by Winona Winkler Wendth
“O.K., now . . . You’re going to feel a little pinch.”
The dentist lifts a stainless steel syringe, leans toward my mouth, and reaches for my gums. I know what comes next: not a pinch but a sting. A piercing.
“Why do dentists use that word?” I asked, drooling in the dentist’s chair last week.
“Pinch. When a needle punctures my gum, I don’t feel a pinch—do you?”
I’ve been pinched a number of times over the years: fingers (in hinges), toes (remember the 60s?), my rear end (I grew up among Europeans). And what goes on in my mouth feels nothing like that.
“Wait,” I said, “Why do you say pinch?”
“I don’t know. That’s what they tell us in dental school. I never thought about it. What would you say, then?”
He stopped, syringe in hand.
“It’s a prick, a stab. The injection you’re going to give me is like a venomous sting, like a snake’s bite—a temporarily painful but prolonged venomous sting followed by a deep ache and a kind of numbness. Were I spending more time reading National Geographic and less time in places like this, I would fear paralysis and death.”
The dentist looked alarmed.
“Why don’t you just tell the truth—at least get closer to it?”
I waited for “You can’t handle the truth.” But he didn’t quite say that. He did intimate that patients would be frightened. That they wouldn’t cooperate. That health care professionals are allowed to gloss the truth for the anxious.
Dentists are like us: no one wants trouble. We probe around until we find a word that describes the way we think the world could be, not a word that describes the world as it is.
Beginning writers do this all the time: We use words that sound good; words that make us feel good; words that glaze the truth; words we hope others will like us for using; words we have read or heard before; words whose meanings and history we have rediscovered but which were lost to us, along with our original experiences. Words that won’t offend. Words that are often not honest. Words that are so vague or trite that they carry sensibility but little meaning.
Precision is a necessary instrument for a writer. A precise word is a service to both our readers and to us. When we are precise in our language and honest with our audience, we are more likely to be honest with ourselves—another necessity for good writing.
The next time I visited my dentist he prepared me for a venomous sting, told me to open wide and tilt my head toward the light while he found the precise place for the needle. His precision almost compensated for the pain.
Winona Winkler Wendth is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writer’s Collaborative in Lancaster, Massachusetts, runs writing workshops, and mentors a wide assortment of writers, both published and (as yet) unpublished. Both her fiction and essays are found online and in print in a variety of journals and has been featured on NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction.” Wendth holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.