“Freedom is the best thing” – Reading ‘Tove Jansson: Work and Love’

Tove Jansson

I’m half-Finnish, but I didn’t know what a Moomin was until I was an adult.

Maybe that’s not entirely true; I do have a dim memory of receiving a Moominpapa piggybank as a child, but I had no idea what what the character was supposed to be. However, as an adult I did finally learn, and I began also to learn about the Moomins’ creator, Tove Jansson. And I began to like her quite a lot!

My friend Susanna is a Finnish visual artist, and together we share this Tove-admiration. I had asked her if Finland had a good Jansson biography in English, and soon enough, a book more beautiful than I could have imagined arrived at my door.

Written by art historian Tuula Karjalainen, Tove Jansson: Work and Love, as the title suggests, focuses on Jansson’s life as it relates to her work and her relationships. I knew a bit about her life, and I knew that she did more than create the Moomins (I own a few of her non-Moomin books and love them dearly), but her level of dedication to her work was new to me. From an early age, she knew she wanted to be an artist. She worked at it diligently, and was prolific across many creative fields – as Karjalainen writes:

. . . embracing painting, fairytale, short stories, novels, plays, poems, songs, stage sets, monumental paintings, illustrations and advertisements to political drawings and cartoons.

Tove Jansson studio

My friend Susanna is also the one who encouraged me to read Big Magic last year, and so we had many long chats as I was reading the Jansson biography. We talked about the creative process, and how important it is to take it seriously and assert your self-identity as an artist (and, yes, for these purposes I’m classifying writing as an artistic pursuit. Odd how people separate it out from that category, isn’t it?).

I’ve been making more of an effort to put writing higher in my list of life priorities than it has been. The novel progress I was able to make during NaNoWriMo by writing every day reaffirmed to me that waiting for vague inspiration to strike only defeats projects before they get going. Reading Big Magic strengthened that belief, and since then I’m proud to say that I’ve been showing up more regularly, ready to do my end of the collaboration between me and my creativity. So it was highly timely to read about Jansson’s commitment to her work. She had her own vision and her own style, and she rarely strayed from it, even if it alienated her from her friends and peers. When abstract art came to Finland, she largely rejected it even though everyone else embraced it. She wrote that she would be:

a so-called individualist who paints lemons, writes fairytales, collects strange objects and hobbies, and despises mass meetings and associations. Looks ridiculous, but that is how I want my life.

Tove Jansson GARM

Jansson did have quite firm political and social beliefs, but she expressed them in her own way, and often in a way that may not have been obvious. She experimented with different styles and forms, but only if she wanted to. She brushed off the expectations people had of her, but she was also sensitive to criticism and worried about the value of what she was creating. Even though she struggled with the popularity of the Moomins and her specific identity as a painter, she still arranged her life so that her work came first. And even though I can’t follow her example quite so precisely, I know I’ll be forever inspired by her quiet determination, and how intricately she wove her life and work together.

Tove Jansson studio

Yesterday, I made myself a cup of coffee and read from the book in the shade of my balcony. It was a scorcher of a day, and most of my neighbours were indoors. All I could hear were birds, the occasional car. A family across the street was going in and out of their house, getting ready to move. I was, as usual, texting Susanna about all my Tove-thoughts, at that point so affectionate that they could easily appear to be thoughts about a distant relative. I looked up, thinking about a passage I had just read, and I saw a girl emerge from the house across the street. She was, almost impossibly, wearing a t-shirt with the Moomin character Pikku Myy on the front. I can’t help but take that as a good omen. An encouraging nudge.

If you’re in the US, you can find it on Amazon here, and in Canada, here.

January 2009, Calgary: Neighbourly.

There is a middle-aged woman in the building behind mine who I relate to. She has a big comfy chair by the window, and she likes to sit in that chair with her computer or a book or a crossword. There’s a lamp right next to the chair and a desk across the room, but she forsakes the desk for her comfort zone. I like her style.

In the apartment above her, a cat often sits in the window and it hasn’t waved back at me quite yet.

Two apartments above the cat, a man doesn’t know that his low-placed light casts his silhouette against the blinds.

November 2008, Calgary.

The boy crosses the street towards the School for Bad Children. It is cold but his jacket is unzipped and hangs from his shoulders. He calls cheerfully to his waiting teacher, “I just saw some of my old friends but I walked right by them!” And I think of all the worlds of meaning in this scene and that sentence.

I am going to recycle the following:

Some kids from the elementary school near my workplace have been installed as crossing guards. They stand at each side of the road in their bright yellow reflective vests, blow a whistle and hold out stop signs. They’re so serious, their arms straight and strong, looking directly ahead, sternly. I say thank you to each one and smile, and they just flicked their eyes toward me and away again. They are little Buckingham Palace guards.

Doris Lessing and wool-gathering

writing 2010
My grandmother and Doris Lessing presiding over my writing desk, 2010.

I found an old post from a different blog (called “Wordscience” – not to be confused with another, more talented Samantha!), written in 2010 as I was reading the second volume of Doris Lessing’s autobiography. This excerpt has always stuck with me, and I thought it worthy to share here too:

Impossible to describe a writer’s life, for the real part of it cannot be written down. How did my day go in those early days in London, in Church Street? I woke at five, when the child did. He came into my bed, and I told or read him stories or rhymes. We got dressed, he ate, and then I took him to the school up the street . . . I shopped a little, and then my real day began. The feverish need to get this or that done . . . had to be subdued to the flat, dull state one needs to write in . . .

And now, on the little table that has been cleared of breakfast things, replaced by scattered sheets of paper, is the typewriter, waiting for me. Work begins. I do not sit down but wander around the room. I think on my feet . . . I find myself in the chair by the machine. I write a sentence . . . will it stand? But never mind, look at it later, just get on with it, get the flow started. And so it goes on. I walk and I prowl, my hands busy with this and that . . . I walk, I write. If the telephone rings I try to answer it without breaking the concentration. And so it goes on, all day, until it is time to fetch the child from school or until he arrives at the door . . .

So that’s the outline of a day. But nowhere in it is there the truth of the process of writing. I fall back on that useful word ‘wool-gathering.’ And this goes on when you are shopping, cooking, anything. You are reading but find the book has lowered itself: you are wool-gathering. The creative dark. Incommunicable.

– Doris Lessing, in Volume Two of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade

Some girls wander by mistake.

Recently I went down a Sisters of Mercy-induced nostalgia spiral, and this particular nostalgia spiral was of a different sort than usual, because it led me to a time period I’m not used to feeling nostalgic for.

In high school I used to listen to Sisters of Mercy, but I also listened to all kinds of things. I used to look forward to ’80s “Retro Night” on the radio each Sunday, but I also dove headfirst into the short-lived swing revival of the ’90s, and my favourite band in the whole world was Moist. I wore a trenchcoat from the army surplus store, polyester “old-man pants,” and a KMFDM patch on my backpack. I was kind of all over the place. I didn’t know how to be one kind of way. I didn’t look down on it, as a concept – it just didn’t cross my mind as something I should do. And you can tell, when you look at old photos of me from high school and my early twenties.


(There’s also a photo of me dressed all in black and wearing a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt, but I also look like I’m about to burst into tears – unrelated to the shirt – and my ego won’t allow that to go on the internet, even 21 years later.)

My late high school and post high school life was similarly all over the place. My big dream was to study poetry at a certain university in San Francisco, work in publishing, and have my first novel out by 23. Instead, I didn’t go to university at all anywhere. I created a play in Toronto with my friends. I made lino prints and zines on my bedroom floor. I used to drive home from my restaurant closing shift, listening to Sisters of Mercy and New Order to stay awake. I got on a Greyhound bus to move to Calgary at age 21.

I used to feel irritated about certain things I did with that time of my life, even though the play and the zines were among the most wonderful things I’ve ever worked on. However, lately I have been spending the past few days remembering how nice that entire time was – all of it. I did good, fun, useful, growing-up things. It was better that they weren’t the things I thought I should be doing. It was the time in my life that led to this online journal entry, from 2001:

It’s been six days since last I updated. It feels like two. Or ten, I haven’t decided yet. Working sixteen-hour days on a play has completely messed with my sense of linear time. If I didn’t have the date strapped to my wrist I’d be lost. But I’m fine. I don’t have to be anywhere until 3 today, which is something new and exciting for me, and I’m actually eating something that’s not Futures coffee or sushi takeaway (much as I love sushi). Tonight I don’t have to build any tables or trawl thrift shops for costumes or drive all over creation picking up set pieces. My hands are covered in theatre filth. I spent the night in a beanbag chair.

Last night was our opening and overall it went well. It just doesn’t feel like anything happened. I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t excited. I was hovering somewhere in between. I was concentrating so much on making everything Work that I forgot to relax.

Relax. Wow. I still remember that word.

I’m going to go now and make a sacrifice to some god so that my cellphone will just stop ringing.

Every single part of that feels so removed from my life now. And where I used to feel annoyed at that, now I think it’s great. I think she’s great. And for the first time I want to write about that weird, messy, hopeful sort of person I was. That strange turn-of-the-century world that seems longer ago than I realize. Perhaps the distance, the loss of the prickliness I used to feel about everything, will help.

Productive nostalgia, for a change!

I read Big Magic.

I’d been hearing about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic for a long time, about how wonderful and inspiring it was for creatively-driven people. I’d even heard that it was life-changing. And, I admit, when I hear something is life-changing, I tend to shy away. I have a natural distrust of things that make that claim*.

However, I was talking with an artist and photographer friend of mine, who had recently read the book, and told me the exact ways in which it had helped her. I paid attention then, because my friend and I know each other very well, and she was certain I would enjoy the book and find value in it.

So, I borrowed it from the library. And, well, my friend wasn’t wrong!

Luckily, I’m not currently going through a period of creative strife – in fact, I’m a handful of chapters away from finishing the novel I’m writing. However, Big Magic was full of great passages and thoughts that resonated with me all the same – I definitely would have highlighted had it not been the library’s copy. Here’s one part that I especially enjoyed:

Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.

Therefore, ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners . . . When an idea thinks it has found somebody . . . who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention . . . You will start to notice all sorts of signs pointing you toward the idea . . . The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention.

And then, in a quiet moment, it will ask, “Do you want to work with me?”

I’m not really one who thinks that I have to receive a sort of divine inspiration before I can work. Especially lately. I’ve been realizing the value of sitting down to write something, anything, on a very regular basis. However, the idea of collaborating with an idea during the creative process? I love it. Reframing creativity as a partnership brings it slightly closer to my own level, and that’s a good thing. I may not ever be able to fully understand creativity in the way I understand more tangible things, but thinking of it as collaborative makes it somehow more exciting to me. It helps me to understand why working on a project on a regular basis, giving it the attention it deserves, can yield some fantastic results.

So. This book might change your life. It might just tweak it. But if you’re a creative person of any sort, I really think you should read it!


* I should mention that Gilbert herself wasn’t the one calling the book life-changing. In fact, in the book, she writes, “Please don’t make [helping people] your sole creative motive, because we will feel the weight of your heavy intention, and it will put a strain upon our souls.”

As someone weary & wary of self-help tropes, I was won over early – on page 22 – when she wrote:

Now you probably think I’m going to tell you that you must become fearless in order to live a more creative life. But I’m not going to tell you that, because I don’t happen to believe it’s true. Creativity is a path for the brave, yes, but it is not a path for the fearless, and it’s important to recognize the distinction.