From Our Authors | May 05, 2016

Today, the Missouri Review presents our fifth installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Genese Grill, whose essay “Portals: Cabinets of Curiosity, Reliquaries, and Colonialism” won the 2015 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction and appears in our Spring 2016 issue. 


“I thought you already finished,” a friend, who is not a writer, will invariably say whenever I boast that I am finally done with an essay or a book. I am finished again, or still, because finishing is not really a definitive moment, but a long process, from the first and second drafts, to the third, to editing, to editing again, to rewriting sections, to changing the title; maybe there is an index, then there are proofs and proofs again. So when I say I just finished my book, you will understand that it will be finished a few more times over the course of the next year, but that I still feel I have some cause to celebrate. But finishing also feels bad. Not only does it mean the end of a very long relationship one has had with a complex of ideas or characters or a place, but it also requires that one make peace with imperfection and, paradoxically, incompleteness—since there is so much, always, that one has left out, and so much, one thinks, that could be better said, or said differently, or arranged in another way. At best it feels like a sort of fulfillment of a vision; but no matter what there is a loss. And one has to figure out once again who one is, and what one is supposed to be doing with this life, without the project that has defined one for so long.

But how does one know when something is finished? Robert Musil, whose experimental novel The Man Without Qualities was never finished, has been a dangerous mentor for me; his sense of infinite possibility and experimentation with alternate versions is very seductive. But I am, for better or for worse, somewhat impatient and not a perfectionist. I spend a good deal of time meandering around among all the notes, questions, sources, sometimes making gigantic idea-maps and asking myself over and over what the point of the whole thing is (reminding myself what Emerson said about how the writer often leaves out the most important part, since it has become so obvious to him in the long rumination). I go forward and then I go back, constantly making small progress and then retreating again. It is completely inefficient, completely organic, completely frustrating, but exciting too. Anyway, despite the infinite-seeming strands of my projects, I do eventually weave them together in some fashion, finish, and move on to something else. But the completion always comes as somewhat of a surprise, as if the endless-seeming tiny steps start to accelerate before I can even catch up with them, and something takes over and finishes for me. But how do I know?

The Pre-Raphaelite painter Burne-Jones said that one had to ruin a painting a little bit before one knew it was done; and perhaps there is something to that. Maybe it is more like a tarnishing than a ruining; or like the fuzz being rubbed off a peach. Or it is as if the first romance between an author and her ideas has given birth to a baby who learns, by the time the book is done, to walk by itself. One doesn’t love the toddler any less than the newborn, but it is more autonomous, and one can observe it from the outside, as something one knows one made, but does not quite know how. One can begin to pay attention to other things, other births.

When something is far from finished it makes me feel ill. It is as if a mess of jagged shards of glass are crossing inside my stomach. These are all of the disordered ideas, the doubts, the things I once thought were related to each other but can’t yet remember why; these are the nagging contradictions I might try to suppress because they don’t fit smoothly into my conception. They may well be a reflection of the chaotic jumble of the world itself, before an ordering mind selects out and arranges pieces into some bearable, legible form. Until I have ordered the shards into a clear and pleasing mosaic of words, ideas, and images, I feel deeply uneasy. And when I do arrange them, or—rather—when they seem almost magically to fall into place under my fingers, after many hours and weeks of struggle and despair, I really don’t know how it happened.

My essays tend to contain more ideas and subjects than would seem advisable. The essay “Portals” is about people who collect things, medieval reliquaries, iconoclasm, primitive gift exchange, colonialism, Descartes, the discontents of civilization, ornamentation in the Viennese Secession, relationships, ex-patriots, and walnut oil. What was I thinking? When I arrived at The MacDowell Colony for a four week residency, I had planned to finish the one final essay in my collection. But on the first day I surprised myself with reasonableness, acknowledging that the one essay needed to be broken up into two. I just couldn’t possibly fit social construction theory, genetics, the blank slate, the categorical imperative, Poe’s “imp of the perverse,” Nietzsche’s sojourn to Torino, Goethe’s Italian Journey, the crisis of language, and the difference between the aesthetic individualism of Gabriele D’Annunzio and the fascism of Mussolini into one essay. But I did manage to fit that all into two, which may not have been wise— my brain may have gotten sprained— but at least I am finished again. Very tired, but finished.

And now, with my last week in residency, and a new project in my mind’s eye, I am faced with something even more difficult than finishing: beginning.

Photo by Suzanne Levine

Photo by Suzanne Levine

Genese Grill is an artist, writer, translator, and independent scholar living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House, 2012) and translator of Robert Musil’s Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015). Her essays and translations have been published in the Georgia Review, Numero Cinq, Fiction, and Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics.