“I now see how much more powerful stamina can be than talent,” writes poet Carl Phillips, “or to say it another way, how powerless talent is, on its own, without stamina—rather like what is said about the body once the soul has left it, though I don’t believe in the soul. I do believe in stamina.” In “Stamina,” a piece in The Sewanee Review‘s fall 2022 issue, Phillips reflects on writing over time, imposter syndrome, urgency, perspective, and transformation.
“Stamina” is an excerpt from Carl Phillips’ new book, My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing, out today from Yale University Press.
I stopped writing for myself some years ago, not because I chose to, but because I stopped feeling that deep urge to write. I spent my 20s obsessively thinking and writing about a part of my life, but after a certain point, I kept repeating the same things. Gradually, that redundancy not only dulled my prose, but my mind. Since then, there’s nothing new I’ve wanted to explore. So I was drawn to many lines in Phillips’ piece, in which he examines that necessary, automatic, can’t-do-anything-else act of writing, and the type of stamina that’s required to keep going.
Which is to say, stamina is not just persistence; stamina, in the way that I’m thinking of it, always includes perspective, the means by which we can contextualize doubt and, in giving it context, displace it somewhat, thereby clearing room again for shaken faith. Maybe the best way to think of stamina is as a fusion of perspective and will.
Phillips describes a prolific period of urgent writing, when he was exploring his own sexuality and writing poems that would eventually form his first book. I love what he says about the “urgency of youth itself” — the window deep within us that’s wide open when we’re younger, actively exploring who we are as adults and trying to understand our world.
[W]e have a lot to say, all of it still new, and we have the energy to say it. I remember feeling, at the time, that I couldn’t write fast enough to get all of my thoughts down.
Phillips goes on to say how a “crisis of identity” was the “catalyst for a productivity” he’s not experienced since — which very much reminds me of my own journey — and that as we go, we cannot rely on crisis alone to fuel us. How do we keep writing and interrogating while continually saying something new? How, over the decades, do we become a solid critic of our own work?
At the same time, it’s encouraging to know that, with age, in tandem with experience, our sensibilities deepen, which means that we don’t have to work at constantly changing how we see the world—that changes anyway, as does the world itself. A certain amount of the work of avoiding redundancy is just part of being alive.