In the past few years, Ashley C. Ford’s name has been popping up everywhere—she’s written cover stories for national magazines, hosted (and appeared on) blockbuster podcasts, and started her own video series, PROFILE by Buzzfeed News. But right before her career took off, Ashley was struggling with depression, cycling through jobs, and undecided about what to do next. Here, she explains how she figured out what she wanted—and established the routines she needed in order to do it.
Ashley lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Kelly Stacy, and their dog. She’s currently working on her memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, which will be published by Flatiron Books under the imprint An Oprah Book.
WHEN I STARTED MY CAREER, my expectations for my work life were so low. I thought I would spend my life being an administrative assistant who wrote on the side, and I didn’t think that was so bad. Especially living in Indiana, where the cost of living is a lot better than Brooklyn, it seemed sustainable to me. When people started wanting to hire me for bigger writing jobs, I was excited, but there was always a part of me that felt like, I don’t know if this is for me, and I don’t know if this is going to last.
SOMETIMES THE HARDEST THING TO SAY, especially as a young black woman from the Midwest, is what I want. It takes practice. You start practicing in the places where you feel safe, and then eventually you practice in places where there’s more risk. My home is a really safe place. Usually the first time I say something out loud about what I want, it’s to my husband. I’m lucky to have the kind of husband who will hear that and insist on it. And from there, I can take it to the next level, with my team. I have my literary agent, my speaking agent, my assistant, my mentors, my “board of directors” in personal relationships. When I start telling those people what I want, then they’ll say, “Well, if you want that, you should talk to this person, or read this book, or see this thing.” I’ve found that the minute I start talking about what I want, I get closer to it. Or I realize that maybe it’s not what I want after all. But if I just keep it to myself, there’s a lot of room for confusion. If you don’t tell people what you want, they’ll just assume they know, or that they’re already giving it to you.
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SAYING WHAT YOU WANT PUBLICLY is extra terrifying, but it can also pay off. A little over a year ago, I tweeted about how I’d enjoyed writing a piece for a print magazine and wanted to do it again. The next thing I know, a writer—a really amazing woman named Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah—suggested that I write the cover story on Janelle Monae for Allure magazine. The magazine had asked her to do it, but it wasn’t really in her wheelhouse, so she put me in touch with them instead. And she didn’t just send them to me. She CC’d me on the original email where they had said how much they would pay her and everything. They wound up offering me a little less money, which I understood, because it was my first cover story, and I’m not Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. But since then I’ve done two more covers for Allure—Serena Williams and Anne Hathaway. And for the third one, I asked for more money, and they said yes.
AS A WRITER, ESPECIALLY FOR ONLINE PUBLICATIONS, I learned how to create things in chaos. And for a long time I thought, “Oh, I must thrive in chaos, under pressure.” Because if you practice chaos, you’ll be good at chaos. But if you practice routine, you’ll be good at routine—and routine helps you get a lot more done than chaos. I’m in the process of switching from chaos to routine, and it’s tough, because you have to create boundaries. And that can be emotional. It’s hard to tell people no. But you need boundaries to create routine and do your best work. That has been true of writing as well as maintaining relationships. If you’re not regularly tending the garden of your relationships with people, you lose them. It’s hard to go out and be present with people when you are constantly under pressure, because you don’t know how to work any other way.
I DECIDED TO OVERHAUL THE WAY I WAS WORKING after I let down someone who I care about and admire deeply. I had a dream opportunity to work with this person, but my life was so chaotic that I dropped the ball. I dropped it hard. Not only was I in chaos, but I also refused to ask people for help. I knew I had to change when this person reached out and was very clear about their disappointment in me. That’s the kind of thing that you can’t fix. And it messed with my confidence. I was suddenly like, “Wait, am I capable?” Sometimes the answer is no—I didn’t have the tools that I needed. Giving me those tools wasn’t anybody else’s responsibility. It’s mine. And I didn’t have them when I needed them, because I had never cultivated them. So that’s what I’m working on now.
I USED TO NOT PLAN ANYTHING. I used to think I would find the time to do the things I needed to do, but that’s not actually how the world works. You have to schedule the time. If something is really important to you, it should be on your calendar. That includes seeing my friends, reaching out to family, sending people flowers for birthdays. That’s communicating with my assistant regularly.
I FOUND MY ASSISTANT ABOUT A YEAR AGO, on Twitter. We had been mutual Twitter followers for some time, and she had recently been laid off from her position as an executive assistant. I needed some extra help, and I thought she might need a bit of money to help with the gap with her layoff. And then we just never stopped working with each other. She has another full-time job now, and she does this for me as her side hustle. She is the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself. She’s sunshine.
I’VE DEFINITELY HAD MOMENTS WHEN I FELT LOST. In January of 2015, my grandmother passed away. She was like my second parent, because my dad wasn’t around, and I dealt with grief in a real way for the first time in my life. I got depressed, quit my job, started another job, and quit that job too. I started to go full-time freelance, but I was so depressed that it wasn’t going super well. Eventually, I got a new job that seemed great, but then it ended just before the two-year anniversary of my grandmother’s death. That’s when it hit me: I should just do whatever I want to do. I had been trying to play by other people’s rules, in and out of two jobs in two years, and I just didn’t want to do it anymore. So I decided to work really, really hard at what I wanted to do and see what happens. And so far, it has worked out really well. I was able to finish my book proposal and finally sell my book. I was able to start working with a speaking agency and booking gigs regularly. I can look down the pipeline and know I’ve got a few months’ worth of work coming, and it’s nice.
I WEAR MANY DIFFERENT HATS AT WORK. Technically I’m a small business owner, I’m a spouse, I’m a dog owner, I have a family who I take care of in different ways. I am a writer, I’m a host, I’m a podcaster. It’s a lot, but I’m learning to stop and ask myself, How can I do these things as the best version of myself? Who do I need to help? What skills do I need here? If I sit down and think about those things, then they seem less scary. For the next two years, it’s book city. My book is my first priority, and everything has to fit around that.
FOR MANY YEARS, MY HOME SELF AND WORK SELF were two completely different people. And now I’m seeing the importance of integrating them. In my home life, I am woefully domestic. I love to cook and take care of the dog. I like hosting in my home and planning meals. It’s very calm and woo-woo in here. And then my work self is much more energetic. She is vibrant, full of ideas, wittier. She definitely wears better outfits. Me on a set or in an office versus me at home, those are two very different people. And it took me a while to realize that I’m not those two people separately—I’m both. That gave me more balance in my life, and less compartmentalization.
MY HUSBAND AND I BOTH WORK FROM HOME, and we live in a one-bedroom apartment. It used to be that I almost never showed him my writing before it was published. And he’s a writer, too—not just a writer, but a fantastic editor. In trying to keep our relationship separate from my work, I made him feel like I didn’t think he could add value to it. But that wasn’t my intention—I thought I had to keep those parts of my life from touching, even though a lot of my writing could have benefited from his eye. I can’t believe I had an editor in my house for five years and I didn’t make use of it! My husband reads my work now, and it actually makes me write more, because I get excited to send him things and hear his comments.
I LOOK FORWARD TO BECOMING A MENTOR SOMEDAY, but I’m really not at that point yet. I’ve had some incredible mentors. Roxane Gay has been supportive of me and my work in a myriad of ways for almost ten years. And Glynnis MacNicol has been there for me in some of my roughest moments. Both of them helped me navigate spaces I’m unfamiliar with. They also helped me understand not just what I want, but how to get it. Roxane was the first person to publish one of my essays. And Glynnis reached out to get lunch with me within the first week that I moved to New York. She wanted to sit down and talk about my work, and about her work, and being involved with TheLi.st, which was the first thing I was part of in New York.
IT’S WEIRD TO ENTER THE PHASE OF LIFE WHERE I’M NOT THE INGENUE ANYMORE. I’m not the new girl in this industry. I have a little bit of power. And I have to be thinking seriously about how I use that. And more specifically, I need to be thinking about the responsibility and the weight of that.
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Photographs by Heather Moore. Styling by Nyjerah Cunningham.