When I was ten, I wanted to learn to play the clarinet and eventually join the school band. But (or And, or So—) my father found an affordable, used, kid-sized accordion, somehow found a tutor, and that, plus his moving the whole family to an air force base in Germany (where the accordion is beloved) for the next four years both solidified my commitment to the accordion and guaranteed my never having a place in any school band. (Do schools maybe now find a place for the random accordionist? Why not a little zydeco with your team spirit? Or a mashup between a march and a waltz—I can almost hear it . . . )
Putting aside how much this likely explains so many parts of who I am today, I mean to say that from early on I associated practice with music; more exactly, practice meant the routine that might lead to mastery, whose proof would be my being able to play a piece all the way through without making mistakes. I got everything, as they say, wrong.
“Finally we forget what we are carrying and do not / make mistakes,” says Pamela Alexander in the final two lines of her poem “The Vanishing Point.” For me, these lines speak to what’s truer, more realistic than mastery, namely, fluency. To be absolutely up front about it: I don’t believe in mastery, when it comes to art, any more than I do when it comes to a relationship with another person. In both instances, the relationship—between two people, between art and maker—is symbiotic and organic, ever changing, on both sides, so how can there ever be mastery of what by definition never loses the ability to surprise, to change in ways that we can’t predict? This is why I’ve always described a writing career as a lifelong apprenticeship to what can never be fully mastered, even as the artistic impulse is an impulse toward mastery—that is, toward what only exists abstractly. In this way, I’ve also compared writing to devotion or prayer, both of which require absolute commitment to what can’t be proven to exist; the commitment (or faith, to continue the analogy) “merely” proves that we believe something exists. But the commitment is everything.
Back to fluency, then, and practice. The point of practice is to repeat an action enough times that it becomes routine, which is to say “we forget what we are carrying,” to return to Alexander’s poem, which links this forgetting directly to no longer making mistakes. By this logic, mistakes are the result of being overly aware of what we’re doing; once we lose this awareness, something else—I’ll call it instinct, intuition—takes over, a separate part of the mind, presumably. It’s as if we can think now without thinking about thinking—that is, without making mistakes, without interrupting our thoughts with doubt, or pride, or comparison with others, or concerns about audience, no fear. . .
From My Trade is Mystery by Carl Phillips. Published by Yale University Press in 2022. Reproduced with permission.
Carl Phillips is the author of sixteen books of poetry. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 2023 for Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007–2020. His most recent prose book is The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination. Phillips lives in St. Louis, where he teaches at Washington University.