6 Things I Learned from Ashley C. Ford about Writing from Memory

Ashley C. Ford. Image courtesy of Design Sponge

As I’m sitting in a Thai food restaurant on Peachtree Street with a writing professor and a smattering of writing grad students, I wonder what I’m doing there. I haven’t published much outside of student publications and yet I'm the only writing undergraduate attending the dinner with remarkable freelance writer/teacher/speaker Ashley C. Ford. Ashley is 29 and has already singularly defined what it means to be a successful writer. She’s worked with Elle, Buzzfeed, The Guardian, Design Sponge and more, she’s instructed writing classes, including at The New School, and she’s currently working on a memoir about her heartbreaking relationship with her father. On top of all of that, her friend and mentor is none other than the fabulous Roxanne Gay (whom she is co-editing an anthology of essays with). Meanwhile, I don’t even have my own website.

But as the seven of us order food and beverages and I try not to bump legs with Ashley, talk turns to life outside of writing. Ashley shows us her faulty polished fingernails that she had just painted that morning. She tells a story of how she broke down sobbing from joy after doing a phone interview with Kenny Loggins. We discuss her first time out of the country which was only a few months ago when she visited England and which hip hop groups sound like barbershops quartets. The Sound of Music and Sam Smith play in the background as Ashley reveals her distaste for Terrence Howard and Jeremy Renner and even does a fairly accurate impression of Michael McDonald – yawning and singing at the same time. It’s only after all of this hilarity ensues that I realize Ashley C. Ford is a regular person and that I have a shot at one day having my own apartment in Brooklyn like her too.

Apart from being an all-around likable woman, Ashley is also a master at writing from memory. She visited one of my writing classes at SCAD Atlanta earlier in the day and passed out nuggets of wisdom to keep in mind when attempting to write about the past. Writing about oneself comes naturally but can be tricky when trying to recall certain senses, feelings and details from the blank depths of our memories. Ashley revealed a few tricks and tips to bridge these vacant gaps and gave some excellent advice about pursuing writing in general.

1. Don’t be afraid to investigate yourself.

When it comes to writing memoirs or creative nonfiction, a solid first step is always research. Writers may not think they need to brush up on their own thoughts and actions, but those concrete details are often what can make or break a story. Ashley suggested investigating yourself by examining traces left on the internet – old emails, social media posts or internet history – or interview people who know you best and ask them to recall characteristics of you growing up or certain memories. Try to remain unbiased and listen intently to their recollections – the goal is to tell the facts of the story, not make yourself look good.

2. There are no heroes or villains.

Everyone you’ve ever met has a raging war of good and evil battling inside them. That may sound melodramatic but it’s something we often forget when recalling role models with rose-tinted glasses or enemies with thunderstorm clouds brewing over their heads. Ashley spoke about how she missed her convict father until she was around 14 and found out he had been imprisoned for rape. Naturally, her perception of him changed but a part of her still loves him despite his actions because he's her dad. It’s when writers can illustrate these delicate balances of positivity and negativity then characters become fully-fledged people.

3. You don’t owe anybody you write about anything except the truth.

When writing about past experiences, you can’t expect to paint a pretty picture. People you know and love might turn out ugly and jaded in your memoir, but once again, your goal is to tell the truth and not make people look good. If you’re really concerned about tainting your relationship with someone close to you (like your mother or significant other) the best you can do is warn them of what’s coming in your writing, be open to their opinion and assure them that you love them no matter what. Ashley once wrote an article called “What Burns in the Pit” that portrayed her mother in a rather unflattering light. After her mother read it, she disinvited Ashley from Thanksgiving! They’ve since made up and her mother is proud of Ashley’s success.

4. What you remember is the most important part of the story.

It’s OK to not remember every detail from your past, even after extensive research. It’s also OK to admit to your readers that you’ve reached a blank space in time when writing a memoir. The important thing is to focus on the parts you do remember, because those were probably the most emotionally jarring or significant moments anyway. So be honest in your recollections and don’t be afraid to write the gap.

5. The concept of a dream reader.

Who is your No. 1 fan of your writing? Who do you want to embrace your work? The obvious answer is anybody willing to read your writing. But think harder and really imagine who you would want looking over your shoulder as you write cheering you on. Is it your mother, your best friend or even a complete stranger who might be your alter-ego? This concept is called your dream reader, and it’s who you should write for (apart from yourself, of course). Not everyone is going to like your work but if you shoot to impress that one dream reader, then mission accomplished.

6. Writing is a valuable skill that will always be necessary.

Where would the world be without writers? A huge misconception is that because anybody who can read can most likely write, that writers are obsolete. Everyone is always looking for the graphic designer who can write articles or an art curator who can write books or reviews, but that’s not what they were trained in. Writing is a valuable skill that will always be necessary. You wouldn’t hire a cable guy to also fix the plumbing in your house, so why would you hire a designer to develop written stories and characters? Just because writing is a skill needed in everything from business to technology to marketing to art, doesn’t mean just anybody can do it well. Don’t let anybody try to undersell you for your craft because what you do required studying and practice and does make a difference.

By the end of my time with Ashley C. Ford and my fellow writing students, I felt like what I had to say as a writer was important despite my small range of life experience. Ashley taught me that in order to become a seasoned storyteller, I first had to throw myself into my craft, make mistakes and learn from them. And that’s OK.