I Can Do This

October 17, 2011

One benefit of recuperating is that you have to rest a lot. In ordinary life, just like so many of us, I tend to push myself beyond where I should, though I’ve tried to learn to rest when I need it. And since I’m not a television watching type (which, after all, is far from restful), I’ve been reading a lot. In fact, since I started reading again – sometime last week – I’ve read four magnificent books. Michael Chabon’s memoir, Manhood for Amateurs – a gorgeous series of short essays that was just what I needed when I couldn’t read for more than, say, fifteen minutes at a time; the thoughtfulness, the wryness, the incredible style – everything was so very pleasing. Next, Nicholas Rinaldi’s The Jukebox Queen of Malta, set during the World War II continuous bombardment of Malta by the Germans and Italians that went on for years, with magnificent, fully-realized characters, in a rich, vibrant setting. Ann Packer’s Swim Back to Me, a series of astonishing short stories about the smallest of life’s moments that signify.

It was a scene in Ann Packer’s “Her First Born” that forced me to pause and think. In it, Lise, a woman, whose first child has died in infancy, is pregnant with her second child. Her first marriage imploded in the aftermath of that tragedy; she and her second husband are preparing for labor, readying the new baby’s room, with the death of the first child always, always in the background. While she is in labor, hard labor, she tells the midwife, “I can’t do this.” The midwife tells her that’s the wrong message to give herself; the wrong attitude to maintain: “You have to think you can,” she says. For Lise can, in fact, give birth. And she must, because with labor, there’s no way back, there’s only the way through. After the midwife’s admonition, she says, “I can do this, I can do this. . . and then she does.”

During these past several weeks, I, too, have said, “I can’t do this,” that I can’t do what it takes to recover. But, just like Packer’s woman in childbirth, I, too, have no choice. There’s no way back for me either; there’s just the way through. And like every other woman in my position, I have no choice and I do have what it takes.

I’ve never heard my granddaughter Julia say, “I can’t do this.” And the fact that she hasn’t ever said it has made me wonder why those words come into my consciousness so very often, not only in terms of recovering from this operation, but also when I’m in the throes of, say, finishing a book. I can say that Julia was born that way; she has always been a girl with an indomitable will; a girl willing to work and work at something until she perfects it; a girl who sets herself tasks (writing a horror film) and who accomplishes them.

When she was little, I once took her to a local playground. She hadn’t yet perfected swinging from one ring to another – there were six of them and I’m sure there’s a technical name for them, but I don’t know it. I’d hoist her up onto the first ring; she was too small to reach for it herself. She’d do the best she could. And then she’d do it again, from the beginning. And again. And again. Most caregivers understand that kids either want to do something much longer or much shorter than you’d like them to do it. Well, on this particular sunny day, Julia wanted to swing and swing and swing. And I was ready to move on. When I suggested we go, she said, “I’m not finished yet” and so we stayed for in fact we had the time. All that day, frustrated as she may have been, she never said, “I can’t do this.” She never gave up. All she said was, “I want to try it again.” By the time I had to take her home, her palms were rubbed raw, but even that hadn’t stopped her.

Who can say where this tenacity comes from? But I do know this: her parents have never questioned her ability to do something (as mine did). They’ve never questioned whether what she’d chosen to do was worth doing (as mine did). They’ve never ridiculed her for her mistakes early in her learning of a task (as mine did). They’ve never imposed their desires upon her (as mine did). It isn’t that she’s been constantly praised – for we know that parental praise makes kids dependent upon that praise. It’s that they communicate to her that her efforts (not only her achievements) are worthwhile. They’ve reported to her what they’ve observed: Look at that! You can now swing on five of the six rings! What progress you’ve made! And they’ve let her find her own source of strength deep within.

When I was a young writer, I doubted my ability, and my capacity to bring a book to completion. I was giving a talk somewhere in New York, no doubt, about Virginia Woolf, and I saw a crude hand-lettered sign in the shape of an arrow, with the words “Yes you can” within. It was just lying on a table. And I stole it – it’s the only thing I’ve ever stolen. I felt I needed it. I learned that what I needed to do was replace the internal
“No you can’ts” I’d internalized with a “Yes you can.” I know that this sounds all New Age-y. But the point is, why spend so much time telling yourself you can’t, when you can spend the same amount of time telling yourself that you can, or that perhaps you can, or that you might.

Last night, my husband and I saw the movie “The Photographer,” starring Reg Rogers, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Anthony Michael Hall – watching DVDs in early evening, another perk of recovering. And what a splendid movie it was, and I recommend it highly.

The film is an allegory about what happens to many creative people. A photographer, whose first show is a resounding success, believes that he’s lost his touch. It’s time for him to have a second show, and he has nothing. He finds a packet of ten powerful photographs and decides to pass them off as his own. And beyond this, I won’t tell you what happens. But after a Pilgrim’s Progress kind of descent into hell, after finding a host of people to join him on his journey, he learns that he’s been so obsessed with his inability to create, that he’s missed every opportunity for a photograph that has come his way.

And, yes, in thinking about my own process, in working with writers, I’ve learned that we waste so very much time wondering whether we can, in fact, do it. What a phenomenal waste of time! Better to admit that everything we create will be a pale shadow of the ideal work we wish we could create, and get on with it. Because, just like recovery, just like childbirth, there’s no way to back out of creating once we start. There’s only going back. There’s only finding our way to the other side.


19 Responses to “I Can Do This”

  1. cecile mines Says:

    It is good to have you back and wonderful to read your thoughts. I’ve got to read one of your books because I certainly enjoy your blog. All the best, Cecile

  2. Katherine Says:

    Hi, Louise,
    I am so glad to read your thoughts about finding your way to the other side. It’s something I have thought about many times over the past couple of decades, as I’ve faced challenges of my own health problems and the death of close members of my family. When I was younger (say, in my forties, a single mother, department chair etc etc), I used to keep telling myself, just crank it up! You can do this – all of it! but it was more of the “cracking the whip” desperation, than calm confidence in myself and my abilities.

    When my sister was dying of cancer, and I was caring for her, I used to sometimes go for walks by the river with our dog, and I would find myself sobbing to Sophie (the dog), “I can’t do it, Sophie. I just can’t do it any more.” She would look at me, in her sweet puzzled worried way – and I would cry some more, and then we’d walk back home – and I’d be ready to keep on caring for my sister. I knew, in my heart, that I could do it, stay with her, be with her, in her dying journey. But sometimes I just had to acknowledge to myself (And Sophie) how hard it really was.

    I find now, as I face the challenges of loss and aging, I’m much gentler with myself – and much more confident of my ability to “be with” whatever comes my way. Perhaps the timing won’t be quite what I was hoping for, but I can make it through to the other side, wherever that is.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us all.
    with affection,

  3. Lia Ottaviano Says:

    Louise, your writing is as strong and moving as ever. You are an inspiration to all of your students, both present and past. Thank you for sharing your work, and I look forward to reading more.

    With love,

  4. Michael DiSchiavi Says:

    So glad to hear you moving forward in your recovery. I identified with your comments on self – doubt. My recently completed first novel took much longer than it needed to, because I kept telling myself that I couldn’t; until one of your books made me realize that it wasn’t that I couldn’t, but rather, I wouldn’t unless I just did it. Now, as I work away at forming my second book, I try to not let “no, you can’t” creep into my subconscious as potential agents pass me by without any helpful comments.
    While you are reading, do pick up Ellen Feldman’s World War II novel, Next to Love; it is one of the best books I have read this year.
    Best wishes for a full recovery, a day at a time.

  5. Margaux Fragoso Says:


    It is really interesting the point you make about being told “No you can’t” as opposed to “Yes you can” and the idea that some of us may feel a project isn’t worth it or that we don’t “deserve” the time it takes to see it to fruition; rather, we should be doing something else with our time. Important to remember that most writers aren’t supported and that we need to give ourselves the permission to be artistic. Also important to remember, those of us, who are parents to keep with “yes you can.” It’s very fortunate when a family can break a negative cycle like that.

  6. Hi Louise,
    I’m re-reading Paul Paolicelli’s book “Dancing with Luigi” for inspiration while writing my memoir and in this book and his later book “Under the Southern Sun,” he captures the mood of the Italians and the Italian Americans during World War 11. When I was about seven a dear uncle (Sicilian) came to our house enraged that my brother Joey who was a soldier fighting in Europe was “killing Italians.” Interesting..

  7. Anna Says:

    Louise, you continue to be an inspiration. I hope your writing and your recuperation are both where they need to be. Happy Thanksgiving!

  8. Michael Frankovic Says:

    Whenever I am working on something important, I always rock back and forth between thinking I can do something and that I can’t. One minute I will throw my hands in the air and proclaim that what I am doing is worthless, that I should give up. But then I’ll talk to a professor or a classmate whose words encourage and inspire me. Then I’ll believe that whatever I am doing is going to be great.

  9. I just read this for the second time. I needed it. Thanks.

  10. Hi Louise,
    I read this blog several times and was still in thought after each reading. I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts. When I was younger and I got into an accident, I was so determined to get better. I pushed myself as hard as I could to get better. Now when something happens with me, I am not as persistent as I was as a child. I believe as a child we don’t realize everything going on around us, which makes our view on our problem different. I also wanted to tell you I watched the movie you recommended with my family and it was great. Thanks for the recommendation. Glad to see things are getting better as well.

  11. Charles Says:

    Hi Ms. DeSalvo,
    There’s a lot less criticism for inaction. This may be my reason for falling backward into the “no you can’t ” abyss where no one can even see me well enough to toss stones. Recently though I’ve found some very supportive people, who are on a similar road, and who hit the same potholes, and who, as one put it “get flat tires and spring oil leaks” also. It’s tough. Writing is tough. But there’s no way back for me either, I believe. When I don’t write, I feel like somethings shriveling up inside me. Not a very good feeling. I’ll continue to write and believe in my abilities. Thank You.

  12. Angelica Roman Says:

    This blog really hit home for me. I always worry about whether or not I should even bother writing if in the end I’ll get nowhere. Sometimes I will start a story or perhaps a scene in a memoir and think to myself, “Why am I even doing this?” “What will I accomplish?” “Can I even do it?” And then seeing your blog, it just made me happy I didn’t give up. I don’t plan on giving up either.

  13. Bianca Cartagena Says:

    It’s easy to become restless, better yet, lazy, during recovery time. I admire that you’re putting your recovery time to good use. It’s important to keep your mind stimulated. You know, off the things that don’t really matter and on the things that really do. Luckily, you took advantage of an unfortunate situation and used your time wisely.

    I’m glad you read four books (that sound very appealing) in a week or two. Imagine finding the time to do that during regular everyday life. I love to read, but I find it difficult to read for personal pleasure during the semester. I usually try to read during breaks, but sometimes my brain is so fried I think, “I can’t” and I rather sleep, workout, or shop (all stress relievers for me). When I do get the chance to lay down with a good book, I’m reminded of why I’ve always found pleasure in the activity in the first place.

    Sometimes we don’t make time to do the things we love because we’re too busy doing the things we have to do, but if there’s a will, there’s a way. Since there’s no way of skipping recovery, why not enjoy it a little if you can?

    I think we can all learn a little something from Julia’s attitude. Let’s be as courageous as children. Let’s try before we give up. And Let’s tell our biggest critics (ourselves) to hush.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    Best wishes of a healthy recovery.

  14. Kimberly Sital Says:

    Hi Louise,
    Growing up I told myself I can’t so many times. Julia is a very dedicated, smart girl. To this day I am unable to do numerous things like ride a bike or ice-skate. I gave up so easily. This was very inspirational for me. Since I have been writing memoir I have shocked myself with the material I have written, especially since I am new to this genera. I will take your advise on disregarding the “I can’ts,” and turning it into I can, because the mind is very powerful.
    Thank you for the movie suggestion. I too am a photographer, well I used to be. With school and work I have no time to do things I enjoy. However, the more I think about it the more I realize, I spend more time thinking about actual activities, tasks, ect. than actually doing it. I have discovered that I only create more obstacles than solutions for myself. I plan to not give up and always stay positive, why, because I can.
    Good Luck.

  15. Mary Ellen Says:

    This piece is very inspirational. I really identified with all of it, particularly the part where you spoke of your granddaughter and her determination to get across all of the “rings”, because I actually had a nearly identical experience with my daughter. The rings and the monkey bars, they were the mountain she was set on climbing two summers ago. At first, she wanted me to practically hold her legs up. Then when she was less afraid, she insisted I let go and step back. She kept at it until her hands hurt, at which point I told her we should go home and come back after her hands had a break. And we did, a few more times, at her request. She kept getting a little farther across, until she finally mastered it. As a parent, I realize the importance of being patient and supportive as she takes on new endeavors. Your blog reminded me that I need to use that same patience and support when dealing with myself as well.

  16. Kimberly Bruining Says:

    I can definitely relate to the concept of “pushing”. I lead such an active, busy lifestyle that I forget to take the time out to appreciate the beauty in life. Unfortunately, I would always reach the “burning out” stage quite often during school or work because I rarely took the time out for myself. I
    was constantly putting my time and effort into others or other priorities. This reflected energy reflected into my writing. My burnt out mentality impacted my writing as a memoirist, so I learned that I needed to take care of myself to preserve my well-being. In regards to “I can’t do this”, I have experienced that mindset during this semester. Because memoir was unfamiliar to me at first, I did not believe I was the writer I thought I was. However, with a lot of guidance and positivity from my professor, I was able to produce work that I was happy with.

  17. sabrinall Says:

    I think this post is powerful because of the message. I always try to hold on to positive thinking. ”I think therefore I am.” I believe that we work with the universe to accomplish our dreams and if we think positively and give the universe positive vibrations, the universe repays us in the same way. I do get down at time and feel like I am failing but I have to always remember how I can get past those meaningless feelings.

  18. Nicole Leibowitz Says:


    I don’t know how many times I said “I can’t” during this writing process. I believe it was peppered throughout my journal entries. We tend to dwell in the negative (I can’t. How can I? What if I fail?), and fidget uncomfortably in the positive. It’s a shame, because once that project is over, and we complete the impossible, we’ll find something else to be pessimistic about. This is a wonderful reminder that there’s production in the positive stages of thought. THAT is where we must reside–move away from social confines of negativity, and learn how to cultivate happily in the affirmations.

    Thank you so much!

    Best wishes as always,

  19. Christian Zambrano Says:

    I think that your way of looking at life is so inspirational. I have so many times thought to myself that I cannot do a lot of things in my life. What i have come to realize is that when I feel this way that there are worst things that could happen and it motivates me to continue to succeed. This blog made me realize that there is always going to be another roadblock that I must maneuver past. Thank you for showing me that i am not alone in my struggles with my writing and especially with my life.

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