*This was originally published on February 14, 2019.*
Ashley Ford is wise beyond her years. If you’ve followed her writing (and okay fine, also some tweets) over the last half-decade, this should come as no surprise. What you might not know, though, is that for as wise as she is, she’s warm beyond her years, too.
When Ashley talks, you listen. At just 32, she’s accomplished a lot; but it’s not her accolades that define her – it’s her experiences. With Midwestern roots and a New York résumé, she’s got a world of stories to explore – luckily for us, she’s really good at doing just that.
In the last few years, she’s found a home for herself in human storytelling – carefully finding opportunities for truth and connection in reflections on her own relationships, obstacles, and sense of self. When she’s not looking within, she’s a student of others, publishing in-depth profiles of a few people you might have heard of once or twice.
Over the course of our chat, I learned a lot about Ashley’s approach to people; and it didn’t take long to confirm what I already knew – that the world is better with people as deeply committed to understanding others as Ashley is. How lucky are we that we got to chat with her about life, work, and the pursuit of self-care?
Work & Life
We love your writing and feel deeply seen when we read your work. Did you always know you were going to be a writer?
It started in college – English was the last of around six or seven majors I had. I thought I might as well get a degree in the thing I’ve always loved, and for me, that was books. I ended up leaving college in 2012 without my degree, though I didn’t know that at the time. I knew I had a class to finish and I planned on finishing it online that summer, but then I realized I couldn’t afford it. I essentially had to leave my college town without my degree and without having the money to do anything about it. I moved in with friends and had some jobs in the nonprofit sector. Then I lost all those jobs because my car broke down and I wasn’t able to get to work.
I thought to myself if you can hit rock bottom doing the safe things everyone wants you to do, then you might as well hit rock bottom doing what you want to do. And the only thing I wanted to do more than anything else was to read and write. I thought, ‘If I can figure out how to read and write forever, that’s what I’m going to do.’
I decided that in 2013, and then I got my first freelance writing assignment from BuzzFeed. That led to getting a job offer, moving to New York, and started my writing career from there. Now I’ve written for The Guardian, Elle, Out Magazine, The New York Times, and quite a few other places. It’s still what I want to do most. In the process, I’ve also figured out that I like hosting, so a bonus is that sometimes I get to do that now, too.
Congrats on your recent cover stories, which we’ve been coveting as they’ve come out over the last few months. What is it about highlighting these stories that you enjoy most?
They’re just human stories, and I love talking to people. I’m fascinated by the things that make us different, but I’m also fascinated by how much we’re the same. When you get the opportunity to talk to a person and dig a little deeper into their thoughts, their beliefs, their values, where they come from, why they make the choices they make, what they like, what they loathe, and what they love – it feels like a weird gift.
I don’t ever want anybody to sit across from me and feel like I don’t see their full humanity. I think people realize that no matter what they’ve said or what they’ve done, I fundamentally understand and believe that they are a human being. I think people with a certain level of visibility don’t get treated like that as often as the rest of us.
You’re also writing a book, which we’re really excited about! What have you learned most about yourself in the process?
I’ve always thought of myself as a fast writer, but a book is a completely different beast when it comes to just how long the story is and finding common threads to weave throughout the book. I don’t want somebody to read this book and feel like they read about my life – I want them to read this book and feel like they read a story about my life.
The biggest thing that writing my book has taught me is that this is an active exercise. If I wanted to, I could write a very blank essay in an hour and it would be done. You can’t do that with a book. You need to be able to think and plan long-term and that is something that has never been easy for me or easily accessible to me.
I didn’t grow up with a life where I got to practice thinking about things in the long-term. When you’re in survival mode, everything is in the immediate.
In order to work on this book, I had to think of myself as a person who could do that. I had to deal with all my poverty and class trauma, and it took more than I thought it would. But, I do feel like it’s going to be worth it. I feel like what I’ll have at the end of this is something I can be proud of, and all I’ve ever wanted was to publish a book I could be proud of.
What’s the difference in your approach when you’re writing something deeply personal and when you’re highlighting someone else’s story?
When I’m writing about myself, I feel like I’m writing to a certain kind of person, and that kind of person needs me to talk with them warmly, so I try to speak warmly about myself. I think the person I’m writing to deserves that, and I think I deserve that. When I interview someone else, I try to ask them questions to see what they think about themselves. I want to see the way they view the world through their experiences.
When someone does something we think of as exceptional, we want to know who they are. We want to know how they see the world, and we wonder if how they see the world is going to change how we see it. We want to see if it’s going to help us be more like them. I think the better question for all of us is what does it actually look like to be ourselves?
When am I most pleased with myself? When am I most impressed with myself? If you can answer those questions, I think you’re a lot closer to being like the people you want to hear the most from.
It sounds like you allow the people you interview to speak their truth in its purest form.
Yes. I think a lot of controversy [in this world] comes from the fact that people don’t always define things the same way. We try to have arguments where we’re using the same words technically but the way we define those words, given our cultures and backgrounds, can be completely different.
Your interviews with Tess Holliday, Janelle Monáe, and Serena Williams told the story of women who stand firmly in their sense of self. You seem to do the same thing. What do you want your legacy to be?
I think if I leave the world and I’m thought of as someone who encouraged people to love themselves first and not deny our shared humanity and connection, that would be amazing. If I was long gone, and someone brought up my name and said, “Hey, she was really good at getting people to talk to each other” that would be the best thing anyone has ever said about me.
In the past year, you’ve had a wedding, a graduation, a new show and you’re writing a book. Do you have any advice for anyone trying to hold it all together during a busy season of life?
The lesson I learned over and over and over last year is that you have to ask for help. I know people say that all the time, but I’m saying it because I heard it a million times and it didn’t sink in ‘til last year. I’m 32. You have to ask for help when you know you need it and you can’t drag your feet. Ask. For. Help.
All of those things that happened last year, the way they happened, could not have been accomplished without me specifically asking for help – with classes, my wedding, my book, my assistant. Nothing would be getting done without Arianne. I wouldn’t know what to do with my schedule without her – I need her.
My husband is another example. He took this year off of work while I was doing all of this and he took care of everything as far as our daily lives go. That is massive! I asked for help, and everyone in my life who I asked for help showed up for me. Without a hitch. I know that’s not always the case, but you might as well ask for it. The worst you will hear is no, and it won’t kill you. But the yeses? The yeses are there and they’re waiting. Go get your yeses.
Self-care has really come into the public consciousness in the last couple years. What does it look like for you at this moment in your life?
Right now, self-care means taking care of my foundation. Everybody has a baseline level of mental, emotional, physical, financial, and creative health that they aim for – I’m just trying to make sure I have a budget that works for our family, and that I’m taking time to slow down. I’m trying to put better things into my body, and to get some of those foundational health pieces on track.
I didn’t grow up with great foundations, and I’m learning that just because there are things that you got by without before, doesn’t mean you don’t actually need them. It’s okay to go back and train certain behaviors that are better for you long-term.
I did this thing for a very long time where I thought of being able to go without something as a superpower – no matter what it was, whether it was healthcare or food. I thought the less I needed, the better. And now there are a lot of things I need that I convinced myself I didn’t. Now I have to go back and let myself enjoy those things.
Do you have any favorite rituals or routines right now?
Taking a shower, washing my face really well, and then doing a whole skincare routine, which I just discovered like a year and a half ago. Then I do one of those sheet masks and I sit on the couch and watch a movie or a Desus & Mero video or an episode of Golden Girls. I put on these fuzzy matching pajamas that are a SET – with fuzzy socks, and then I add a giant mug of tea. I have a big couch and it just feels so good to be on my couch watching Golden Girls. It’s the best in the world.
Last year we featured one of your essays about class anxiety in the GNI newsletter. What advice do you have for readers who might be trying to incorporate financial wellness into their lives and self-care routines?
With finances, you really just have to start where you are. Be honest. Get everything on paper and don’t hide from it. Once you do that, you have somewhere to start. I think people get scared to know where they stand, and they fall more and more behind and get trapped in bad situations as a result. If you don’t know where you stand, you can’t begin to advocate for yourself – I want people to be able to advocate for themselves.If you can figure out where to start [with your finances], you can turn this thing that feels like it’s all around you into something that right there in front of you, on paper.
What’s the first thing you do when you get home?
I say hi to Kel, my husband.
Athleisure or bathleisure?
Crafting or bingewatching a show?
Bingewatching a show. I’ve been watching Sex Education and it’s so good.
Good book or good podcast and what are you currently getting into?
Cooking or ordering in?
I love cooking. Last night I cooked this recipe @ethiopienne shared for garlicky anchovy lemon chicken and it was delicious.
On a night in, you can catch me…
Already in bed.
Photos by Heather Sten for GNI.