I am so thankful to be able to read again. The first couple of months of the pandemic, before I was able to rein in the doomscrolling, I could not concentrate to read anything. Reading was one of the things I’d most been looking forward to after wrapping up my MFA—just being able to read anything I wanted and a lot of it. For the past couple of years, I was mostly reading things related either to school about visual storytelling, mining comics and other graphic narratives for ideas and techniques, or reading for my thesis project. I missed being able to just wander in my reading wherever it took me.
Now that I am reading again, I’m finding that I want to read things that are comforting, and right now, that means reading Tove Jansson.
It started with digging into a book of her short stories, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, which I had picked up a few years ago and had tried to start a few times but hadn’t been in the mood. I honestly have not normally liked short stories much, but am finding they are perfect for my wavering attention span these days. After that, I wanted more, and I followed the stories up with her novel, The Summer Book, which is about a little girl and her grandmother who are staying in a cabin on a small island off the coast of Finland for the summer.
The Summer Book was so lovely in its meditations on nature and time and aging—I identified so much with the grandmother in the book who seems to have entered into a second girlhood—that I’m now making my way through Letters from Tove, a volume of Jansson’s published letters, written over her long life to family, friends, lovers, and her editor.
I love reading letter collections. A few years ago I read the dishy, funny, and inspiring letters of English writer, Lytton Strachey, and have read the letters poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell wrote to each other, and the letters Vladimir Nabokov wrote to his wife, Vera. It’s one of the best ways I’ve found to hear the voice of an artist or writer, and to feel immersed in their world.
While pure escapism drove me to Jansson’s letters, I seem to have found them at just the right time as I’m thinking through a lot of post-MFA fear and loathing.
Tove Jansson was a writer, painter, and illustrator who wrote short stories and novels, painted easel paintings and murals, and is probably most known as the author and illustrator of a series of children’s books and comics featuring a family of troll creatures called Moomin. I first learned about her through the Moomin books and comic strips, which I had never seen until Drawn and Quarterly started publishing the collected comics several years ago. I bought several of those volumes, but, as with many books I buy, I wasn’t in the mood, and they are on the shelf, waiting for me to read next.
Jansson refused to be defined. She never married or had children, because it would have meant being defined by those things. She had relationships with both men and women. She spent most of the second half of her life with a woman who was also an artist, and they sometimes lived together in the same place and sometimes not, and sometimes travelled together, and sometimes not. She pursued all of her various creative projects and thought of them as all of a piece, would not let others or herself confine her to one thing, choose one or the other.
Her niece Sophia, who the little girl in The Summer Book was based on, said of her:
She thought through her pictures and often described them with her texts. In her adult short stories it’s made evident that her texts are shaped like an artwork, creating a strong entirety, just like in her paintings. She did not distinguish reading, writing, and drawing.
She also took the long view of a creative life, one she came to gradually. After a period of creative struggle during which she hadn’t been able to paint for a year (there was a war going on), she wrote to a friend, a photographer:
“It took me time to understand that it has to be a road, not a destination.”
And she continued to think and struggle about the purpose of her work, and wrote this to the same friend in 1949:
“I’ve tried to discover on my own account where the root of the “pleasure—duty” problem lies, because that’s presumably where things got knotted up at some stage…It all seems to hinge on a false ambition; something that ought to be a natural expression and need, (work) has become a means for achieving entirely different things. So no wonder I feel like puking in my paintbox!”
Since finishing up my program, I’ve been struggling not with others trying to put me in a box, but with my doing it to myself, especially the sense that, after all of that time and money and school, I must now only make visual essays. I refuse to see myself also as a legitimate writer (even though I have worked professionally as a copywriter now for two decades), that I can just write something and let it be that, submit it, maybe, and also with the idea that I can also just make illustrations that aren’t part of visual narrative (who but me says they have to tell a story?), make up some little prints or cards, or even just paint, which I haven’t done in years.
I think I’ve internalized too much noise about not being a serious artist unless I am deeply engaged to the point of obsession with whatever it is I’m doing, or, more critically, I think, that unless I am able to make a living from it, it doesn’t count. And in order to make a living from it in this day and age, you need to define yourself so that you can market yourself accordingly. That if you do too many things, have too many creative interests. You’re a hobbyist, a dilettante, a jane of all trades and master of none.
But why not do all the things? What does it matter in the end, really? Who is stopping me from doing anything but me?