“Babies are cute so you don’t kill them” are words that hit me like ice water to the face. They are the words that open the seventh chapter of Molly Crabapple’s new memoir, Drawing Blood, and they are typical of the vivid and intentional prose that maneuvers around the paintings and sketches that punctuate the account of her journey from her dream-worn childhood to her career as an artist. She is a witness to and a survivor of the early 21st century, deftly navigating through its snares and rewards. And while the topic of cuteness as an evolutionary shield from infanticide is a worthwhile one, it is the next sentence that prompts me to write this essay. It reads, “Young artists must be arrogant so they don’t kill themselves,” and I’ve read it over and over again in Molly’s voice, knowing it to be a shared piece of wisdom but taking it as a direct, personal, and deadly serious instruction.
I take it so seriously because before I was capable of being arrogant as a writer, Molly was arrogant on my behalf. Though my work lived only in a few remote and low-paid digital outlets, she dignified my writing like it belonged to one far more prolifically published and handsomely paid. I was interviewing her for a story about NYU’s controversial construction projects in Abu Dhabi and self-deprecatingly mentioned that it was all right if I didn’t extensively report the story because it was for a small audience and by a small writer. “No. You’ll want to have gotten this right when you’re famous and making real money,” she said, curt but familiar. Having read only two or three of my stories, she spoke of my future success as an inevitability rather than the remote possibility I thought of often but never dared speak of aloud. And while I took it as a function of kind eccentricity at the time, I see after reading Molly’s memoir that it was also a function of the peculiar filter through which she sees the world. In this world, objects and people and ideas are laid bare, free from the exhausting weight of their usual attachments and seen for what they are: often baffling, frequently brilliant, and always with more raw strength than most of us are capable of detecting. (I have since become arrogant on my own account, as you can see.)
“Authority may have controlled the rest of my life, but in that four-cornered kingdom of paper, I lived as I pleased. There I was the actor, not the acted upon. When my mind turned in on itself, I drew anyway, learning that art can’t save you from pain, but the discipline of hard work can drag you through it. My pen became my life preserver,” she writes of discovering drawing as a child. Though I do not draw or paint, I recognized the impulse to create my way out of pain and was affirmed by her unflinching commitment. Hers is a story of art as liberation, of building a world with her words and giving shadows and shapes to the objects and individuals that congregate and disperse along the real and metaphorical roads she travels. Molly detects the bright and beautiful as well as she does the dark and fearful in the world not just because her eye is keen, but also because her eyes are so wide open. From street cats to Turkish castles, Molly’s pen gives form to a world she aches to be a part of but that she is cautious of consuming too eagerly or for its own sake. She occasionally claims to be clumsy when she is steady, a force that people break against and then blame her fortitude rather than their own frailty.
And though her travels take her to the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, the thoroughfares of Morocco, and the trials at Guantanamo Bay and beyond, New York City is the beating heart at the center of this living story. Molly describes running through Times Square with a friend, the frenetic pace of the city’s core the only plausible match for the speed and light of the young and hopelessly hopeful. “But on the streets we were crowned with capitalism’s halo. John dove onto the curb before the light changed. ‘What will you be, Tartlet? Tartanian?’ he asked. We could never be ourselves,” she writes, mythmaking within her own mythmaking. She describes the city as “practical and mercenary,” which might just as well describe Molly or me or any artist who must make room in their life for creating but then must also make the leap to the vulnerable but ruthless claim that the creation deserves to be seen. And then must make the leap over and over again every day until someone believes it. Because Molly is the artist who drew me closer to that edge, I felt particularly at home in her New York City stories.
“In that garden of text, you could sell a goldfish, a blowjob, an ottoman, your love” is how Molly describes the same New York Craigslist I trawled for ways of earning cash during several of the same years that Molly did. The afterglow of memory makes the sordid business almost charming and especially compared to other New York markets. “I spent a year’s salary on some cuff links, whisper SoHo’s demons. Nothing can touch me,” she writes of the appeal of Soho shops, their hollowness decorated away through presentation and brand recognition. One could go on forever talking about the familiar conundrums at the intersection of sex, money, power, and the city that Molly brings to life, but the more immediate struggle of the memoir is to be an artist whose art is recognized and, by extension, whose interior life is more acutely witnessed.
“Artists are told that we’ll be discovered. That there is a meritocratic Yahweh on high, and if only we’re good enough, he’ll reward us with magazine spreads, collectors, and a white-cube gallery in Tribeca,” Molly writes after a show of her drawings in Brooklyn nets zero attendees. Molly dispels of any such myths as she claws through years of artistic creation constantly interrupted by the need to make money for survival. And along the way in her process of building an arsenal of artwork to leap into the world with and at least arriving at the success of visibility and financial gain, she destabilized defeat by being the eyes in search of art that has gone unseen. Molly did that for me when she talked to me like a writer before I was able to feel like one. Perhaps she was invoking the motto emblazoned on the wall of Shakespeare and Company, where she stayed years before: “Be kind to strangers, they may be angels in disguise.” But more likely I think she was doing what comes naturally to her: opening her dream-worn eyes and bringing out the art that is already inside it. “Art is hope against cynicism, creation against entropy. To make art is an act of both love and defiance. Though I’m a cynic, I believe these things are all we have,” she writes in one of her closing chapters, another piece of wisdom shared that I’m taking as serious instruction.
Alana Massey is a writer in Brooklyn, NY working at the forefront of Feelings Journalism. Her book, All the Lives I Want, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing. She tweets at @alanamassey.