Light in the Darkness: Literary Chiaroscuro in the Work of Tove Jansson

Photo by Tristan Pokornyi on Pexels.com

Warning: I am full-on author-crushing right now. The author: Tove Jansson (1914-2001), Finland’s most famous writer-illustrator, who introduced the world to the Moomins–a family of peace-loving trolls brought to life in illustrated children’s books–and also wrote some really fantastic literature for adults.

In light of the first feature film about Jansson releasing next month, I’ve recently devoted much of my reading time to her novel, The Summer Book, and her short stories. All capture Finland from the inside–in a way no travelogue ever could. Thank goodness for translations (and Thomas Teal, in particular, who translated much of Jansson’s work into English). Since I don’t read Swedish–Jansson was born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority–or Finnish. I’ve got enough on my plate trying to capture moments in Finland’s history in my novel-in-progress, set in part in this Nordic place–at once beautiful and dangerous, light and dark, like the best photograph, painting, or story. I’m looking for and finding much inspiration in Jansson’s work.

Translator Thomas Teal provides the introduction to the edition of Jansson’s The Summer Book I’m reading. He informs us that Jansson wrote this novel the year after her mother died, and there is grief reflected in the story she wrote. However, as with all Jansson’s writing, the master of brevity used a light touch. This novel follows six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother through their days over a single summer, living in a small house on a very small Finnish island. It’s all fairly placid, in the way that living close to nature is. You could say nothing happens, if nothing is living in accordance (mostly) with the surrounding flora and fauna, water and weather, and the occasional human visitor.

However, the driving force behind the days and emotions experienced by these characters is, as Teal notes, a “single event, so fleetingly mentioned as to be almost occult: ‘Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.'”

The novel’s chapters, each with their own title, work as stand-alone stories; taken together we get a tapestry of summer days–ups and downs, ebbs and flows. These are simple, but not simplistic, stories, accumulating in a universe that feels like the Northern Lights must, like magic. Author and reviewer Ali Smith says it best, I think:

[Jansson’s] writing is all magical deception, her sentences simple and loaded; the novel reads like looking through clear water and seeing, suddenly, the depth.

Ali Smith

Jansson’s short stories, likewise, remind me of a trick of light. Their simple premises offer layers of meaning–like shading reveals a truer shape of a two-dimensional drawn object. From Jansson’s collection, The Listener (1971), some “simple” plot summaries: a squirrel invades the routine life of a lonely old woman. A Japanese artist comes to Finland seeking dangerous animals–“Very savage, if you please.”–and the narrator helps him find some. A storm comes, and a former lover calls.

There’s Tove in the foreground.

In her introduction to the story collection at right, contemporary American novelist Lauren Groff notes Jansson’s education as an academy-trained painter, in Jansson’s recognition of the importance of shading in art of all kinds. “The darkness is as essential as the joyous and equally perilous light,” Groff writes.

“The light and the dark give each other definition.”

This long year of 2020 has dealt out a good bit of darkness–even during summer’s light. The trick is seeing it as shading that shapes and brings to the fore our concept of joy–shading I look for as I live and read and try to use what I read as inspiration for what I write.

Recently, in a virtual book club I belong to, we members were discussing another short story collection, and there was some grumbling about the lack of joy in the stories. I got to thinking about what a complicated thing joy is. Anybody who’s been around this blog a while knows what a fan I am of the poet and essayist Ross Gay, who writes a lot about “delights,” which typically don’t smack us on the head with joy but surprise us with small moments of the stuff. (Too much and we might not recognize it–become joy-gluttons, maybe?) Reading, for me, is a joyous act of discovery, made all the more delightful by traveling through darkness to reach a spot of sun, humor in defeat, or the absurd in the mundane. Light in the darkness. It’s worth the sometimes sad and even perilous journey–we writers know the act of writing can feel like that kind of cavernous darkness–to seek the light.

This isn’t just writer-reader talk here, but life talk. How hard my life would be if I went around expecting joy and light at every turn. And how boring! I’d much rather wander a bit, in life and art, swim dark waters, or traverse a dark forest once in a while, and be surprised by the delightful–even joyous–way the sunlight filters through the canopy of leaves above.

So, tell me, who are you reading? Do you read with the seasons? Do you read for joy, beauty? Are you inspired by your reading, to write? I highly recommend picking up absolutely anything by Tove Jansson. My boys are working their way through the Moomin tales right now.

And for one final thought:

We read Tove Jansson to remember that to be human is dangerous, but also breathtaking, beautiful.

Lauren Groff

* Featured image by Mari Huistinoja from Pixabay

On *Not* Writing

First off, let me confess right here that I have read one and only one Stephen King book: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I know. I could promise you that I will change my ways, and pick up Carrie or maybe the epic, The Stand. But I’m not about to make a promise I know I won’t keep. Time is short and my TBR is a leaning tower that grows taller by the day.

While it’s been a while since I read On Writing for a grad school class, one scene from King’s craft memoir sticks out in my mind. It features a young King up after the rest of his family is asleep in their trailer, using a washing machine as a writing desk. I can picture him hunkered over it, writing his horror-inducing, future-bestselling heart out.

Now that scene stands as a sort of gritty yet romantic image of the aspiring novelist who will stop at nothing to write–everyday–no matter what.

And, it’s an image that can serve us writers well–and ill.

Because, hear me out, there’s more to writing than the writing part. Novelist Lauren Groff put it better than I could on Twitter several days ago, and she went on to explain herself in a thread. But the initial tweet rang true for me, and maybe it will for you, too:

I don’t know who needs to hear this today (I do), but the vast majority of the time one spends writing a book isn’t spent in writing the book, but rather reading, dreaming, running, walking, experimenting, restarting, writing things that gradually bring you closer to the book.

Lauren Groff via Twitter

Something like 3.5 thousand retweets of Groff’s tweet later, and let’s assume quite a few writers needed to hear those words.

Boiled down: a lot of writing a book isn’t. It’s researching, reading a ton, writing around it, writing “off the book,” as they say–even if there’s no book yet.

And I’m going to venture: a lot of writing a book is about living with the idea of the book for a little while.

I was writing in the spring, even as my pandemic-anxiety shifted into gear (and sometimes overdrive). I wasn’t writing the book, but I was writing short reflections here at the blog that–from a distance–I can see thematically inform my book. I was reading–a lot–and connecting with writers I admire through interviews and reviews. I participated in a couple writing workshops, and even wrote a little “poetry” (note the quotes). (If you’re really paying close attention, my little guy’s buckteeth haven’t been fixed yet. “Soon and very soon,” as the hymn goes.)

Over the summer, which is not over quite yet, I lived, albeit safely and distanced–that’s my boys’ sailing class above, each kid to their own boat. I swam and ate Lake Erie perch and Maryland blue crabs and read and laughed and sang and read some more. Finnish author Tove Jansson is my current read-around-the-book obsession, and I’m loving her The Summer Book!

Reader, my tank is full, and so is my plate.

It’s my busy season as a development writer by day, but I’m writing the book: not 1,000 words a day, but it’s coming, because I was ready to write the book.

What are you reading this week? What are you writing? Are you a write-everyday-no-matter-what-writer? I admire you! #nextlifegoals

Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my handy-dandy categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

a bit of writerly advice…for July 31, 2020

Free image courtesy of KathrynMaloney at Pixabay.com

We are a thing-ful culture. A quick scan of my writing desk, and I realize I’m awash in things: a mouse that needs batteries, a coffee mug, an old manuscript in a box, a calendar, a laptop with more calendars inside, kids’ immunization records, a rolodex (I know, I know, welcome to the 21st century), a mouth guard for teeth-grinding I need to boil and use, a note card with an illustration of the Eiffel Tower (a really big thing made small), a recorder that also needs new batteries, a birthday card leftover from June, a fabric-covered box with love notes from my kids inside (things inside of thing)…

Paper-things many of these, but things, nonetheless.

For a minute, Marie Kondo’s less-clutter-more-happy idea made me disdain of my multitudinous things. Pandemic 2020 made me happy for them again, especially the stacks of books I’m still reading. I guess you’d call this relationship with things complicated.

Which brings me to my spot of writing advice for today, which was inspired by today’s feature over at Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I was recently promoted from features editor to associate editor. I encourage you to check out this short essay; in it the essayist, Darcie Abbene, calls upon authors and poets, including Ray Bradbury, Terry Tempest Williams, and William Carlos Williams to help her with her own writing. In turn, her essay helped me in my thinking about my writing–and it might do the same for yours.

As for those pesky things…Williams was a poet, whose most famous poetic phrase (probably) remains:

No ideas but in things

William Carlos Williams–from his poem “A Sort of a Song” and repeated in his epic collage titled Paterson

As a leader of the movements of modernism and imagism in poetry written in English–it makes sense that the poet was concerned with things. Of course, my things are not his things, just as yours aren’t mine. Williams was a physician, and I like to imagine how his professional things–and place things like a hospital or even (ahem) a red wheelbarrow–informed his thinking. So, things before ideas.

I’m paying close attention to things in my reading today. Working down my stack of withdraws from my local library ($1 each–sad, but lucky things for me), I’m currently reading Spy of the First Person, Sam Shepard, playwright, musician, and novelist’s, final fiction. So far, I’m flooded with things: a rocking chair, a beach, a cot, corpuscles both red and white… But I’m having trouble seeing the forest for the trees (the idea for the things?). I’ll keep working on it.

Which brings me to my own writing (Lord knows something should!). I’m back at it, my novel-in-progress, working in fits and starts, but working. And for all my anxieties over the things of my current state of life: 3-ply masks, school uniforms, new kids’ sneakers… It’s things–those concrete simple images set down on paper–that keep me writing.

Maybe it’ll work for you, too?

What are you writing? What are you reading this week? Any exciting weekend plans?

Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my handy-dandy categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

2 workshops, 2 prompts, and 1 weird writing season

Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay

Who even am I? Is pandemic time throwing anyone else’s writing for a loop? Just me then?

Really, I remember thinking to myself way back in March that I was going to use the time I was no longer spending driving my kids to and from school to write. I definitely wasn’t going to fill that time with shower-cries or deciding if I’m a chocolate-loving, peanut butter-loving, or original goodness-loving sort of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups connoisseur.

Silly me.

I have, despite these pandemic extracurriculars, been writing some–but certainly not the same as I was. Fiction has been tough-going, but I’ve written some short essays and snippets someone really nice (or related to me) might call prose poems. I’ll say it again: I am not a poet.

And while I’m not a big fan of Zooming as substitute for activities I was engaged with, pre-pandemic; I’ve enjoyed new Zoom opportunities, in particular two writing workshops I wouldn’t have made in person because of distance.

I thought of these workshops, one I attended just yesterday, when Lorna over at Gin & Lemonade mentioned writing prompts. (You’re going to want to visit her if you don’t already.)

Ah, writing prompts. Controversial stuff, right? I’ll admit to assuming most of my writing teachers who started every class with a prompt were using the time to lesson-plan on the fly. Maybe some were. I know I did just that, once I began teaching. As a student, however, I generally used writing prompt time to work on whatever short story or novel chapter I was mulling over, largely ignoring said prompt.

Prompts were for memoirists and poets always gazing longingly out the window for inspiration.

What a stubborn idiot I was. Sure, some prompts don’t hit you right, some work better than others. But the best ones flip a kind of switch in your brain to get at often-forgotten and sometimes really-weird-good material in there. I’d wade through a million mediocre prompts, now, to come across the best ones.

That said, there was no wading in either of the workshops I took this spring–both of which included several generative writing prompts. So, here are a couple of my favorite prompts and my responses.

Maybe one of these will flip your writing switch today?

You might remember that I interviewed poet and editor Jessica Fischoff, just the day before I took her Persona Workshop. Over Zoom from her home in Cincinnati, Jessica discussed persona poetry and character in prose–and then let us writers loose, scribbling to her prompts. Jessica is a prompts queen, but the one that flipped the right switch for me was to…

Use an inanimate object as the persona of a poem or prose piece, and here’s my attempt:

Figures the Ferris Wheel

If I could count, I would tell you
how many proposals I've heard
proposed at the apex of my grand wheel.
How many rings dropped, how many squeals
of delight, and how many women murmured
under their breathes, looked down at their bare fingers
gripping my bar, and said something like
"I have to think," softly, as if they knew I was listening.
I am always listening.

If I could count, I'd tell you how many boys scared girls,
and girls scared boys, shaking my cars, pretending they would 
break a spoke, heave this wheel, and make it all come crashing down
to the ground, where they would keep falling out of fear.
How many times.

~~~

Yesterday’s workshop with memoirist, essayist, and writing professor Sonja Livingston, who I interviewed right here and here for Rust Belt Girl, was also just what I needed to get out of my own way and write for an afternoon: new stuff, which is gratifying (especially when at work on a novel). New starts mean the writing well is not dry, folks! One of my attempts came in response to a prompt inspired by the work of Ross Gay. (If you’ve been here a while you know I’m always, always inspired by Ross Gay.):

Write about a “delight” or a list of “delights” and I picked one of my little guys:

My Son's Buckteeth

the orthodontist wants to fix
the goofy faces he pulls with them
the way his cowlick makes his blond hair stick up
hair that will go dirty like mine
and fall out like my brother's
the fact he still gives a good squeeze I don't have to take
the fact his hugs put him at my chest height but
he doesn't yet think this is weird

~~~

What weird and wonderful stuff have you come up with from a good writing prompt? Let me know if the comments.

What are you reading and writing this week? Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

Show me your poem of isolation reads

Just stack ’em up, any which way. Or, spend an hour creating your poem made up of titles you’ve read during the COVID-19 situation. (This doesn’t include my Google books, and does include books that I’m perpetually reading and a journal issue in which my words appear, but you get the picture.)

I didn’t come up with this idea, (shout-out to fellow blogger Lani, for introducing me to Steph @pieladybooks) but I think you can take a bit of license: add an article or two, play with punctuation and line breaks, of course. I went all ee cummings-lowercase, so the capitalization didn’t distract from the meaning. And my apologies to the late Sherwood Anderson, but I couldn’t help myself. Here it is, my poem of isolation reads. How about that near-rhyme at the end, right? Watch out, poets! And go ahead and suggest a title, if you’ve got one.

the heart is a full-wild beast, longing for an absent god
ruminate the everyday: old brown shiner, winesburg
o,
hi
o, find me!
magdalene, the virgin of prince street.
what you become in flight?
a catalog of unabashed gratitude, the book of delights

I’d love to see your poem of isolation reads! Still working on your reading arc–I’d love to see that, too.

I’ve done my best to chart and reflect on my family’s isolation here, even as restrictions begin to ease. Recreational boating is allowed again, so my guys will be back in Aqua Dove, that most glorious dinghy, soon. Maybe I’ll write a poem about it. Maybe not.

Want to read more of my isolation posts? I responded to WordPress Discover Prompts in April!–and you can, too. There’s no such thing as late work in blogging.

Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark

What your reading arc says about you

Image by Giacomo Zanni from Pixabay

Hi, and how are you?

If you’re well, I hope you’re reading. If you’re reading, maybe you want to consider your reading arc. I never really had before. But, a Twitter contact, @MattWeinkam, associate director of Lit Cleveland, proposed a fun exercise for us reader sorts:

Chart your reading arc from childhood to present day in 10 books. After a bit of thinking, here’s mine:

A Very Young Dancer>Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret>Their Eyes Were Watching God>Come to Me: Stories>The Innocent>The Fortunate Pilgrim>Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir>Bel Canto>Magdalene: Poems>The Book of Delights: Essays

Of course, there are so many books I love that I had to leave out. If I had 11 slots, I would have added a craft book: maybe Stephen King’s On Writing, which was probably the first craft book I read; or maybe the classic, Donald M. Murray’s The Craft of Revision, which I return to again and again, of course; or maybe the recent Meander, Spiral, Explode (I talked about that one here) by Jane Alison, which upended so many writing “rules.”

What does my reading arc say about me? A lot you already know.

I was a dancer, myself, and a Catholic, drawn to the story aspects of both, I suppose. At 19, I moved from Ohio to Virginia–I left out my Tom Robbins obsession (remember Jitterbug Perfume?). College days brought courses like African American Autobiography and opened my eyes to stories outside what my mom had on her bookshelves from college in the 60s.

Short stories were my entry into the craft of writing–and Amy Bloom is one of my favorite story writers. (Good story collections are great writing teachers.)

Grad school left little time for pleasure reads, but when I could, I liked early Ian McEwan and books that informed my own writing.

If it’s not dance, song in story is a running theme. And for this writer who managed to get an MFA without writing a poem, I read a lot of poetry these days–and essays and hybrids of all sorts. And I think, you could say, I’m arcing toward joy in my reading habits.

I hope that means I’m arcing toward joy in life. I need it now more than ever.

So, show me your reading arc–in the comments or on your own blog. You might be surprised at what it reveals about your reading and your life.

Let’s read together. Check out my categories above, with Rust Belt author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark

Small things: Discover Prompts, Days 29 and 30

My gratitude stops short of thanking the tiny tick I found on my hip. But if this period of isolation and fear due to the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me anything, it’s taught me to value the small things.

There are the gardening gloves given to me by one of my boys–for Mother’s Day, last year, I think. They are actually a little small for my long fingers, but they are also a beautiful turquoise. So I admired them as I weeded the flower beds around our house, yesterday afternoon–for a short time only, because my husband is a fastidious gardener, which is not a small thing.

Then there are the lilies of the valley I picked, which haven’t been overrun by the hulking hostas, this year, and whose little bells smell so sweet.

And then there’s the tree swing made by my dad, upon which I had a good swing after weeding and flower-picking–yep, this lady swinging away. It didn’t even make me nauseous, which is a pleasant small thing.

Today, it’s a soggy mess out there. But yesterday it was warm and clear and it seemed every neighbor was out cleaning his gutters, mowing the grass, or weed-whacking: in-town sounds, a minor suburban symphony.

My husband was in the veggie garden. Our boys finished their school work and came outside to join us, and eventually my little family lay down in the grass, feeling the springtime sun on our faces.

Enter the tick.

And…

Fin.

Many thanks to the WordPress editors for providing daily WordPress Discover Prompts in April! They helped me to chronicle our isolation. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompts: List and Grateful. Read others’ responses here. My other prompts responses:

Don’t be a stranger. Check out my categories above, with Rust Belt author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark

Mood: Discover Prompts, Day 28

“Harmony”

Cloudy. Off-kilter. A bit out-of-focus. This vessel will right itself, too.

How are you?

I’m chronicling our isolation with the help of WordPress Discover Prompts. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompt: Focus. Care to join in? Read others’ responses here. My other prompts responses:

Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with Rust Belt author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark

Take note: Discover Prompts, Day 23

Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay

Though I’ve been writing creatively (and otherwise, believe me) for a long time, I’ve always balked at journaling. You know the kind: the unfocused early-morning stare out the window at the lifting fog and write until the well runs dry kind of thing. The stuff of dream revelations, unlocked memories, and Hallmark card feelings.

I take notes, sure. Furiously jotted questions to research; those in-shower aha moments for revision; essays to read; agents to query. But if I’m writing, I’m not engaging in stream-of-consciousness free-writing exercises. I’m not unlocking a poet’s chakra I didn’t know I had in me. I’m really writing: characters, scenes, story arc, conflict, resolution.

Then came this pandemic.

Shutdowns and closures haven’t meant isolation chez this girl. They haven’t meant I get quiet time and space in which to research, write, revise, edit, repeat, and submit, submit, submit. Those with school-age kids are nodding their heads right now. Shutdowns have meant the exact opposite. We’re fine around here. We’re lucky. We have jobs, our health, a house and a yard. We’re also stressed and frustrated and not sleeping well and are really missing normal. Let’s just say it’s a little bit of an Isolation Circus–and this ring leader is tired.

But I can’t not write.

Writing is how I remember and process. It’s the way I make sense of things–especially things that make zero sense. So, when the world shuts down, abnormal is normal, topsey is turvey, and all else fails. What is this writer to do?

Kind reader, I journaled.

No, not at dawn, while musing on lifting fog. More like right now, on this blog. I mean, what else is this but journaling? Color you disappointed, maybe, but these are my innermost thoughts.

I’ve said it before, strange times call for taking strange measures. Some advice that’s been working for me: Stories not coming? Try it as a prose poem. Stuck on the next chapter of your WIP? Begin an off-the-book essay that utilizes some of your research. Stuck in your own head, arrange to interview a writer you admire. Don’t journal on some strange and cynical principle? Try it! (Trust me.)

And, forever and ever, read everything you can. Buy books from your local bookstores or straight from the author. Join in with the virtual book clubs popping up online. And let’s all work together to keep the book world from shutting down, too.

Know of an author whose book is releasing during these pandemic times? Share the title in the comments. I’ll start, as I have two books arriving soon I’m super excited for: Amy Jo Burns’ (who I interviewed here) novel, Shiner; and Ellen O’Connell Whittet’s memoir, What You Become in Flight.

Your turn: what are you writing and reading now?

I’m chronicling our isolation with the help of WordPress Discover Prompts. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompt: Note. Care to join in? Read others’ responses here. My other prompts responses:

Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with Rust Belt author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark

A joyful noise: Discover Prompts, Day 20

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

No joke: my husband thought I was the neighbor’s beagle. OK, let’s back up. You know, as much as I love to sing, I’m not much of a vocal self-starter. In the car, I typically sing along with Evita, Sia, or Fiona (holla if you’ve heard her latest–is it as wild as this Vulture interview with her?).

In the family room, my boys and I butcher Queen and Journey ballads as something of p.j.-wearing chamber music ensemble.

As the newest soprano in my church choir, I spent Advent and the Christmas season joining my voice with others’–led by a choir director who knows how to get the best from us and our vocal chords. (Not squeamish? See vocal chords–not mine–in action, here.)

And so I came to a point in this isolation that I missed it–missed feeling the sound of song start in my guts and travel through my chest into my head all tingly. I felt I needed to sing. Only, the thing about my isolation is that it’s with three other people. What’s one more than trisolation? Anyway, it’s not exactly the introvert’s ideal. So, I warned them, closed my office door, and began. I am not great, or even very good, but I am loud. So, it was during these vocal exercises that my husband mistook my voice for a dog’s.

Reader, we are still married.

Joking aside, it’s been nice to explore the free resources–and plain fun–available to amateur singers on YouTube. I like vocal coach Madeleine Harvey’s warm ups and especially her video on head voice. Freya Casey, a German opera singer and vocal coach, also leads singers through exercises and has a “How to Sing” series that breaks down popular songs–including Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro.” All it takes is 17 minutes, folks. Or, a lifetime. Still, it’s fun to try. And then there’s swoony Josh Groban’s latest isolation-themed #ShowerSongs series. Sorry, Grandma, he’s fully clothed. But check out that subway tile.

So, tell me, how are your hobbies going in isolation, trisolation, or otherwise?

I’m chronicling our isolation with the help of WordPress Discover Prompts. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompt: Music. Care to join in? Read others’ responses here. My other prompts responses:

Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with Rust Belt author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark