Calculus and Writing

“How often do you floss?”

I squirmed in the chair under the hygienist’s direct gaze. I wanted to lie and save face. Instead I said, “Um, not very often.” After all, wasn’t the answer already obvious when she peered in my open mouth? It’s not like she was blind.

“You have a calculus build up,” she said, as if her question had been a trick one.

While I had visions of vectors in my head (and perhaps they were in yours when you saw the title of this post), she said, “You wouldn’t have a calculus build up if you flossed regularly and came for regular cleanings.”


I shrugged as much as I could while reclining on a thin chair with a dental pick in my mouth. Since I don’t have dental insurance, paying for regular cleanings fell by the wayside in favor of things like, oh say, paying rent, car insurance, and buying the occasional groceries.

But if I had had those cleanings or flossed, perhaps I wouldn’t have been stuck in that chair for an hour while the hygienist scraped and poked and tsked and muttered about mesial this or buccal that, and her assistant worked the suction hose and called out numbers as if we were at the deli counter at the grocery store. It wouldn’t have hurt as much, certainly.

The hygienist’s statement—“You have a calculus build up”—got me to thinking about writing.

Raise your hand if you think the hygienist represents an editor or a beta reader who pokes and prods at your manuscript and tsk-tsk-tsks over every plot hole or problem that requires fixing.

Good, good. I see those hands. Now raise your hand if you think the hygienist represents your inner editor, the one who constantly worries over every word, and criticizes you if you fall short of perfection.

Okay. You can put your hands down now. No, really, you can. Either way seems valid. Neither crossed my mind while I sat in that chair. Instead, I thought this: Owwww!

When I returned home, however, my thoughts turned to writing. And I drew this conclusion from the experience: If I fall out of the habit of writing each day, I have to work hard to scrape the words on to the page once I finally sit down to do so. But by then, I have a fear build up. Statements like, This isn’t good enough or I’ll never finish this run through my mind, and a layer of discouragement mixes with the fear to weaken my writing muscle. (Yes, I know that’s a mixed metaphor, but the next paragraph will help it make sense. 🙂 If you really need the dental metaphor to continue, feel free to substitute tooth for muscle.)

Getting rid of the fear build up takes great effort. But when I regularly write, even when I don’t feel like it, I don’t sense that fear. Instead, I sense the words building up. It’s like exercising a muscle as they say.

What do you do to keep your writing muscle limber? How do you fight against the fear build up? Do you regularly floss?

(Okay, the last question was probably a head scratcher, because it was a nosy one. You don’t have to answer it. But I felt obligated to ask, based on my experience. If you’re not regularly flossing, do yourself a favor and build up the habit. If I have to floss, you do too.)


Dentist chair from; dental floss picks from

34 thoughts on “Calculus and Writing

  1. This post made me chuckle. Of course you didn’t think about it until later … how could anybody think about writing while sitting IN the dentist’s chair? That’s madness…. I guess I keep my calculus from building up by writing in my blog most every day. It seems to do the trick, some basic maintenance in between real work, ie … the root canals. 😉

    • Ah, true. Flossing = blogging. Yes. And unfortunately I have to return to the dentist, due to three cavities. I’m sure there is an analogy in there somewhere.

      But keep up the good work! And I hope you’re feeling better.

  2. When I face the blank page, the inspiration and ‘need’ to let my poem emerge on the page is making my hand almost vibrate with energy, so I have to write. There is no fear.
    Thanks for a great post!

    • Thank you! I wish I felt my head vibrate like that. Well, it vibrated yesterday while I sat under the hygienist’s drill. But I know what you mean: the hum of inspiration. I can see the results in your poetry.

  3. Excellent post! I find that writing every day does help. but I still get the build-up when it’s time to edit.

    On a side note, I love getting my teeth cleaned. Even when my gums get scraped. I don’t enjoy pain, but I DO enjoy a clean mouth. Yeah, I have to get on scheduling that, it’s been more than a year…

    • I grinned at people a lot yesterday as I traveled about. They probably thought I was weird. But I wanted them to see the hygienist’s handiwork. So, I’m with you there, Kate. But usually, you have to threaten my life to get me to go anywhere near a dentist.

      Glad you’re writing regularly and also flossing. 🙂 I thought of you as I wrote this post, because you have a lot of projects and goals, and your projects seem to spur other projects. That’s awesome.

  4. I remember the time I had regular dentist visits. That seemed to stop when I got my own insurance and realized dental is not always covered. Not like teeth are important or anything.

    I find this analogy funny because the person who showed me the ropes of self-publishing is the husband of a dental assistant in the office that I see when I can afford to.

    • You made me laugh out loud, Charles, because I suddenly pictured this woman as that person in your dentist’s office. Perhaps she moves from place to place, lecturing people about flossing as she goes. She’s like Mary Poppins, only she carries an arsenal of dental picks.

  5. I do not floss regularly, but I do write every day. A really great metaphor for writing. I never thought about it that way. Maybe it will make me floss more often. Ha.

    • And I appreciate the fact that you write daily, Andra. In fact, I’ll be heading over to your blog pretty soon. 🙂

      I wish I could say the experience has made me change my flossing ways. Perhaps it has, since I flossed last night. But we’ll see. 😉

  6. Comparing writing to my dental hygiene is an uncomfortable, but pretty darn accurate, metaphor. I think we are what we do every day, so if I want to be a writer, then I have to write every day. If I want to have good teeth, then I need to be good to them every day. As for the flossing, ugh!!

    • I think the hygienist will wind up a character in one of my books. I haven’t decided which. Probably one yet to be written. But I did kind of feel sorry for her. She scraped for a good hour. (Um, sorry about those of you with weak stomachs. This is not a pretty topic.)

  7. I neglect my teeth so my dentist is always shocked to find them in perfect condition (genetically lucky)

    I neglect my writing (constantly) so my inner editor is never surprised when I can’t find the words.

    Must try better, I wouldn’t mind disappointing my dentist but I don’t like disappointing myself!

  8. Fantastic analogy! I have to say I don’t write every day – I know I should but life gets in the way. With me it’s not really fear that gets me, rather it’s apathy, a sort of lethargy and sometimes I have to force myself to write. It amounts to the same thing though – writing doesn’t get done.

    • Thank you, Elaine. And I know what you mean about life getting in the way. That certainly happens. And sometimes discouragement gets in my way and I turn to the balm of videogames. But I hear you!

  9. I love this! I do floss regularly, although I use picks that make it much easier and they have fluoride on them. Despite the fact that I take good care of my teeth, I still have dreams where my teeth are falling out. I try to write as much as I floss. 🙂

    • Hi, Jill. I’ve never had the dream where my teeth fell out, but I’ve heard others say they’ve had it. I um hope I floss and write more in the future.

      I enjoyed your post on skating and pacing. It was nice to remember my skating days. 🙂 But I’ve also been thinking about the pace of my novels, so I was glad to read that post.

      • I have a tendency to grind my teeth while sleeping. My dentist said that’s probably what causes me to dream my teeth are falling out. It’s a freaky dream! 🙂

        I’m glad I was able to bring back some good memories of skating. Thanks for popping over!

      • I also grind my teeth. It’s strange that I haven’t had that losing teeth dream. Instead, I’ve had the dreams where my car was stolen. *shrugs*

  10. Love, love this! Thanks for brightening my day. My favorite: I shrugged as much as I could while reclining on a thin chair with a dental pick in my mouth. HA. HA. HA. It cracks me up how many questions they can ask you with all kinds of things stuck in your mouth.

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