Facebook message from Mary: Jeff, I feel an urge to write. Can you help me or recommend someone else who can? She recently lost someone—a shocking, heart-wrenching, premature death. Writing helps corral her thoughts.
Flattering. Mary thinks I’m a writer. I responded with an email: I’m happy to pass on what I know—the basics. Here is the most basic “basic”. Show don’t tell. Don’t tell me you brushed your teeth, but paint a picture of the toothbrushing. If it’s important for me to know that you brushed your teeth, if you think it’s worthwhile to mention, show me what it looked like.
Brushing teeth, where did I get that? Later, it occurred to me that I’ve probably never read a passage in a book about toothbrushing in my life. Why? Because it’s dull. In Will Ferrell’s dramedy Stranger than Fiction, he wakes up one day to find a voice narrating his life. Will’s character, an IRS accountant, is possibly the most boring human alive. In the movie, the narrator-voice describes him carefully brushing his teeth. I’m sure the writers picked toothbrushing because it’s the most boring activity they could conjure up.
A couple of years ago, during a training seminar, Anne Gingerich, the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations went around the room asking everyone if they rinse their toothbrush before or after they load it with toothpaste. People, proud of their tribe, joyfully shouted out their allegiance.
The room was split, about fifty-fifty. Me? I’m all over the place—before, after, sometimes both. Often, I don’t even wet the brush. I just jam it in my mouth dry and scrape away at my teeth with gummy paste. I don’t remember what point Anne was trying to make, but I remember she made toothbrushing fun. After responding to Mary, I wondered if I could do that too.
From my earliest memories, I mangle toothbrushes. I flatten down the bristles leaving them splayed, looking as twisted and matted as a dreadlocked crewcut. It takes me about two weeks to completely ruin a toothbrush. Then I start a new one. I googled the lifespan of a toothbrush—three to four months, they say. In that amount of time, I kill a large family of them.
Through my young adult years, while brushing, I frequently chomped down on the bristles between my molars. I chewed as I continued the push and pull motion. No, I don’t know why I did this. I have Tourette Syndrome; that makes me do all sorts of odd things, but I don’t know if this was one of them. Regardless, it was out of my control. The bristles fell out in my mouth, and sometimes even wedged between teeth. I flossed after brushing to free them.
My chomping days are over, my toothbrush no longer falls apart, but they don’t last any longer than they used to. I haven’t analyzed my brushing technique to see where I err. I just grab a new brush from the stash below the vanity and start over.
Except for every three to four months, I’m the only one who touches these brushes, so only I know when we run out. But I only ever think about it when I’m brushing, never when I’m browsing the aisles at Rite Aid, restocking my supply of Lindt dark chocolate bars with a touch of sea salt. I’ll use the final toothbrush in the pack weeks longer than I should, the plastic scraping my enamel and jabbing my gums as I try to clean my teeth with a spent toothbrush. The only time I get new brushes is when Susan hears me grumbling about my tired toothbrush and she adds it to the shopping list.
Is this what I think Mary should write about? And maybe how she tries to multitask while brushing and walks out to the kitchen to start the dishwasher, but then panics when she leaves the sink, and her gag-reflex kicks in (oh wait, that’s also me).
I think my point is there’s a story lurking under every stone, for every topic. Don’t be afraid to follow these tangents and connect far-flung dots. They help the reader understand the person you are. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.
Now envision a professor with a red pen getting ready to attack this essay. “No,” he’ll scream, “keep to the effing point!” Maybe Mary should find someone else to ask.
Image by Miles Batty—it has nothing to do with this story but I thought it was incredibly creative. I would never be able to grab a handful of leaves and turn them into a gradient rainbow. My mind doesn’t work like that. I knew Miles as a quiet, shy, seemingly insecure kid when we both worked at Shakey’s Pizza in the seventies. Now he’s wildly popular and a respected author in the Wicca community. It’s neat how people grow.