Sunday, August 06, 2006

I Placed in a Writer's Contest!

I'm so excited!

Last April I entered a writing contest that Southwest Writers has every year. I just joined them last winter, as a way to connect with other writers and wannabe's like me. Long story short, they called me on Friday and told me I placed first, second or third in the Short Nonfiction category!! They had 19 categories and over 500 entrants total. I'm thrilled! I won't find out until the awards banquet in September what place I actually won, but who cares? Top three! Yippee!

The piece I entered was one I've posted here, but I'm going to post it again, partly cuz I want to celebrate, and partly cuz I've learned a few things about punctuation since then, so I fixed it.

A Discharge by Any Other Name


Last week on NPR I heard Eve Ensler reading her essay on the "This I Believe" segment of Morning Edition. Ensler is the author and playwright of The Vagina Monologues . In her essay, called "The Power and Mystery of Naming Things," she said:

"Think about the word 'vagina'. I believe that by saying it 128 times each show, night after night, naming my shame, exorcising my secrets, revealing my longing, was how I came back into my self, into my body."

Vagina. Vagina vagina vagina vagina.

When I was a girl, I didn't know the names of my private parts. I don't think we even called them "private parts.” It was all vaguely referred to as "down there.” Until the day one of my elementary school classmates, who had an older sister versed in These Things, informed us knowingly that the word was "vovey.” So we called it "vovey,” when we called it anything, when we dared to even speak about it, which was never, and only in a whisper, and only to each other, of course. One bold day, a friend and I revealed to each other that our "voveys" produced a secretion, which we gigglingly dubbed "vovey goo.”

Twenty years later, I was a licensed physician with my own little girl. I knew the human body inside and out, and I was damned if my daughter was going to grow up without words for all of her body parts. I taught that kid "vulva" before I taught her "elbow.” I wanted her to be proud of her body, to be comfortable with all of it. Naming was the first step.

I knew that I had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams when she once shocked a Texas church potluck by standing in the middle of the room, pointing at each grey-hair in turn, and correctly identifying their gender by announcing, "YOU have a penis. YOU have a vulva." She was three years old.

The first semester of medical school, we learned anatomy, in the lecture hall and in the dissection lab. It was presented in an orderly fashion, head to toe. Where there were gender differences, the male anatomy was always presented first, followed by "the female version of this is..." Sure, it bothered me, but it fit in with the sexism that pervaded medical education.

When we got to the genitals, we learned the male anatomy first, as usual. I was amazed at the quantity of labels on the drawings, the number of named parts men have. Corpus cavernosum. Corpus spongiosum. Root. Bulb. Crus. Shaft. Corona. Prepuce. Glans. Four different named segments of urethra. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I took notes dutifully.

Next slide. Female anatomy. Far fewer labels. Much briefer rundown by the teacher. As he prepared to switch slides, I raised my naive hand. "Excuse me. What are the names of those muscles?" I pointed to the striated bands surrounding the vagina at varying angles.

The professor looked confused. "What muscles?"

I showed him again.

"Oh. Those...uh, that....that's Vaginal Wall." Click. Next slide.

Now, wait a minute. I'm a woman, and half of my readers are probably women. Ladies, you know that is not just one big muscle there, and it's not only useful for "holding your bladder" either. I was shocked that there weren't at least three different muscle groups in the vagina. Come on! The male urethra, a single tube, has four different named segments. But one single catch-all label for the mysteries of a woman's depths? Puh-lease!

That was a long time ago, now, and I've (clearly) gotten over it. But that morning, hearing Eve Ensler, it all came back to me again, and got me thinking some more about this male/female naming discrepancy. I remembered "vovey goo" and contemplated the fact that there still isn't an official medical term for vaginal secretions. I'm not talking about slang. There's plenty of that, from "smegma" (sounds like Gollum's sister) to "honey" (nice, but not unique). I mean an unambiguous, descriptive, neutral word of its own. Like "semen.” That's a word that can't be mistaken for anything else. It has only one meaning, as far as I know. It's only a noun, and calls up a distinctive mental picture. Nobody gets confused about what you're talking about when you say "semen."

But what is the "female version" of "semen"? The closest I can come up with is "discharge." But this does not meet the criteria of specificity that "semen" does. No, "discharge" is a word that can be a noun or a verb, can apply to a vagina, a retiring serviceman, or a firing cannon. Not only that, I was taught in medical school that a vaginal discharge is abnormal. Part of the Patient Interview is called the Review of Systems. When you do this, you verbally list the body systems, asking if there are any abnormal symptoms in each (headache, double vision, vomiting blood, etc.). One of the questions is, "Do you have any vaginal discharge?" This is usually asked while shaking one's head and frowning slightly, subliminally communicating the right answer to the patient. Oh, no, ma'am. No vaginal discharge. Yuck, no!

Whereas in truth, feminine secretions are as normal as tears or saliva, or mucus.

I submit that we need a new word. A unique word for the entirely normal, benign, useful secretions that are produced in the vagina. What shall it be? We could call it "vuliva" (vuh-lye-vuh) or "vugucus" (vuh-joo-kus) , echoes of its cousins at the "other end." We could even stoop to "vovey goo,” although that doesn't sound quite neutral to me. Or, come to think of it, we could have several words. The stuff changes, you know, throughout a woman's monthly cycle and lifetime. The eskimos have their myriad words for "snow.” The male urethra has four separate words for one little tubule. Why shouldn't there be a different word for each variety of hormonally-influenced natural feminine product?

The devil is in the details. I can't think of a good word. I just know we need one. I'm open to suggestions. Once we get a good one, we can submit it to the American Board of New Anatomical Terminology, or wherever one submits these things. Then all we'll need is for Eve Ensler to say it 128 times a night for six years, and voila! Equal time in the anatomy lectures, and a new addition to the church potluck repertoire.


connery said...


Great going, Dr. Peg~! At least a Top 3 in your first writing contest, with a strong chance to go for silver, and, more likely, GOLD!!!

That WAS a very unique and original piece.

Glad to see well-deserved recognition coming your way.


First 50 said...

Congratulations. Glad to see that great piece get recognized.

Surgeon in my dreams said...


Proud of you.

Kim said...

Congratulations! I'm so glad you won!
I remember reading this post when you first wrote it and I remember laughing my head off.

Writers rock and winning writers REALLY rock! : D

medstudentitis said...

Good Job Peg! I think this is a GREAT post and it left me wanting to revolutionize anatomy! Congratulations!

As an aside, I'm looking for some input from family physicians over at my blog, mind paying me a visit?

dr peg said...

Connery - Thanks. You are very kind and supportive and I appreciate it!

first 50 - Thanks very much. Will I see you at the banquet?

surgeon - You're very sweet. Thanks for the warmth.

kim- So glad you laughed your head off! Thanks for your kindness.

medstudentitis - I guess you can relate, eh? You go, girl! (went to your blog today - nice one!)

medstudentitis said...

Thanks for your input Dr. Peg!

Heather said...

Congrats Dr Peg!!!! That's awesome. It is a great story and I think it's wonderful that you took a prize for it.

origin said...

Hmm. I'm kinda disappointed - oh, not in the piece you wrote, that was brilliant!, but rather, I saw 8 comments and I was expecting to see some really creative suggestions for the name we should give to the good type of vaginal discharge.... As a gay man, I gotta admit, nothing comes to mind. (Heck, up until a few years ago, I hadn't even touched one for more than 20 years!) But, I would sure welcome a good term for it when I'm speaking to my patients. :-)

origin said...

Oh shoot. I also meant to say "congratulations!"

dr peg said...

Thanks, heather, nice to see you again!

origin - Thanks for the congrats and praise. You don't know this, but this isn't the first time I posted this piece here. The first time, it got exactly the reaction you were expecting. If you want to see the names people came up with, visit that original post at Original Post

(Hope I did the link right)

Thanks for visiting. I went to your blog - good one! I'll be back there.

origin said...

Ah, I should have looked a little farther. Those suggestions were all fantastic! There were one or two that I liked better than the others, but, of course, it's up to the women to decide. When you all have reached a consensus, let us male types know and we'll follow suit. :-)

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Peg -- Just read your blog for the first time today. Congratulations!! I'm also a medical professional(RN) and aspiring writer, and I also placed! (In nonfiction book). I won second in short nonfiction last year. Certainly a thrill! Good luck and maybe we'll meet at the banquet.

Nancy C.

johnny_mango said...

Good work Peg! Great piece.

dr peg said...

Nancy C - Congratulations! A whole book - I'm impressed! Yes indeed, I hope we meet at the banquet. I'll be looking for you.

Jonny- thank you kind sir. High praise coming from a teacher!

connery said...

Dear Award-Winning Writer Lady,

I just wanted to thank you for last week. I've been going through some, uh, painful turmoil in my life, and last Wednesday & Thursday were particularly nerve-wracking, mostly with "anticipatory anxiety" of things to come. I don't usually stress out over things I can't control, but this is an unusual and exceptional situation.

Anyway, spontaneously--I imagined that I heard your voice somehow and that great, inspiring "You can DO this!" mantra from your inspirational childbirth story. (for anyone new to this blog, don't miss THAT one, posted around Mother's Day weekend; check the archives for this past May, it's well-worth it). That was one thing that sprung into my mind one particularly upsetting night, when I had a depressed headache, and was sitting alone, staring at my own reflection in a poorly-placed & intrusive mirror in a public place.

It just, without any conscious effort on MY part, popped into my head. Like a hug and an enthusiastic, supportive pat on the shoulderblade.

"You can DO this!"

True story. Sincere thanks.

Have you heard anything from that Writer's Award Academy? If so, Congratulations again. If not, good luck at the Awards Ceremony & Banquet.

dr peg said...

Connery - I'm (temporarily, no doubt) speechless. That you thought of my childbirth story and the wondrous Nurse Margaret in your time of trial warms my writer's heart. Doesn't every writer hope that their words somehow affect someone, somewhere?

Hang in there with whatever hard time you're having. And stay away from public mirrors when you have a headache!

Thank YOU for making my day.


PS The awards banquet is Saturday. I'll doubtless write a post afterwards. Thanks for asking.

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