Air Force spouse and writer Valerie J. Frey serves up some fantastic organizational tips for archiving research and notes, balancing multiple artistic genres, and accomplishing goals/deadlines.
MilspoFan: Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today.
Valerie: I grew up in Georgia both on the coast (Sapelo Island, Savannah) and upland (Athens). Creativity was always important to me. As a kid, I often wrote poems or stories. I was also forever puttering around with craft projects and, like a magpie, collecting things that caught my eye and inspired me. I also fell in love with 35mm and pinhole photography. When it was time for college, I chose Art Education and earned a bachelor’s from the University of Georgia.
During my college years, my father battled lung cancer. He died just before I graduated and then my mother became seriously ill. I needed to stick close to home to help take care of her, so I embarked on a master’s in Art Education even though I no longer felt called to be a full-time teacher. It ended up being a good path because my thesis focused on local folk art, and I learned so much from the spontaneous creativity of these artists. My thesis project also helped me to realize I loved doing oral history interviews and research. At the same time, the deaths of both my parents before I even hit my mid-20s made me draw closer to my grandparents. I began collecting family history materials—stories, photos, and recipes. I’d always loved history, but now knew I wanted to move in that direction career-wise.
Off I went off to the University of Tennessee Knoxville to get a second master’s degree, this time in Information Science. After an internship at the McClung Historical Collection, I was hooked. I became an archivist and even earned a Junior Fellowship to the Library of Congress’ Manuscripts Division. I became Manuscripts Archivist at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah for several years and then moved on to become the Education Coordinator for the Georgia Archives outside Atlanta. In both positions, I used my art background to create displays and exhibits. I also used my research skills to fuel my home writing projects. This was a very good thing because in my late 30s, just when I thought I’d forever be flying solo, I met my husband. Because he was an Air Force officer, I soon realized marriage would mean moving away from my family, the career I’d built, and the social network I’d spent my life creating. When we ended up on the West Coast for several years, writing brought me a sense of peace and gave me something worthwhile to do no matter where I was living. Once I became a mom, this was even more helpful. I feared that a baby would soak up all my energy yet surprisingly found that even though my hands were often occupied, my brain had more free time than ever. When I pushed the stroller or sat on a bench at the playground, I’d mull over writing or cooking projects. I created a parenting blog that I did almost daily for four years, and it kept my creativity thriving.
I currently have three novels completed (unpublished), have written three regional history books (Savannah focus), and in 2015 published Preserving Family Recipes: How to Save and Celebrate Your Food Traditions (UGA Press). I think in part because my career path has had some twists and turns, I don’t feel pinned down to write about one thing. I just published a children’s book for grades 4-6 that explores oysters and coastal ecosystems called The Living Shoreline. I also do magazine work, writing articles about topics that strike my fancy—home organization, letter writing, etc. I am currently under contract to write a book about old recipes, which has me rambling through archives and antique stores as well as puttering in the kitchen.
MilspoFAN: How did you become a writer?
Valerie: I’ve always been a writer. It flowed naturally from my love of reading (starting in preschool) and the rich “make believe” stories I told myself as a kid while I played. My faith has always been important to me, and even as a kid I prayed a lot, putting thoughts into words. When I was in the second grade, my teacher sent one of my poems to the county board office, and it was put in the annual calendar distributed to all staff and parents. Ever since then, I’ve thought of myself as a writer. I remember having to make a mental note that the “acceptable” response to your teacher telling you that you have to write an essay or research paper was a groan not a cheer. I loved writing, even in school.
MilspoFAN: Describe for us your creative process and how that influences what you write?
Valerie: My brain is constantly mulling over what I read or experience. I’ve learned that if I honor my sense of intrigue and the ideas that follow by jotting down what I’m thinking, more intrigue and ideas come. Thus, I keep index cards all over the house—purse, car glove box, bedside table, etc. I scribble ideas and then later gather the cards to sift through and sort into project bundles. I walk for exercise every day, and when ideas pop up during that time, I use the voice recorder on my phone to capture them. So, that’s how I handle inspiration. Yet if I only write when I feel inspired, I’ll never finish anything. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is a great book about getting past the mistaken idea that writing is solely the product of inspiration. Much of writing is about the practice of it. The main way I practice my writing is that I have kept a journal since I was around seven years old. While traveling or during an intense period, I will write every day. Otherwise, I write when I feel like it—several times per month. Hearing my own writing voice in my journal is key to keeping my creativity flowing, plus my diary becomes a searchable record of life experiences to draw from.
As for influences, I read a lot. Growing up, I adored authors like Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, L.M. Boston, and Tove Jansson. I was all about magical realism. Now I read a lot of non-fiction, particularly about culinary history. Michael W. Twitty, Damon Lee Fowler, and Kay Moss are some favorites. Beyond reading, I find myself inspired by historical flotsam and jetsam. I am working on a pair of novels based on diaries my great-grandmother kept in the 1920s. I love wandering through antique shops and thrift stores to find items that make me wonder who owned them or created them, and I found a bundle of hand-embroidered cloth pieces that came to have a starring role in the first novel of the pair.
MilspoFAN: Tell us about how you balance freelance writing with your own creative pursuits. How do you juggle it all? How do you know when to take jobs?
Valerie: It’s all about balance. I can tell when I’m getting overextended because my equanimity wobbles. Normally, I’m a fairly happy person, so when I start getting bent out of shape about small things, that’s when I know I need to look over my calendar—reset priorities, adjust deadlines, and say “no” to new tasks for a while. And that’s also how I know some self-care is needed—journaling, a hike in the woods, a long talk with a good friend, a soak in the tub, or a date night.
A big part of balance for me is having an effective way to keep track of tasks and goals. Personal organizing systems such as the Panda Planner are helpful, but they are pricy, unrecyclable, and I didn’t use all the features. Dot journaling was better, but a lot of work. Instead, I created printable pages on my computer that slide into a small (A5) hole punch binder and help me keep up with my life. I have a daily habit tracker in the front, so I know I’m remembering to check my online calendar, answer messages, exercise, etc. Then there are weekly pages with lines for penciling in key tasks for each day including deciding my daily writing task. All the important lists and notes being in my binder means that I don’t have to keep all those details in my mind. There’s a comfort in knowing I can grab my binder if I need to remember what I am supposed to make for supper tonight or what garden chores are essential this time of year. There are even lists in the back for long-term creativity goals, house repairs, and exciting places for day trips.
MilspoFAN: What’s next for you?
Valerie: I have until Halloween to turn in the manuscript of my latest project, the nonfiction book about old recipes. Summer is almost here, which turns me back into a full-time mom, so my writer’s discipline needs to soon kick into high gear. Normally, I would have been doing some traveling to take photographs for the book and visit various helpful museums, but Covid-19 put a pause on that for a while. Now that things are opening back up, I am racing to get all that research done so I’ll have everything I need in my laptop. Then I can travel and write wherever I am.
MilspoFAN: What is the most practical piece of advice that you would give to other artists?
Valerie: Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham said, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” Yes! When I was younger, I would agonize sometimes about if my writing or photography was “good.” I definitely want to develop and hone my craft. Still, a creative work doesn’t have to be perfect to be useful, inspirational, or beloved.
Find Valerie on the Web at:
UGA Press: https://ugapress.org/author/valerie-j-frey/
Book Trailer for Preserving Family Recipes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0RGCN0bUSA