“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.

Stop calling yourself an aspiring writer (please)

don't call yourself an aspiring writer

A couple of days ago, I was thinking about the phrase “aspiring writer” or “aspiring author.” I recorded a quick YouTube video about it, but I wanted to share my thoughts about it here too.

I want to say first that I don’t mean to call anyone out or be a downer. In fact, I hope this is a positive rant! I’ve just been noticing that a fair number of people on social media refer to themselves as an aspiring writer. They post pictures of their works-in-progress, they talk about story ideas they’re fleshing out, they talk with other writers, they even attend workshops and conferences.

And every single time, I wish I could tell them: You already are a writer!

I do understand why they use the word “aspiring.” It’s a way to signal to the world that you’re serious, that one day you’re going to be published, maybe even famous. You’re saying “one day I’ll be a professional writer.”

But here’s why it bugs me: Being published doesn’t make you a writer. Being well-known doesn’t make you a writer. If you’re developing your craft and doing the work, then you’re a writer. Whether you’ve been at it for two months or twenty years – if you are writing relatively regularly, have stories in mind, think and talk about writing, then you are a writer.

I know it seems like I’m nitpicking here, but I really believe that using the word “aspiring” rewires our thinking in ways we wouldn’t seek to do consciously. “Aspiring” puts the focus on getting paid or “arriving.” While getting paid is good (I’m a freelance and fiction writer – I love getting paid!), it removes the work as the main thing. If people believe they have to be at a certain nebulous level to be considered a writer, then they might never get started. For every published piece of writing, there are months and often years of unseen work behind it. Sleepless nights, revising, re-revising, rejections, self-doubt, the tyranny of the blank page. Not to mention all the work that the writer decided was best to just keep in a drawer. Anyone who pushes through all that for the sake of a story they want to share is a writer, whether or not what they produce is ever published. If you start out thinking you’re not a “real” writer yet, you’ll probably feel less ownership over the project you have in mind.

Maybe some people tag themselves as “aspiring” because they encounter others who don’t put the same value on writing as a craft, or believe that writers are only as big as JK Rowling or Stephen King. People who expect “writers” to be prolific or popular are short-sighted, and in the minority. Most people take me at face value when I tell them I’m a writer. They don’t ask me to prove it. So if they believe me, and if I’ve been writing poems and stories and novels and zines and blog posts for years, who says I’m not a writer? There’s no governing body. There’s no entrance exam. There’s just your brain, your story, and your writing implement of choice. That’s it.

In 2012, I attended a Paul Auster interview where he said, “It’s impossible to describe how much I dislike my own work.” It was so liberating to hear. A revelation. Paul Auster’s work has been published since the ’70s, but he still dislikes it at times. Being published means nothing. It is not a train station that you will arrive at and be crowned Finally A Writer. So why not just crown yourself Writer at the very beginning and give yourself an easier – and infinitely more fun – time of it?

New novel & worldbuilding

At the end of 2017, I had finished the draft of my novel, and was feeling kind of lost. I had been working on it for a year, I had finished NaNoWriMo with it, and suddenly it was done and off to beta readers.

I had this writing momentum I didn’t want to lose, but I didn’t know what to work on. So I dipped back into something I had started years earlier. In 2012, Readers’ Digest invited people to submit their ultra-short stories on Twitter. One of my submissions was published, and I took this little snippet and started writing a story.


I abandoned that story, and picking it up again last year, after so long with a novel, felt weird. I struggled with it. Maybe my brain had rewired without me realizing it. Whatever the reason, I decided that there was nothing for it but to turn that short story snippet into a new novel. The novel I wrote last year was more magical realism than anything, but this one is looking like a sci-fi/fantasyish/mystery sort of hybrid. I’ve read a fair amount of genre fiction, but have never attempted to write anything substantial in those areas myself. And, as it turns out, I’m enjoying it quite a lot.

Okay, I’ll be honest: I just completed the first chapter the other day. What had been occupying my brain up ’til then has been the research, the worldbuilding. I examined the small amount of actual narrative I’d written for the short story, and realized that I couldn’t go on – I hadn’t figured out how the magic system in this world worked. I didn’t know what made these people leave Earth. And then – it was a spaceship. How many people lived in it? What did they eat? How did they get water? What jobs did people have? Who kept the peace? Was there peace?

As I did more research into the backstory of my little world, I realized that this spaceship couldn’t look sleekly futuristic. No Star Trek, much as I love it. So, then I had other considerations: What animals would exist and why? What would peoples’ homes look like? Will every area look the same? If not – how would they differ? How would this environment influence the characters and the way they act?

novel world-building in pinterest

As with my previous novel, I found Pinterest helped me to find more concrete representations of the vague threads of ideas I had swirling around in my brain.

And when it came time to decide the all-important question of population growth over time in my city-ship, there was only one option:

novel world-building in excel

I haven’t gotten to the map-drawing stage yet, but oh, I will. When I was in middle school, I wrote a couple of little books set in a fictional town. I spent some summer afternoons happily drawing each character’s street, their house layouts, even the layout of their local mall (I was twelve). And, in a strange way, this worldbuilding reminds me of those pleasant afternoons, sitting on my bedroom floor, leaning against my door so my brother wouldn’t come in, getting completely lost in this entire creation process.

Despite the novel I just completed, I have been a short story writer longer than anything. I got used to the constraints of that format, even though my stories were on the long side. When I wrote my last novel, I had to really work at internalizing the fact that I had more time now, that I could do more things. Now, with this next novel, all I have are things to create and invent. There’s something slightly infuriating about that sometimes, but it’s also more than a little addicting. One idea rolls into another idea, which rolls into another, and everything seems possible and fun and worthy of investigation. I can’t recall thinking about a writing project so constantly, so excitedly, in years. During my Humber mentorship I discovered how much I enjoyed the process of unpicking the knot of yarn that a writing project can turn into. It’s deeply satisfying, feeling a writing problem unfurl and begin to carry you along again.

At least, it certainly feels like the complete opposite to the state of mind I was in in 2015, when I wrote a post with the dramatic title I quit writing!

Worldbuilding resources that helped me:

Do you have any worldbuilding resources to recommend?

Writing in reverse

Unpopular opinion: I think the Rewind feature in Instagram stories is better than any other (I’m looking at you, Boomerang.) And writing in reverse is sometimes more fun than writing normally.

Some old new things.

writing in 2011

I couldn’t tell you how I started, but tonight I found myself reading through archives of my blog previous to this one, Clock & Bell. I came across some old writing-related posts that, all these years later, were so much fun for me to read. Such a different time. Was I ever really that person? Writing those things? I was a good writer then and I loved it, but I was shaky on my legs about it, like a newborn foal.

(Reading those old posts, by the way, made me kind of regret shutting down my old blog. My reasons for doing so were sound and I’m glad I didn’t scrub it from the internet entirely, but part of me does miss it, as part of me misses almost every blog I shut down. It was such a good part of my life!)

Anyway, if you’re interested, they are all of the posts from between 2010 and January 2012 – or you can choose from this list:

Some other entries not necessarily writing-related, but were old favourites of mine:


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.