Can’t Means Won’t

January 22, 2019 § 8 Comments

The first day of a new circus workshop, there’s always one. Leading warmup, my fellow coach announces to a room full of high school students, already groaning in a leg stretch, “We’re gonna go for gold! Slide that front leg toward the splits!”

Near the side of the room, a kid bails out onto his butt, muttering, “No way, I can’t do that.”

Our coaching ears perk up. I call across the mats, “There’s one word we don’t want to hear in rehearsals. That’s ‘can’t.’ Because can’t means won’t—”

The students who’ve worked with us before chorus along. “—And won’t means push-ups!”

I explain. “When you say ‘I can’t,’ you’re telling your own body, ‘I quit.’ We can’t help with ‘I quit.’ Instead, try to identify the problem—I’m losing my balance! My knee hurts! My partner keeps dropping me!—and we can help you figure that out.”

My coaching partner adds, “If we hear you say ‘can’t,’ you owe us five push-ups. And then you’ll be stronger!”

Splits are hard, and for every high school dancer who wants me to lift her front leg to increase the stretch, there’s another ten students grimacing with their legs at a 90-degree angle. Not every circus move needs the splits, but lengthening their hamstrings helps these students achieve more in rehearsal, and the long-term benefits of enduring unpleasantness to achieve greatness will serve them far beyond next weekend’s show.

The ‘can’t’ whine I most often hear from writers is about platform. I hear it as misery:

I don’t understand Twitter. I’m too old.

I hear it as snobbery:

For one thing, I don’t do social media, and don’t intend to…until I retire: Whatever rewards may come from being an author, it’s not worth my privacy or putting my current (quite nice) paycheck at risk.

I hear it as despair.

Nobody pays attention to me online anyway.

Can’t means won’t. Won’t means working much harder to sell not only your book, but your query, concept, and voice to agents, publishers, and readers.

This ‘can’t’ includes two fundamental misunderstandings:

  1. Platform=Twitter, Facebook and blogging
  2. Engaging in building platform means revealing everything about your personal life online.

Platform is the number of people you can reach who might buy your book. Twitter and Facebook aren’t actually that effective, but they’re good for constant low-level engagement with your readers and other writers who will champion your work.

The best platforms are public speaking, mass media, and newsletters. Can you speak about the topic of your memoir to people with the same problem or challenge? Can you publish an essay about it, or send press releases to line up interviews? Can you build a list, one email at a time, of people who’d like to be updated once or twice a month on your work, and share something cool, funny or useful?

Privacy is relative. Creative nonfiction writers are often very self-revelatory about one particular story. But spilling your alcoholism or distance hike on the page doesn’t mean having to reveal your current marriage issues. Social media works for you: you do not work for social media. You are under no obligation to be more or less private about any particular issue. You can engage in politics publicly or not. You can post pictures of your face or not. What matters to your readers is whether you have something interesting to say, and that they’d like to pay (eventually) to hear more.

Sure, you can sell a book without any platform at all. If what you have to say is incredible enough, you can sell it written in crayon on a burlap bag.

Most of us are not that good.

Most of us depend on a mix of excellent-but-not-earthshaking writing, intriguing story, reasonable platform, and literary citizenship. More of one compensates for less of another: someone with millions of Instagram followers and a fascinating story don’t have to write as well as a writer’s-conference veteran telling their unique spin on the recovery memoir. Incredible writers can have a smaller platform. Literary citizens known for sharing others’ work will find promotion opportunities for themselves come more easily.

Don’t say you ‘can’t’ do social media, because that’s not helping you. Instead, identify the problem:

I’m shy. Promote your subject expertise rather than your own life.

My family is super nosy and easily offended/I work for the government. Establish your online/promotional presence under a pen name. By the time you publish, that persona will fully exist.

I despise social media. Build that public-speaking career—local clubs like Lions and Kiwanis are a great low-stakes audience. Get everyone’s email and start your newsletter.

Embrace platform-building as a challenge. What you have to say is meaningful, so why not start sharing it now? Why not reach toward the people who need your words even before your book is out?

Later in the circus workshop, I heard ‘can’t’ again, from the bar of the triple trapeze. I called out, “McKay, you owe me two!”

McKay smiled. “Only two? I thought it was five.”

“It’s been a long day and you’re working hard,” I said.

McKay popped out two tight, sharp push-ups, hands under his shoulders, his body perfectly aligned, then got back in line for his next turn on the trapeze—a tiny bit stronger than before.


When she’s not blogging here, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams teaches Starfish Circus, a school residency & camp program in which 50-150 students grades K-12 put up a full circus show in two weeks. It’s pretty cool.

Tagged: , , ,

§ 8 Responses to Can’t Means Won’t

  • Wow! You continue to astound me. And that you especially for reinforcing the need for active “literary citizenship” while actively writing.

  • Oooo, so good. OK, I can’t do the splits anymore, really, but I can do literary citizenship. And, you’re so right, people who feel nervous about social media hear “blog” and think “personal blog,” but there are many types–like mine (shameless self promo) that aim to discover the communal, the writing of a region, say, and not necessarily get into nitty gritty personal details.

  • jennymarie4 says:

    Love this! It inspires me to stop the “but I can’t do that!…) Instead, address the problem and find a way around it. I write about mental health and blog anonymously. At first I wondered how I was going to do that, blog anonymously. But I started to realize it helps me feel freer to say what I want to say. Thanks for sharing this!

  • Sandra says:

    What a great perspective. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you for the social media view. I had attended a class where we spent a LOT of time of setting up social media, maintaining a schedule to add to all the outlets and making it almost more of a focus than the writing we wanted to do. I completely understand it is “THE” way to be more connected in a public space. When it starts taking over your actual writing, however, it may mean some balance is required.

  • Lorna says:

    I know you’re making a learning analogy here. But speaking as a disabled person, can’t doesn’t mean I won’t, or I quit, sometimes I can’t means you’re listening to your body, and doing what you can.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Great point Lorna, and I’m not speaking here of physical inability. Working with students with or without physical disabilities, we’re really encouraging an analysis of why the skill isn’t happening at this time rather than a blanket “I can’t,” and “my body doesn’t work this way” is totally valid and we’ve found some amazing things using physical workarounds. For writers dealing with social media, “I don’t have the spoons for this today,” is also valid!

  • jeffseitzer says:

    First of all, who knew? Circus school? You definitely do not have an aging brain. But more to the point, I love the analogy. I do yoga every day, even though I have a severe degenerative condition. At first, I modified many poses, and still do some, but have mastered others by modifying progressively less over time. It is great advice to break down the platform building challenge into little steps with alternate paths that undermine all our favorite excuses.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Can’t Means Won’t at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.


%d bloggers like this: