When Chad Thomas Johnston introduces me to someone, I’m excited because, well, Chad knows cool, interesting people, and Jan Vallone is no exception. Today, I hope you’ll enjoy learning about her writing and her teaching.
1. Tell me about your latest project.
My latest project is a teaching project rather than a writing project. Towards the end of 2013, the director of the Mental Health Ministry at St. James Cathedral in Seattle asked me if I would facilitate a writing workshop for people suffering from life events that disrupt mental and spiritual wellness, such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, abuse, a disability or disease, etc.
Much has been written about the healing power of writing. Basically, the theory is this: Writing can help anyone—not just people who consider themselves writers—heal from traumatic events. By writing a detailed account of an experience that describes both the happening and the emotions it arouses, a person may come to understand the occurrence, ascribe meaning to it, achieve a cathartic release of complex, pent-up feelings, and heal.
I experienced this type of healing myself when I completed my memoir, Pieces of Someday, which was published by Green Darner Press in December 2013. Several of the book’s chapters deal with painful experiences that had festered within me for years. Once I put them on the page, though, they stayed there. They no longer burden me.
I have also witnessed students heal from writing. For example, from 2002 through 2007, I taught language arts at a yeshiva—an Orthodox Jewish high school. When one of my students, Zach, lost his brother to cancer, he stopped turning in assignments, his grades plunged, and sometimes he skipped class. But when I asked the students to write a memoir about a painful moment, he decided to give it a try.
Zach wrote a story about his brother’s death and revised it multiple times. The result was so moving that I encouraged him to submit it to a writing contest. Although ten thousand students entered, Zach took second prize and won a substantial college scholarship. He became a motivated student. Not only did he complete high school and college, he also recently received an MFA in screenwriting from my MFA alma mater, Goddard College.
Because I believe strongly in the healing power of writing, I decided to take on the project at St. James. Since January, I have been facilitating a group of 12-15 writers who have produced some very powerful stories. Each week, I discuss an element of writing, such as imagery, dialogue, or characterization, after which the group writes. Writers can then read their work aloud and receive honest affirmation from the group. Last week, one writer told me that the workshop has restored the confidence he lost when his employer laid him off. Another told me she is amazed that no one has called her stories “inept” or “garbage”; in school, she’d been labeled stupid.
That’s what I call healing.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
I have always been an avid reader. When I was young, I chain-read books from the public library and from the library at school. In those days, I greatly enjoyed classic British love stories: Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I also enjoyed writing poems, mostly about God, nature, love, and longing. Those were days of youthful angst.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
I write every morning, but most of what I write isn’t “art.” Each day I answer emails and write in connection with my job. For the past seven years, I’ve been teaching writing and education courses at Seattle Pacific University. This means that I spend a lot of time writing curriculum, revising curriculum, and making PowerPoints, all of which I enjoy. When these are the only things I’m working on, I write from 8:00 a.m. until noon. I teach in the afternoon. About once a month, though, I write a personal essay or memoir for Good Letters, the literary blog of Image Journal. (Read an example here.)
When I am writing creatively, I tend to become obsessed. I wake up with ideas at 4:00 a.m. and pop out of bed to jot them down, sometimes returning to sleep, but other times staying up to write. I also get ideas in the shower. For me, ideas often flow with water! When that happens, I bolt from the shower dripping-wet, pull on a terry robe and air dry at my computer while typing frantically.
?4. Who are you reading now?
I just began reading a book called The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground, by Rosemary Mahoney. It’s a memoir that describes six pilgrimages that the author made to places such as Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Lourdes in France, and the Sea of Galilee in Israel.
Last September, my husband and I walked 200 miles of the Spanish pilgrimage that Mahoney wrote about. Ever since then, I’ve been very intrigued by pilgrimages, seeing them as metaphors for life. In the future, I hope to make other pilgrimages and maybe write a book about them. Here is a short essay I wrote about the pilgrimage in Spain.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
I’ve read and loved zillions of books, so choosing three is impossible. A lot depends on purpose. For example, my three favorite books for children might be The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, and Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback because all three deal with vocation, the idea that each of us was put on this planet to serve other people in a particular way that not only improves the world, but also brings us personal joy. This is a favorite theme of mine, and it’s what my memoir is about.
My three favorite books to teach to adolescents might be Night by Elie Wiesel, The Promised Land by Mary Antin, and Floating in My Mother’s Palm by Ursula Hegi because each is beautifully written—with spectacular imagery and lyricism—and deals with coming of age.
Sagas that I might want to read again might include A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin, The Winds of War by Herman Wouk, and Giants in the Earth by Ole Edvart Rølvaag, because each pulls the reader into another time and world that becomes wholly engaging.
And I can’t leave out The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a book that seems to be for children, but is utterly profound.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
For me, this has been a challenge. As a memoirist, I write non-fiction, but I don’t write about a single subject—other than myself! So there really isn’t a particular group of people that constitutes my “market.” People who have enjoyed my work include Italian Americans, lawyers, teachers, writers, people who like traveling and Italy, people who have faced infertility, Christians, and Jewish folk.
Some of my memoir-writing friends have been able to build a platform because their work deals with a specific topic. For example, I have one friend who wrote a memoir about dealing with her mother’s Alzheimer’s, so she has made herself into an Alzheimer’s expert and speaks at Alzheimer’s fundraisers and educational events. Another one of my friends wrote a memoir about coping with her daughter’s rare autoimmune disease, so she has educated herself on that illness and speaks to groups who are interested in it. My work has no focus like theirs.
Honestly, marketing isn’t my strong suit. Building a presence online and touring around giving talks is time-consuming work. I put my time into teaching.
7.What is a typical day like for you?
Do housework, write, prepare for teaching, go to yoga, shower, teach, meet with students, grade papers, do teaching administrative work, write, read, cook dinner, eat dinner, watch TV, read, sleep.
8. Describe your dream writing space.
I have it! A quiet study that overlooks my garden and has a big desk, lots of book-filled shelves, many family photos, and a sleeping basket for my cat. I don’t share it with anyone, except, of course, my cat.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
During my second semester at Goddard College’s MFA program, I read one of my pieces at a workshop. It was a memoir about teaching at the yeshiva, and when I finished reading, I wasn’t allowed to speak as the group critiqued my work. The comments bounced for an hour and seemed more about the problems with my teaching style than about the writing. Most hurtful were the comments of one member of the group. He’d been late and entirely missed the reading yet felt free to join the fray. I wound up crying. I swore I’d quit Goddard and writing.
But I didn’t quit. My manuscript kept drawing me, and I realized I needed to finish it, despite what others said. I learned from this incident and its aftermath that writing has a value in and of itself, that I didn’t need approval to do it, and that I was stronger and more tenacious than I’d thought.
Since then, I’ve weathered some bad reviews and less than robust book sales, sometimes with tears and panic, sometimes with composure. But I’ve also gotten some great reviews, and my memoir took first prize in a national contest. Really, there’s very little better than learning that someone loves your work.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
If you love to write, do it, and if you’re brave, share your work. At worst, you’ll heal your own heart. At best, you’ll touch the heart of someone else.
Jan Vallone is the author of Pieces of Someday: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in Lawyering Family, Italy, Church, and a Tiny Jewish High School, which was released in December, 2013, and has won the Reader Views Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her stories have appeared in The Seattle Times, Good Letters, Faith & Values in the Public Square, Catholic Digest, Guideposts Magazine, English Journal, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Writing it Real. Once a lawyer at a large law firm, and later an English teacher at a tiny yeshiva high school, she now teaches writing and literature at Seattle Pacific University.