Photo by Sarah Walor
The selectors said: Through her roles as book editor, columnist, blogger, short story author and writing teacher, Valley has enriched thousands of lives. Since founding Richmond Young Writers in 2009, she has been turning young hearts and minds on to the joy of writing.
She is the daughter of independent-minded, self-employed people: artist and button maker Jennifer Yane and contractor/sculptor David Smith. As an introverted, book-reading youngster, Valley Haggard needed to be reminded by her mother to go out and play.
She grew up on Richmond’s western outskirts — not the West End of porch columns and landscaped lawns, but rather a Henrico County neighborhood where truck drivers and mechanics lived, and domestic drama was often heard flowing from open windows. Not wanting Valley to go to a school with only white kids, her mother drove her to Church Hill’s Bellevue Elementary.
The experience had an enduring impact. One teacher was John Hunter, a musician at one time with the Ululating Mummies. “I adored him,” she says. “He gave me the Indian name ‘Laughing Rainbow.’ ” Hunter’s talent inspired her to go home, put on borrowed high heels and teach a class to her stuffed animals. Her ambition was to become a “famous reader.”
Yet, all was not idyllic at Bellevue. Haggard’s mother didn’t know until recently that her daughter was frightened of going there every day. Some teachers were violent, she says, pinching and hitting students when they misbehaved. Classmates could be hostile. Compounding her other fears, she also believed the school was haunted.
Haggard’s reading took her into the fantastic fiction of Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time. At 17, she was accepted into an Omega Institute writing workshop taught by L’Engle. Haggard was intimidated by the size of the class and by the other participants, all of whom were older than she. “But I wrote a story that I think is the genesis of everything I do now,” she says.
Later, on a break from Sarah Lawrence College, Haggard found herself at a Richmond backyard picnic held in honor of author Tom Robbins. Her mother had supplied buttons requested by the hostess, “The Queen of the White Pygmies,” aka Mary Lou Davis. Haggard recalls that Robbins “told me to drop out of college, that teaching anybody to write was impossible, and I disagreed vehemently with him.”
Upon graduation, Haggard commenced a series of experiences worthy of big-thumbed Sissy Hankshaw from Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. She worked at a Colorado dude ranch and at an Arkansas farm, then as a stewardess on an Alaskan cruise ship — all of which provided grist for a writing life, although she also developed some self-destructive behaviors.
She returned via Amtrak to her girlhood home — her mother, divorced from her dad, had moved across the street but rented the other place to Haggard — and entered a 12-step recovery program. Instead of teaching her stuffed animals, she put them through treatment with her. The worst off was a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist dummy. “He could not get it together,” she says, laughing. “He was in chronic relapse.”
Haggard then returned to her addiction to words. She married and in 2004, her son, Henry, was born the same week that the once aspiring famous reader became Style Weekly’s book editor. She also wrote for other publications and taught writing. The 2008 recession put her out of the editorship and health insurance. Still, she decided against taking a job writing advertising copy. “I wanted to hold out and figure out how to build a life around writing.” She took on more classes at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond and Art 180, and joined the board of the James River Writers.
At the urging of writer Virginia Pye, who had been asking if there was a writing camp in which her son could enroll, Haggard began teaching her first weeks of camp in the upstairs gallery room at Chop Suey Books during the summer of 2009. This was the start of Richmond Young Writers. About this time, Sally Kemp, then at VisArts, introduced her to Bird Cox (now a Richmond magazine contributing editor), who was running an after-school series at Studio Two Three and teaching at VisArts. The two met for lunch and discovered they shared the same goals, Haggard recalls. “We were two half pieces that made a whole.” They’ve worked together ever since.
“Our only goal is to relight the delight in writing: in kids, to increase their confidence as they learn more, in adults, who’ve had that sense of exploration beat out of them, we show them back to the path.”