Ashley Ford on the Writerly Life
All around rad woman, social media maven, volunteering enthusiast, comdienne, and writer, Ashley C. Ford was kind enough to sit down with Split Lip's managing editor, Elysia Smith for a question/answer session. Despite the roaring hubbub of Ford's life, she managed to provide the editors of Split Lip with some fantastic insight regarding her new manuscript, life as a young professional, and what it means to tell the truth. Ford has been published in several magazines including a spot next to writer, Sherman Alexie in an issue of The Rumpus. Her story, What Burns in the Pit earned her a spot on the roster of Pushcart nominees. You can read more about her on her blog, www.ashleycford.com.
Being a writer on the market, how has that been for you now that you are currently graduated?
It keeps me sane. It makes me work for it in a way I never had to before, the writing time and motivation. My writing community was so close in college. When I wasn't meeting up with friends who were writers or another kind of inspiring artist, I lived in a house of writers. My reminders to write and remember my writing goals were all around me constantly. Now, I work full-time and my roommates are not writers or artists. But they are readers! Which is pretty huge these days. I work to stay in contact with and expand my writing community where I live. It's necessary for me. Not everyone, I know. But I need it.
What methods have you utilized to, "put yourself out there?"
I am all about using your network. Through social media, I've made (what turned out to be) some really good writing connections. I've also made some pretty terrific friends. I connect with other writers, agents, professors of creative writing, editors, local or remote. I attend readings in my city, I go to writing conferences, I buy from local bookshops and small presses. Putting "myself" out there has never been a problem. Sometimes, I struggle with putting my work out there. That's a much bigger problem.
Is it difficult networking without the help of your collegiate community or would you say you still maintain those connections and have utilized them well?
Like I said above, I'm all about the network. The writers and professors I connected to over my collegiate term are still the most important parts of my network because they know me best. Plus, I happen to really really like them. I still send emails to professors updating them when I get published, or am nominated for something, or even when I find a job that has nothing to do with creative writing. I ask them how they're doing, how their families are, and what they're working on. I still try to support the writer-friends I made in college by attending their readings, buying their books (if they have one), and just being present in their lives. I'll look at their essays, stories, and books in the drafting stage. Ultimately, I guess the answer is no, I don't find it difficult to network maintain those connections after I've left college. But to be fair, I enjoy the networking and the staying connected. Not sure if that's the same for every writer.
I've heard that you're currently shopping your novel manuscript, how is that going? What do you project your path to publication might entail?
It's not going. Hahahaha! And it's all my fault. Every time I go to send out my book proposal, I freeze and think it's not ready, then I go through it again and convince myself there is more work to be done. Always more work. In a way, I suppose there always will be more work to be done. Still, I have a goal to have mailed it out to at least three different agents by Spring. I'll go from there. I project my path to be something like, I find an agent who likes it, we find a publisher who likes it (maybe after a long time and a lot of revisions), eventually that publisher puts it out into the world, and I will be beside myself with joy. Then I'm coming to all of your cities to make you buy my book.
Can you tell us a little about the book and your motivation to complete it?
My book is about my relationship with my father. He has been in prison since I was six months-old, which would lead most to believe that we don't actually have a relationship, which we absolutely do. That's all because of him. He parented me from behind prison walls the best way he knew how: hand-written letters. I still have most of them. His crime was heinous and heart-breaking for me to discover as a teen. I'm still trying to make head-or-tail of it. However, this book is not about redemption or defending my father. This book is about what he gave me from far away. Something intangible, and at a certain point in my life, the only thing that would allow me to move forward unburdened.
I want to write this book for the children of parents who are or have been incarcerated, for the incarcerated parents who don't know how to stay connected to their children, and to eviscerate the shame and guilt that keep both side from doing the only thing that helps: communicating.
What advice would you give to other writers of non-fiction, especially those dealing with writing about family and other intimate subjects?
There is a quote from Anne Lamott,
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should've behaved better.”
I know that sounds a little harsh, but in order to write well when writing nonfiction, I do believe you have to write your truth. You're not always going to get it right. Our memories are not fool-proof, but they are ours. Write it the way you remember it. Yes, some people will be mad at you and what you have to say about them. Expect that. But they'll most likely get over it. Don't sacrifice your work to make others comfortable. Ultimately, when writing about nonfiction, you tell the story the way you want to. You can still play with form and inference. And if there is something you don't want to write about? You don't have to. You are telling stories from your life, or someone else's life, but you don't ever have to tell anyone your whole story. You don't owe anyone that. You share what you want, and everything else is just for you. That's totally okay.
What was one of the most important things you've learned in your journey to become a professional and marketing yourself as such?
Be grateful. You're going to use your network. Friends, professors, even other writers you've only met once or twice are going to help connect you to the write person, write you a letter of recommendation, or critique your work. Say thank you. Mean it. Send a card. Write a nice email. Keep them updated on where their efforts have led you, especially if it's led to your success. Unfortunately, I see a lot of artists who want to be artists professionally, use and abuse their network. They ask professors for recommendations two days before they're due, they ask other writers to introduce them to agents or editors then never utter the words thank you after the fact. To me, that's just bad manners. And the people who help you and don't recieve a thank you, will be much less likely to take the time out of their busy schedules to do so again.
Gratitude will force you to truly enjoy and appreciate a moment. When you don't show gratitude you are slighting yourself of that experience as much as the people who have helped you. Thanklessly.
Do you have a mantra or routine that helps drive you forward in your writing/work life that you might be willing to share?
Two mantras that I hold dear to my heart when writing are "The only way out is through" which I heard from author Erica O'Rourke, and "We are all greater than the worst thing we've ever done" and I'm not sure where that comes from. I just started saying it one day. It reminds me, especially when writing nonfiction, that no matter how bad their action(s), no one is pure villain. Everyone has more to their story.
Even though I love trees, I print everything out. I need to be able to go through my pages line-by-line with a pen. I can do some editing on the computer, but I get into the meat of it with a pen. I also, carry a journal with me at all times. Sometimes, I need to write about a feeling, or a line, or something beautiful I saw. I don't like to be without pen and paper on me. At all. iPhone be damned.
When you do successfully publish your first novel, how would you like the public to respond? Do you think your work will resonate in the manner your hoping?
Wow. I can pretend I haven't thought of this, but who are we kidding? I would of course like for there to be a good response. I want people to think it's good. I want them to think it's well-written. I want them to think it's relevant. My dream beyond dream is that this books finds its way into the right hands and at some point in my life, someone contacts me to say, "This book made me feel less alone." I just know that for years I was ashamed of being the child of an incarcerated parent. That shame damaged my self-worth. And I didn't know any other girl who had a father in prison for as long as mine, or whose father had done the kind of thing my father had done. It made me feel very isolated. At times, I wished he didn't communicate with me because that would make it easier to just walk away from him and forget that part of my life. But what I couldn't do that. What I really needed was a friend or a story that rang true, even if it was fiction, to let me know I wasn't alone. Now, I'm writing that story for someone else. Hopefully.
Any final statements?
Your work, your writing, your art, they are parts of you, but they are not everything. A less than encouraging critique, a bad review, even someone you admire telling you you are not good, none of it will kill you. It might not motivate you. Or it might motivate you in a way you've never been motivated before. Either way, you have to believe in your art first. You will find others who believe in your art. But you come first. If you don't love it initially, work on it until you do. You will learn to discern when something is salvageable and when it isn't. Only stop working on it when the opportunity cost has gotten too high. Then start creating the next thing. Everything you don't like, save it anyway. You never know if it will "click" years later and that trash essay becomes your best novel. Say thank you a lot. Mean it. Think about what your art puts into the world and whether or not you want it there. And if you decide that you want it there, never stop telling people about it. Create what you love and love it until you die.