"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


No Second Opinions for Dentists

May 14th, 2015 by

I don’t know that we pay attention to the way people talk–or don’t talk. But I think it is the stuff of great fiction. I disagree with people who say that fiction is not worth their time. Perhaps more than for any other genre, the fiction writer’s material is right there in what people are most afraid of, or what they most long for. For these reasons, they won’t dare to talk directly about it. They might couch it in a strange symbol. But they won’t admit it directly.

The drama comes when the reader gets what the narrator or the main character wants but won’t try to get or achieve for him or herself. How much time passes before this conflict surfaces, and how does the character handle it? This is real life.

I know it is a stretch, but I will use a recent telephone conversation I had as my example. Recently, my old dentist’s office called. I stopped going to this dentist over a year ago after they outlined six months of special treatments that my insurance was not going to cover. The cost to me would be $6,000.

Dental insurance is not very good these days. I guess my teeth aren’t either.

As I listened to the growing list of treatments, I sat there with the bib on and felt what I really wanted taking shape, though I didn’t feel I could say it there. What I wanted was a second opinion. But how did I get one? Short of going to a new dentist and having my teeth x-rayed all over again, what could I do?

There are no second opinions in dentistry.

So I did the only other thing I thought I could do. When they took the bib off and I walked out, I didn’t go back.

Many relationships end this way. The world is full of people who don’t say what they really mean. They fear that the minute they do, their story, all their relationships, will change.

The Call Back
Fifteen months later, my old dentist’s office called me. The clerk didn’t ask about my year-and-a-half absence. She simply started to list the new treatments I should have.

“How much of this is covered?” I asked.

There was no answer.

This was the place of the impasse, over a year of silence and avoidance. Finally, I blurted out what I’d been thinking.

“I really want a second opinion on all of this.”

I was surprised at how angry my voice sounded.

She paused.

“At my last appointment, you outlined a treatment plan that would cost me $6,000 out of pocket. I can’t afford that. I want to know what can honestly be done that is covered by the insurance I pay for.”

Again, most people don’t say what they really think, sometimes until it is too late. Or, they never say it, or they say it to someone else, as gossip. And when they say it, things are real.

I blurted my fear out to a professional, of course, and it was handled professionally. But I can imagine a similar scenario in high school, when a girl I asked out looked at me and thought, Well, I’d like to hang out and stuff, but not get too serious.

I’d like a checkup, maybe a cleaning. But $6,000? Marriage?

Here I’ve thought all these years that they thought I was just dumb. Or ugly. Most high school students in the ’70s were convinced that they were both.

This is communication as we know it. It is the stuff of fiction—those short stories written by jilted men and women in moments when we didn’t say what was on our mind. Or we did, and it was taken wrong.

It’s not just fluff.

This is it, though, a character who avoids things. Imagine him doing nearly everything in his life like this.

You might try this at home: Invent a character with a longing, or a fear. It doesn’t need to be a major phobia. The more mundane, the more interesting. Then put him/her in a place where he/she has to face it, even talk about it. But there are reasons he/she has for why it can’t be discussed. You might have someone like Gatsby on your hands.

My story doesn’t end that way. I have another appointment. And I am promised that my insurance concerns will be addressed.

We will see how that compromise works out.

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Comment by Tony Brow on May 15, 2015 at 9:59 pm

I marvel at the fact that most of what we communicate is not what is said. Good job Tom!

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