By Tracey Rector
Photos by Rebecca Wise
When Mountain Brook resident Kathryn Valencia took up running at age 39, she couldn’t have imagined how this new habit would change her life. Healthier? Sure. More energy? You bet. Becoming a published author? That possibility never entered her mind, but thousands of miles and words later, that’s exactly what happened.
“I never wanted to be a writer,” Kathryn says. But at the age of 39, she began running, and little by little, a soul transformation unfolded. She describes it as “heightened awareness” of the world around her. “I would see things as I ran, things you might not notice other times.” Whether it was a deep blue sky through tree branches or an array of windows on a building, Kathryn would stop and take pictures on her iPhone of anything that captured her imagination.
“I saw shapes and colors, not necessarily ‘things,’” she says. After a while she started to see how these seemingly diverse images flowed together to tell a story.
This heightened sense of awareness that resulted from running also sparked another habit: collecting quotes. “I love words,” she adds. “I would write down or put in the notes in my phone anything that resonated with me. It could be a famous quote, a lyric from a song, a line from a commercial, anything. I have pages and pages of notes on my phone.”
“And then I smiled” – Kathryn Valencia
With her iPhone filled with both collections of photos and hundreds of quotes, it seemed almost inevitable that these two practices would somehow come together. Still, Kathryn says the burst of creative energy that spilled out one February morning several years ago after her run completely surprised her.
She sat down at her kitchen island, opened her laptop and opened the Notes app on her phone. She read a quote and then typed it into a document on her laptop. What happened next was both unexpected but exhilarating. This artist with an eye for form and color and a love for the written word found her own way to merge her heightened sensibilities in a unique form of storytelling.
“The words just fell out,” she says. She poured her thoughts about the quote into a few words, a sentence, then a paragraph or two. When she finished, she sat back, amazed at what happened.
“And then I smiled,” she says. “It felt so good!”
That smile after writing became Kathryn’s telltale sign that she was on the right track. Her creative juices flowing, she made a commitment to write five days a week for a year – a commitment she kept, just as she kept running and taking photos. She admits it was physically exhausting, but also tremendously satisfying.
After fulfilling her commitment for a year of writing, she reduced her furious writing output to a more sporadic yet intentional pace for eight years. She still didn’t think of herself as a writer – her goal, she says, was to record her thoughts for her husband, children and grandchildren. “I want them to know me,” she says, simply. This deep dive into words and thoughts and images continued as her way to build a bridge between her and her family.
Then March 2020 happened. The early lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic rearranged life for everyone, and Kathryn was no exception. “I remember being out running in those early days and not seeing another soul on the streets,” she recalls. The jarring disruption to her life impressed upon her that she “really needed something to do.”
“Every experience has value” – Kathryn Valencia
That “something to do” took the form of a growing conviction, curating her years of photos and personal reflections into a book. “I had no idea how to go about it – how to get published, anything,” she explains. With nothing to lose, she reached out to AlphaGraphics in Hoover and pitched her idea. The publisher, Cassie Burchell, loved it, and soon after the team began work on the project.
Because she’s such a visual storyteller, Kathryn was deeply involved in all aspects of the design of the book. “It had to look the way it reads,” she says. She worked with graphic artist Lane Mullins, who understood what Kathryn wanted and was also able to add his expertise to bring the images and the text into perfect harmony. “Cassie and Lane were wonderful to work with,” she says. They encouraged and inspired her, and over the next few months, the book took shape.
What emerged was Soul Speak, a beautiful collection of words and images, carefully organized with a singular purpose: to encourage readers to look at things in a new way. “I can’t tell anyone what to think,” Kathryn says. “I’m not qualified to do that, but I hope as people read it they say ‘wow, I never thought of it that way.’”
It was important to Kathryn for the book to be as beautiful to look at as it was to read. The hardcover edition, which includes all four volumes of Soul Speak, has the quality of a coffee table book without the oversized heft. “It’s small enough to tuck in a bag and take with you,” she says. While it’s not written to be inspirational or spiritual, she’s received enough feedback from readers to know it can be both.
The subtitle of Soul Speak is an encouragement to others that defines Kathryn Valencia’s passion: “your soul is rooting for you.” Through her photos and conversational reflections, she hopes to lead readers into discovering where they are placing value in their own life. For Kathryn herself, she says, “all roads lead back to running for me.” By starting a simple daily habit, she opened a world she never imagined could exist for her. It’s her goal to get others thinking about the hope for unexpected possibilities that exist all around them if they’re willing to look at things in new and fresh ways.
Soul Speak by Kathryn Valencia is available online at livesoulspeak.com. It can be shipped or bought locally at M.Lavender in Mountain Brook Village, Ryan Reeve in Cahaba Heights or AlphaGraphics in Hoover. Follow Kathryn on Instagram @LiveSoulSpeak.