group is to take a wide shot of your work and look for cracks and glaring holes that need filling. In other words, they scan for decay.
After that initial assessment, they probe. They take their long, sharp, pointy red Bic pens and circle every weak spot in your work. If need be, if you’ve been very bad and overindulged in sugary adjectives and such, probing leads to drilling and extraction. Without mercy, but with plenty of murmuring about how “we wouldn’t do this if we didn’t love you,” they chop big chunks and phrases and favorite words.
Just when you think you can’t handle another poke, the excavation stops and the polishing begins. Here there are no sharp instruments, just gentle suggestions about redundancies and word choice.
And for good critiquees, sometimes there’s a treat at the end. Sometimes, you hear, “This made me cry,” or “Powerful,” or “I love your style.” And that’s the most shocking of all, because you really expected to hear, “We’re sorry, but your writing days are over.”
I’d like to write more on this subject, and perhaps another time I’ll revisit this topic and elaborate. But right now I feel an urgency to go floss–and re-check all the adjectives in my current chapter.