Working With What We Have

Writer’s block is torturous. Sitting down to write, yet nothing seems to be in my head. Having a document open and ready, and even with copious notes written down, a structure of a chapter on paper, I keep drawing blanks. I go to write a sentence, it doesn’t work. It’s awkward, lacking elegance. I try to rephrase the sentence, and the sentence just does not work, again. And this can continue for hour upon hour, day after day, and even, dare I say, month after month as I struggle to put one word after another. Writer’s block is horrible. Especially with a looming deadline. I’ve been there. And what makes matters worse is my perfectionist streak. This expectation of myself that I just have to get it right, all the time. Over the past eight years I have had to unlearn my perfectionist tendencies. If I wanted to actually complete a paper or a thesis, then I needed to learn how to write, even if what I was writing was clumsy and inelegant, in my mind. My mantra constantly repeating in my head during those months when I struggled to write was that I could work with something, but I could not work with nothing. It’s a harsh reality; it is impossible to work with a blank piece of paper. Something has to be written down in order to bring clarity and shape out of sometimes disastrous writing. I now find myself offering the same advice to graduate and research students. You can work with something, but you can’t work with nothing. In other words, write something and we can begin working with that.

Putting my walking stick down, using every ounce of effort to ‘walk’ unaided to the Reformer (Pilates), then lying down on the bed and lifting my feet up onto the bar, I take a deep breath before I start pushing the bed out, bringing it back in, and then pushing out again. Those 45 minutes early on a Wednesday morning, before the Britannia Intersection is clogged up with impatient drivers, is one part of my week that I have started to love. The pilates clinic is quiet. I have student appointments and lectures for the rest of the day, but for these 45 minutes, working through exercise after exercise, my mind is quiet as well. I only have to think about one thing; the exercise I’m doing. That morning though the Surgeon’s words from the previous afternoon was still on repeat in my mind along with every repetition of movement. Be positive about what you have and keep going. So I moved through the exercises, one by one, pushing through the leg spasms, that is, when the leg spasms let me. I was half way through the last exercise when my Physio came into the clinic, seeing me at work, she reminded me about the need to keep pulling up. As an ex-ballet dancer, I knew exactly what she meant. And I knew that she was right. She then suddenly asked, ‘How did it go with Matt?’ I stopped the exercise for a second, slight confusion written all over my face. Who is Matt? The British part of me still struggling with Australians using abbreviated names in formal relationships, I realised the Physio was referring to my appointment with the surgeon the day before. I gave the potted summary of the discussion. The Physio, nodding her head in understanding, then said, ‘Okay, then we just have to keep working with what we have.’ I never expected to have my own advice spoken back to me, albeit in a very different context. For the second time that morning, I was a bit confused. Where have I heard similar words? They were essentially the same words the Surgeon had said the day before. But that wasn’t it. And then I knew where I had heard a similar sentiment. The Physio’s response was just another way of saying my own advice, ‘you can work with something, you can’t work with nothing.’ We work with what we have. And that was the plan for the next four weeks. We work with what we have.

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