Small, Full Circles by Erik Orrantia – 2011 Lambda Literary Award

Small, Full Circles

By Erik Orrantia

“You’re doing it too hard. Try making small circles.” It was my dentist a couple weeks ago telling me how to brush my teeth properly. I’d already had the lecture many times. “You’ve got to massage the gums.” I politely nodded my comprehension as I thought, it ain’t gonna happen. I’d been brushing my teeth for nearly forty years that way—old habits die hard. This time she proceeded to pull my complimentary toothbrush from its plastic wrapper and she put a hand-held mirror in front of my face. “I’m going to show you. Watch carefully.” Okay. I did. I watched as she swirled the purple toothbrush at a careful angle against my gums. “The bristles penetrate at the base of the tooth without damaging your enamel. Your gums are receding too much.” Actually, it did feel better, and I do want to take care of my teeth. But I had heard the sermon so many times, always with a certain blasé attitude and secret resistance, and I had believed that my hand muscles, despite any conscious effort to truly change my habit, would eventually fall back into the status quo of forty years. Nevertheless, I did something unexpected…I changed.  I decided to brush my teeth in tiny circles, gently massaging the gums, and thereby preserving what’s left of them.

Who cares, right? In the end (and what I always knew anyway), was that it’s for my own benefit. BFD. I do have a point I’m going to make, besides the fact that my having healthy teeth is not just for my own good, but for the good of many other people in ways that gradually diminish in direct proportion to those people’s intimacy with me. It’s an obvious plus for my partner and our roommate, but it’s also better for all those folks who might have had to smell my bad breath, see my rotting teeth, or witness the embarrassing falling out some day of my eventual dentures. In a sense, me doing what’s best for myself, is advantageous to everyone.

This isn’t about taking care of your teeth, though I highly recommend it. There are, indeed, two points I’m trying to make. The first was most articulately summed up by my therapist, so here are your eight dollar words of wisdom (based on a simple formula—his charge per minute multiplied by the number of minutes it took him to explain it to me; don’t worry, I’m not charging): Everything you do is a microcosm of everything you do. In short, the tiniest actions you do are a reflection of who you are in the big picture. Hence, my willingness or resistance to change my style of brushing my teeth, and my ultimate success or failure at it, says a lot about me in general.

Here’s the second point: as hard as it is to change, or as hard as it seems anyway, it is ironically easy, too. I had a friend who complained to me about overeating. “I can’t stop eating,” she said. “When I have food in the house, I sit and eat it until it is gone.” I reflected for a minute and reminded her that it was her hand that pulled the cookies from the bag and lifted them to her mouth. I suggested she tell her hand not to do that anymore. I don’t mean to oversimplify, but she took my comment as, perhaps not the most profound thing she’d ever heard, but at least as something she hadn’t exactly thought of. Likewise, I now tell my hand to brush my teeth differently…and it does. Funny, as much as I had convinced myself that I couldn’t, the only reason why I had been right about it was that that was the decision I had made. I might choose another course of action.

I was asked to write something about writing. Patience…remember the microcosm thing. Authors, if not more resistant to change than the rest of humankind, are at least on par. And isn’t that resistance inside of us really because of our discomfort or fear? When I first started writing years ago, an accomplished author I met responded to my request for advice on publishing a book with a succinct pair of words: “Finish it.” Now, I tend to be the kind of guy who finishes what he starts. Strangely enough, when I got to the last couple chapters of my first (self-published) book, Blue Tiles, I froze. I set the manuscript down and absolutely stopped writing it. I didn’t really know why. I even knew how the story would end. Two full years later, I picked up a pad of paper and finished it. You don’t have to be a genius to realize I was simply afraid. What if it was crap? What if everyone hated it? What if they criticized me? I guess I just wasn’t willing to face that. It was easier to leave the book incomplete.

Now I’m a Lambda Literary Award winner for my second book, Normal Miguel (Cheyenne Publishing, 2010). Honestly, I realized there was a bit of crappiness to the first book, particularly around editing, and I took if off the market; I hope to republish a better version of it someday. The truth about writing is that it can be a scary field—an author lays it all out there. So many authors refer to their books, if not as their children, at least as important, real parts of their lives. We dedicate hundreds of hours in private to this “significant other” and then spill it out for all to see. Some books, of course, never get any attention. But with a little luck, the book lands in the eager hands of readers and, inevitably, reviewers. This is a good thing. We need reviewers. But, in desiring to deliver a decent product to their own readers, they have all intentions of being honest, sometimes brutally, and some might not feel like they’ve done a decent job if they haven’t pointed out the weaknesses of your work. Just a couple days ago, someone said of Normal Miguel, “I liked the story, but the writing was nothing special.” I think the thickness of my skin has grown a few millimeters since I started in this racket.

Normal Miguel got a lot of really good reviews, too. In fact, one of the first and most flattering was from our highly esteemed legend of gay genre, Victor Banis. He honored me in Reviews by Jessewave by raving about the book. Then, in Amazon.com, he wrote the phrase I most cherish: “A delicious broth of a book.” I’m not trying to gloat. Indeed, I only mean to bring up some wisdom that Victor has shared with me since then, and he should know after having pioneered the genre and written over 160 novels. After discussing with him some ideas about point-of-view and tense, plot building, and character development, he told me, “Just write.”

Everything comes full circle. It’s just like the tooth brushing—first, it’s for my own good, then it’s for everyone else’s. I write because I have passion for it. My writing is my artistic expression. It’s my concentrated collection of energy thrown out, gifted to the world. Some will like it and some won’t. But before anybody ever gets it, it’s got to be complete and satisfying to me. Yes, on my website, I have posted blogs about editing, finding publishers, and networking. Those things are important. I must not lose sight, however, of the primary purpose of writing—self-expression. No author will turn down fame, money, or respect, but I can assure you that when the authenticity of the art is missing, he or she won’t be getting any of those. On the contrary, when the author’s heart is genuinely in the work, it can’t help but develop and improve once the author has put aside any fear and made the simple choice to write.