Simplify and Persist
An interview with former online student Valorie Grace Hallinan
by Rachel Ann Brickner
Valorie Grace Hallinan is a former editor, media producer, and medical librarian turned creative writer. She first began creating audio essays in Creative Nonfiction’s online class, “Audio Storytelling and Podcasting,” and now has her own audio series at Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments.
Creative Nonfiction: What initially drew you to taking an online class with Creative Nonfiction?
Valorie Grace Hallinan: I love the online format for taking classes; it’s so convenient. But more importantly, Creative Nonfiction is a stellar publication, and I knew I’d find excellent classes and teachers.
That’s proven to be the case with the two classes I’ve taken so far, “Audio Storytelling and Podcasting,” and “Summer Memoir Writing: Scene and Summary.” In the case of the scene/summary class for memoir, I haven’t seen a similar offering anywhere else. Obviously, a lot of thought has been put into the Creative Nonfiction online class offerings.
CNF: How has the podcasting class influenced or helped your process? What are the most important things you’ve learned?
VGH: I learned to keep things simple and to persist. Our instructor, Rhonda Miller, a seasoned professional, encouraged me to focus and simplify, simplify, simplify. This is so important when you have just three to five minutes to tell a story. She encouraged us to persist, especially if we happened to lose our way in the creative process.
Producing podcasts and audio stories, even short ones, may seem easy, but the learning curve can be steep. Honing storytelling skills, using recording equipment, and working with audio editing software can be a little overwhelming if you’ve never done these things before. Rhonda helped us keep going, and I think we were all pleasantly surprised at how well our final productions turned out. She has a passion for teaching and a great deal of empathy for students trying something new.
CNF: What do you enjoy most about creating audio essays?
VGH: Putting together a nature-based audio essay is so satisfying because it involves not just research and scriptwriting—writing for the ear—but also getting outdoors, traveling to new places, recording, narrating, and building a soundtrack. I find each task satisfying in and of itself, and blending these elements in a final production is so gratifying.
CNF: You now have an audio series, “From Where I Stand,” published by Terrain.org. What was the process like from beginning the series to getting it published?
VGH: Finding a home for one’s work can be challenging, but in this case, it was somewhat easier, thanks to a bit of luck, timing, and the responsiveness and encouragement of Terrain.org.
Before I began producing the series, I wrote to the editor, asking if they accepted audio essays and podcasts. Editor-in-chief, Simmons B. Buntin, got back to me immediately. I described my project to him, and he encouraged me to send him my first audio essay for consideration. Needless to say, his interest and encouragement were great motivators!
CNF: You utilize a lot of research in your work. How do you approach the researching process, and how do you use research to create a compelling narrative?
VGH: I start with something that piques my interest and that seems to have the seeds of a story. Once I begin exploring and researching, the plot inevitably thickens in intriguing and unexpected ways. I ask myself, what’s the story I most want to share with my listeners?
CNF: I read on your book review blog, Books Can Save a Life, that you’re currently at work on a mother/daughter memoir about mental illness and the books and authors that kept you company. How did this project come about and are you currently at work on any other projects?
VGH: I’ve been wanting to write a coming-of-age memoir ever since I can remember. I think my motivation stems largely from the silence around mental illness, and my need to break that silence and tell my story, and my mother’s story. The memoir, the audio essays, and my blog take up most of my creative time at the moment. The closer I get to completing the memoir, the more I begin to think about a second and even a third memoir to build on the themes in the first one—but we’ll see!
CNF: Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you as a writer or an online student? Or, perhaps a more interesting question is, what is the question you ask most of yourself as a writer?
VGH: It took me a long while to make writing central to my life, and I’m a slow writer. Fortunately, I’m currently able to write full-time, but given my somewhat late start, I want to make the best use of my time. So I’m always asking myself, what matters most to me? What should I be writing about? Breaking the silence around mental illness is close to my heart—hence the memoir I’m writing.
Secondly, I want to connect more deeply with the land and the places where I live and where I travel and encourage others to do so as well. I believe our lives will be richer and we’ll grow in our concern for the earth and our commitment to confronting the challenges of climate change.