It’s not often that I don’t want to finish a book. Even when I love a book, I’m usually satisfied with the conclusion and happy to check it off the list and start another (hopefully also wonderful) book. But I did not want to reach the last page of The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin. I wanted to continue traveling around the world with her, as she stalks the former haunts of dead artists and writers.
Jessa Crispin joins the ranks of lost souls who set out into the world to search for something that will heal them: a new location, new people, new experiences, or maybe just the quest itself – escaping who we are in our lives at home. At home, she found herself contemplating suicide. She set out hoping to find a reason to stay alive. And, like some of my very favorite travel writers, she chose to construct her journey by seeking out refuge in writers and artists who’ve influenced her:
“It was the dead I wanted to talk to. The writers and the artists and composers who kept me company in the late hours of the night: I needed to know how they did it. I’d always been attracted to the unloosed, the wandering souls who were willing to scrape their lives clean and start again elsewhere.”
She travels slowly, immersing herself in what’s left of each creator’s world, and she meditates on the life and work of her dead travel companions with a critical and insightful eye. Here are a few of my favorite of her musings:
“The job of the artist should not only be to take dictation, it should be to make oneself as large a canvas as possible, to constantly be pushing at one’s boundaries.”
“To believe you are the creator of your own world is to dishonor the divine. When you believe that you are in charge, that you are not in a collaboration every time you sit alone at your desk, it’s no wonder what comes from your pen is so earthbound and weighty. No wonder the muses turn up their noses.”
“Lack is one of the world’s greatest motivators. The lack that not even financial success can fill. The need for something internal or external — that is what drives us back to the table, or the easel, or the theater hall again and again. It’s very revealing, the moment a person finds satisfaction and can put the work aside. Is it when the big award is won? When the husband and baby have been found and secured? When the bank account is full? When there’s a different seventeen-year-old taking off their pants for you every night? When do you stop growing or fighting or chasing? Or do you never stop, still struggling until your last moments to get at it. And which is a more depressing way to live?”
The connecting thread throughout the shift from city to city and artist to artist is Jessa herself – she’s disarmingly honest and real, and her journey never comes across as anything except ernest and important. Stories of those who travel to find something can run the risk of being interpreted as self indulgent, but Jessa Crispin has created a work of art in her own right.
Author photo by Chuck Kuan.