How Something Growing in My Jaw Taught Me to Write

That day, thirty-three years ago, started with the dental hygienist from hell and ended with a date for surgery.

It had been a few years since I had gotten my teeth properly cleaned, thanks to being a graduate student and not having a dentist or dental insurance, but I don’t think that excused the sadistic, almost gleeful torture by the hygienist. She managed to jab every bit of sore gum, and if I complained, she jabbed harder. When the dentist, a friendly resident at the medical school, examined me, he was blissfully nice. Rather calmly he expressed interest in a lump in my jawbone and suggested a panoramic x-ray—and since I am a curious person with great interest in pictures of my insides, I asked to see it. I was a little late for lunch, but there aren’t that many opportunities to see your own bones, and he promised it would take less than five minutes.

Twenty minutes later I asked the receptionist about the x-ray, and she went to remind him. Almost immediately an excited little dentist rushed out waving the x-ray. There was a huge, white splotch in the middle of my transparent jawbone, and this is Not Normal. Could I go over to Oral Surgery with him right after lunch? Meet him at the elevator at 1:00? He had to show this to his friend.

Of. Course. Yes. I went and gobbled down my lunch.


The thing about medical stories is that everyone wants to know the details. One can’t just say, “I had a jaw tumor” without everyone asking if it was cancer and what happened and then and so on. And when one has just suffered a medical story, it’s hard not to disgorge all the details, even the little ones that add nothing to the story. If one’s mind has not processed the experience, it’s all one can do. But somewhere along the fifteenth recitation, it hits one that this is a boring story. Most people will tell the story with less and less details, ending up with a bit of shrug – “I had surgery for a Giant Cell Granuloma. Non-cancerous.”

But I had the sense that this story was exceptional, and that I just needed to tell it better. Drop the boring details. Highlight the drama. Bring out the unexpected humor.


The dentist was excited when I met him at the elevator, and we went up to the Oral Surgery floor. He left me in the crowded waiting room while he went to show the x-ray to the Chief Oral Surgery Resident. A moment later two excited little doctors came running out. The Oral Surgeon held the x-ray up to the ceiling lights and pronounced, “It’s not likely cancer, but it is, it likely hasn’t spread. Can you come back for a biopsy?”

Of, of, of, yes?

While they prepped me for the biopsy, which involved sticking a very large needle into the jawbone behind my last molar, every single surgeon in the department came into the room to look at me, to look at the x-ray of my relatively rare tumor, and ask me my birthdate. And the Oral Surgeon was asking other details, and, could I be in the hospital for three days, oh, about ten days from then?

Ah, uh, yes, yes?


Tension needs to rise toward the climax of the story. Events should be compressed, and any important explanations or interpretations need to go earlier, or at the very end.


There was no pain with the biopsy, but I could feel the crunch of the needle going in, and then, when they couldn’t get anything with the needle, the tugging and snapping as they pulled out a piece of the tumor. I was breathing faster, faster, harder, harder… Finally it was all over and the nurse came in to put up my chair up straight and release me. “You can go now,” she said.

I replied, “I can’t.” I was still breathing hard.

She looked at me closely, then asked, “Are your fingers numb?”

“My elbows are numb!”

She grabbed the chair and set it flat, handed me a paper bag to breathe into, and asked if there was anyone who could take me home. I gave her the name of a friend, a PharmD student, who then appeared and escorted me out.


And then, of course, a good story needs a good closure. A punchline.


We stopped by the lab where I worked and there my boss saw me. “Where have you been all day?”


Strangely, he didn’t argue…


What has this got to do with writing? Often, it’s the same sort of thing. One has a story in ones head, filled with all these details and images, and one rushes to get them all out on paper. Every single one. But just as with a medical story, one has to pick and choose the details, to keep the focus on the point of the story. If one sidetracks, one will get bogged down in unimportant meanderings and lose the attention of your audience – and they will never hear the wonderful punchline.

So, tell your medical stories, but edit them. Improve them. Rearrange them if need be. And then apply what you have learned to your writing.

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