What You Really Mean When You Say ‘I Can’t’

Is the problem REALLY that you “can’t”?

“I can’t do this.”

Have you ever said these words out loud to yourself after struggling with something? When you’ve reached a point where you don’t think you could possibly type another word, correct another piece of improper grammar, or answer yet another email?

I have.

“I can’t” is a part of my vocabulary I wish I’d never adopted. It hangs around all the same.

It is a sentence I actually say out loud quite frequently. But every time I do, I catch myself and do the best I can to (1) take back the lie and (2) figure out what’s prompting me to generate that automatic response to a problem that’s difficult to solve.

Because the truth is, I CAN do it. I CAN write those last 1,000 words. I CAN finish that blog post. I CAN, and I WILL. It just feels like I can’t, because there is at least one barrier (though, more often than not, multiple simultaneous barriers) doing their very best to stand in my way.

You’ve probably said “I can’t” a dozen times in your life as a writer. But that’s not really what you’ve been saying at all.

When you say “I can’t,” you’re saying something else — something much deeper. You’re saying more than it’s too hard, it’s taking too long, it’s not going the way I want it to go.

No. You’re saying you’re frustrated. Disappointed. Impatient. Scared. You don’t want to put in the energy, the time, the effort. You don’t know how.

“I can’t do it because I’m afraid I’ll fail.”

“I can’t do it because I feel overwhelmed and it’s too much to handle.”

“I can’t do it because all my work might be for nothing.”

“I can’t do it because I want it to be done already.”

It sounds kind of silly when you look at it like that, doesn’t it? “Can’t” is not the appropriate word to use here. “Don’t want to” would probably be a better phrase. And maybe that’s your version of “I can’t.” I don’t want to do this thing that’s going to be challenging in some way, so I just won’t do it.

Honestly, the best way out of this mindset is to train yourself to do the things you don’t think you “can” do. Many people start out as writers completely incapable of this kind of thing. They’re not bad writers and they’re not necessarily doing anything “wrong.” They have simply never been taught how to fight through the desire to not do something and do it anyway.

I’m not perfect. I sometimes forget how privileged I am to have been raised in an environment that promoted self-discipline. I think sometimes my no-nonsense approach to writing comes off the wrong way or comes off too strongly. I just want you to know I care about you and your journey. I just want to help.

So in saying the above, I don’t mean to put blame on any writer who truly feels like they can’t achieve their goals. I’m simply stating a problem. Now I can do my best to offer a solution.

How do you write through the “I can’t”s? You just … do it.

For you, that might mean setting a very small goal and working toward it until you get it. Or making a list of things that are preventing you from writing (e.g., “I’m afraid to fail”) and verbally contradicting those things (“failing will only teach me how to succeed, there’s nothing to be afraid of”).

It might mean taking a deep breath and writing absolute garbage until you either get better by default or you realize what you wrote really wasn’t as terrible as you thought it was.

Maybe you CAN do it, just not the way or as well as you’d like to do it. Not yet, anyway.

Maybe you’re not making writing enough of a priority in your life, and may be able to afford to shuffle some things around (cough cough take an extended Netflix break) in order to change that.

Or maybe it’s as simple as attitude — you just need to have a better one, and you’re really the only one who can do anything about that. Whether you use positive affirmations, personal quotes, or you have to scream “YES I CAN DO IT BECAUSE I AM A WRITER GOSH DARN IT” into a mirror, if you’re stuck in negativity, there’s likely a way to dig yourself out of it. At least I hope there is.

Everyone has different internal and external issues that bring them to this “I can’t” place. I can’t obviously offer individual advice to fit every possible situation in a single blog post. But your “can’t” has an underlying trigger. If you can figure out what that trigger is, you should be able to work through it — either with help or on your own.

If you walk away with anything after reading this post, let it be this:

You CAN.

You CAN do it.


Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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4 thoughts on “What You Really Mean When You Say ‘I Can’t’

  1. Reblogged this on Ann Writes Inspiration and commented:
    If I can’t write something, it’s because I either don’t understand the information I’ve found for the client’s request, or I’m not familiar enough with the topic. If someone wants me to find and add pictures to an article, I can’t go out and find them, because I can’t see them. However, if I have them saved as a JPEG file, I can upload them to my site or attach them as an email for a client.
    When it comes to my fiction, I may not be able to write at the moment, but I always try to find time to write.
    Thanks for such a wonderful post.

  2. Each writer needs to find that button that says, “I can do this!”
    Then we write one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one page. Don’t worry about quality in a moment like this. I personally accept the challenge of the daily pursuit to see where my writing will take me (hopefully not over a cliff).

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