Ashley C. Ford on writing with joy, turning thirty and finding her voice

One of our New Yorkers of the Year talks about the hardships of freelance life and her friendship with writer Roxane Gay

Photograph: Tawni Bannister

Scrolling through writer Ashley C. Ford’s Twitter feed is like hearing thoughtful stream-of-conscious musings from your favorite group text—you know, the one that makes you laugh and keeps you sane. Sincere thoughts on politics, personal relationships and mental health (“I just had an anxiety attack, and the whole apartment started shaking”) give way to silly reflections (“My country-ass fiancé calls going to Manhattan going ‘into town,’ and it makes me smile a little”). Her deeply relatable voice—found in its purest form in personal essays on subjects such as body image, queerness and Black Girl Magic, published in BuzzFeed, New York magazine and many others—is an inspiring flash of light on an internet that can often seem like an endless night. Her hustle paid off in a big way this year: Forbes named her on its 30 Under 30 in Media list, and, as of October, she’s the host of the daily Brooklyn-arts-and-culture–focused TV show and podcast, 112BK. Oh, and in her spare time, she’s writing a memoir about girlhood in Indiana and growing up with an incarcerated father. But she didn’t just slip into the warm bath waters of success when she moved to Brooklyn in 2014 from Indiana. We talked to Ford, one of our New Yorkers of the Year, about overcoming fear and failure, her friendship with writer Roxane Gay and how it feels to have the sort of career where editors pitch you assignments, and not the other way around.

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Your Twitter feed seems to be where many people start to connect with you. That site can be so hateful and you seem to keep it so joyful. How do you screen out the negativity?
I see the negativity, but I think probably the biggest thing is when I think about what I’m gonna tweet—like even the most innocuous thing—I’m always thinking about how my words might make people feel. I think I got a really early lesson in my life about how words can make people feel because my dad is in prison and he used to send me letters, and through those letters I felt his love for me, and his creativity, and his joy, and his pain. What I put out there is me. It’s not all of me but it is me in that I am a person who tries to be a happy presence in people’s lives but also a human presence in people’s lives, so that means I don’t hide that I get sad and go through hard times and that the world is quite fucked up at times. It’s moreso I just know that are still reasons to feel good and feel happiness and joy, so I try to bring those up too.

That personal voice is present in all of your work. Do you find that sharing yourself gives you energy?
Yes, and it does because it’s my choice. I am a sharer, I am a connector, those are things I’ve been all my life and really loved being, but I’m also constantly checking in on how that’s making me feel. Before I share anything there is a little conversation I have with myself about, Is this a thing that you wanna put out, and how will you feel no matter how people react to it? My brain doesn’t really go to, What if people don’t like it?, it’s moreso if somebody reacts to this strongly in a negative way, are you gonna be able to take it? And the answer is not always yes.

You seem to know yourself so well. Do you think the fact that you’ve had a lot of therapy has a lot to do with that?
It’s therapy. I talk to people about this a lot and I feel at this point I’m becoming a weird spokesperson for her, and she never asked for that, but I read a lot of Brené Brown’s work. This is a woman who’s done a lifetime of research. She’s Dr. Brené Brown, not your neighbor who shares positive quotes on Facebook. [She’s] changed my perspective on the world, on humanity and what I’m allowed to be and what I’m capable of being. I had to be able to to really pinpoint what I was afraid of and that helped me get that fear out of the driver’s seat in my life, because for a long time a lot of what I was doing was motivated by fear. There was this internal battle where there was this part of me that was like, You can do so many things, at least try. And there was this other part of me that was like, But what if you try and it sucks and then nobody ever lets you try anything else? I was constantly living in this weird anxious depressive episode and now I don’t live there, and it’s because I was able to look at it and go, You know, anxiety and depression are liars. Those disorders, those mental health issues, they’re lying to me about who I am and what I’m capable of. But it’s not good enough to just say they’re lying and to know they’re lying, I have to prove to myself that I can fuck up and then I can do better. I had to put myself in a lot of situations where I was literally just throwing myself into a pond and being like, I hope I can swim. I read all the swimming books. I hope I make it to the other side. And when I didn’t make it to the other side somebody pulled me out, and when I did make it to the other side it was a tool in the toolbox that helped me build this confidence to be able to say that I’ll always, always get back up and try again. And now I know that about myself and it kind of makes me feel like I'm unstoppable, and not because I'm perfect or a superhuman. I’m unstoppable because I won’t stop.

Let’s talk about your new radio show, 112BK. How’s it going?
It’s a radio show and a television show on the BRIC channel. It’s basically me talking about news and culture, specifically in Brooklyn. I have guests on every day who talk to me about nonprofits they work at or media stuff they're starting or politics. They're not all Brooklyn-based but everything that they come on and talk about, we talk about how it affects Brooklyn and it’s really, really fun. Going to work does not feel like work. It’s like I just get to sit down and talk to cool people. I feel sometimes like—people in media especially—there’s this natural progression like, Oh, you're a staff writer somewhere, and you become associate editor and maybe senior editor, and maybe eventually you're an editor-in-chief. I have no interest in that progression. I’ve been a staff writer, senior features writer, contributing writer. I’ve done some editing and it’s okay—it’s not my ministry. I just realized, you don’t have to follow that trajectory. You can do all kinds of things. People go, Oh, you're doing TV now, and I'm like, yeah, but I'm still a writer. I'm never gonna be a company girl who comes into a company and is there for ten years doing the job and following the path. There’s nothing wrong with that, and part of me really wishes I was that woman because that woman seems to more often than not have her shit way more together than I do. But in the morning the first thing I do is go to Gimlet and work on a podcast, then go to BRIC and in between that hour I'm going over my briefs and I'm reading the news on the internet and taping the show, then I go somewhere else and that gives me all the energy I didn’t have when I was sitting at a desk all day. When I was sitting at a desk all day I got nothing done. It seemed like I had all the time in the world and I couldn’t bring myself to fill it. Personally I need that sense of urgency to be able to get things done and do them in a way I can be proud of.

When did you move to Brooklyn?
May of 2014.

In three years you’ve accomplished so much. In many ways you're living a freelance writer’s dream, but I know very well that didn’t just happen. How did your hustle help you get here?
I’ve found people have really appreciated my ability to be super real from jump. I don’t have a lot of time or inclination for playing games. I'm more like, So what are we doing? Are we doing this? Cool. I also have varied interests and I’ve explored them all here. I’ve not only written here, I’ve been a regular guest on TV. I was going on Janet Mock’s show [So POPular] on MSNBC, I’ve been on HuffPost Live I can’t even tell you how many times. Something that happens here is people get so focused on the trajectory and how somebody they admire did it that they stop thinking about what’s fun for them. I'm not saying I came here and knew what to do, but that's something I figured out that got me to this point. In a lot of ways I am living a freelancer’s dream because for the most part I have editors reaching out to me. I don’t pitch anymore. There are more opportunities than I can actually take. I have to say no to a lot of things and I get paid well for what Ido. And for the most part people pay me on time, which is insane. And this is my second time being freelance. My first time was not like this. My first time was harrowing.

“They want me to feel burnt out and be downtrodden and hopeless, and to that I say, Fuck off.”

Ashley C. Ford
Photograph: Tawni Bannister

Was it scary to do it again since you had that first bad experience?
Part of me always knew I’d go back to full-time freelancing but I also knew there were things I needed to learn. I was terrible at infrastructure and making sure I had enough to do in my schedule, and that I had enough money to live. Last time, my anxiety was not under control. I was missing deadlines and messing things up all the time because I would sit down to work and find I was so anxious that I couldn’t even begin. I really leaned into that thing that a lot of freelancers do that's like, Oh, I just wait until the last minute and then I know the panic will get me there. But what happened was sometimes the panic didn’t get me there. And then I didn’t know what to do and I was radio silent, and that was even worse. I had no idea how to really do work-life balance. I was staying home most nights, telling myself I’d work on something but never quite getting to it, and then oops, it’s four a.m. It really helped when [my fiancé] Kelly moved in because he’d wake up in the middle of the night and see the light on and go, “Go to bed. This is not okay. This isn’t healthy for you and trust me, you're not doing anything right now that's going to be useful tomorrow.” And then it was like, Oh shit, he’s so right. How’d he just wake up out his sleep and know I'm dicking around and not get anything done? I had myself so convinced that I was shit and terrible and wasn’t going to be able to do it, and that was when fear was still very much in the driver’s seat. I took jobs I really liked and that helped me figure out what I needed to work on. At this point jobs are not about money, they're about what can I learn [from them] and what I can learn about myself.

I'm glad you got through that, but it’s also good to hear you had your rough freelance period. I think so many creative people are scared of that. And if you’re not on the career path, where will you go? What will you be?
The good news is you get to create your own path when you’re not on the path. I spent a long time thinking I wasn’t smart enough, cool enough, white enough, skinny enough, whatever enough to create my own path. It was bullshit I was telling myself because I didn’t want the responsibility of figuring out how to do it my way, or figuring out my own happiness or career. I thought if you followed someone else’s advice or path, that's how you can get stuff you want, but not really have to risk anything. I think that what really worked out for me was getting out of my own way and also deeply understanding that having something to learn is not the same as being incompetent or incapable. Learning actually helps. Who knew?

Are you someone who’s really looking forward to her 30s?
I love my 30s. I am only 30, I’ll be 31 in less than two months.

Ah, you’re 30. I thought you were 29.
I am thir-ty. I am dirty thirty. I'm the thirtiest. I knew that 30 was gonna be great. I didn’t know it was going to be this good. I owe everything to 30. Should I ever have to accept an award for anything, the first person I'm thanking is 30. This year was a combination of confidence and lack of fucks that really just let me, for the first time in my life, be me. Another thing that thirty taught me, the power of enough. I'm not trying to have it all. I don’t really want it all! It’s too much! I think that what fuels a lot of unhappiness and insecurity in people is when you always want more because nothing is enough. I know right now if this all goes away, I had enough.

I can see why you’re a speaker and why you inspire people.
Really, girl? Thank you. I know that it’s not super cool to be as earnest as I am. I get called cheesy and corny, but I'm cool with that if it means that the people who most need to understand that somebody out there thinks it’s okay to be who they are, somebody out there cares about them just because they exist—I'm okay with putting that out into the world because there was a time I needed that badly.

You’ve talked about other writers who’ve given you that. I know you and Roxane Gay are friends and you talked about how her writing on body image affected your body image and how you write about it in turn. So you gained that from someone and now you're putting it back out into the world for others.
That’s a big part of it, pay it forward. I’ve been very well-loved and supported and encouraged by people in my life who had no obligation to me. Roxane is one of those people. I was a Roxane stan before Bad Feminist. I loved her as a writer and as a friend not just because she’s obviously brilliant, but because you would be hard-pressed to figure out how many writers Roxane has specifically helped in some way. I can use the lessons she’s taught me, the way she’s inspired me, the way she’s given me time and space to learn and grow and be myself and not given up on me when I fucked up—I can be that for somebody else. And that makes me feel powerful in a whole other way. It’s not altruistic. I get something too. I get to be that person in your life and that means a lot.

“I am thir-ty. I am dirty thirty. I’m the thirtiest.”

Ashley C. Ford
Photograph: Tawni Bannister

This year was so awful for so many, but it’s been a great year for you personally.
This year was a mindfuck because it was a good year for me personally but it was not a good year for us as a people. And it is really hard to balance my gratitude for what has worked out well for me with my overwhelming anger about what has not worked out for us. But joy is resistance. The people who we seek to turn this country into some sort of isolationist, nationalist bullshit, the people who want to turn this country into its worst self—they don’t want me to be happy. They want me to feel burnt out and be downtrodden and hopeless, and to that I say, Fuck off. Not interested. I'm still gonna have a lot of fun and joy. I'm excited to get married. I'm excited to have worked on [my memoir] and hopefully put it out into the world someday. I'm excited for my friends getting amazing jobs in media and business and nonprofits and universities and I get to hold on to that happiness and love I feel for those people. Because at the end of the day that's what’s going to fuel me, to be able to continue to fight for what’s right and against what’s hateful, evil and systematically unjust. Talk about what needs to change at a local level in government, education, incarceration and fight for it every day in small ways, but know that joy is part of that fight and the two have to work in tandem because we’re going to be fighting a really long time. I know a lot of people feel weary in their spirits right now and to them I say, Go find you some joy in the holiday season because we’ve gotta get right back to it in the new year. 2018 is a year of fruition.

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