In honor of Pride, we’re chatting with a queer member of our teaching community each week this June.
These conversations are a way to honor the artists and their art. After all, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.” And yet, these conversations also revealed a new thread: again and again, we heard that being part of a community has been a crucial step to creative self-expression.
And so, in the spirit of both individualism and community, of celebrating empathy and expression, we’re excited to share these conversations — and curated resources for the queer creative community — with you.
Ashley C. Ford has made a career out of getting personal.
Her in-depth celebrity interviews have graced the covers of magazines like Allure and Marie Claire. She’s hosted the Fortune Favors the Bold and PROFILE by BuzzFeed News podcasts, where it’s clear her superpower is connecting deeply with people, making them feel seen and heard. She brilliantly, boldly shares details of her own life via essays published in The Guardian, Refinery29, Elle, BuzzFeed and her upcoming memoir, Somebody’s Daughter. And she teaches others to “write the real you” in her Skillshare class.
After reading Ashley’s writing, it’s easy to feel as though you’re spending time with a close friend, but she hasn’t always felt so comfortable writing about “the real her.” Here, she shares how her journey has evolved: by finding the magic in day-to-day moments, embracing her whole self, and leaning on her supporters — the vast majority of whom, she says, are in the LGBTQ+ community.
In your Skillshare class, you say that people love to think in terms of black and white, but your writing lives in the gray areas. As you put it, “The good stuff is in the in-between.”
Have you always approached your writing this way?
No, I definitely haven’t. When I started writing, like most people, I didn’t think I was very interesting or that anyone would care about my story.
There’s something that happens when you start to be creative. You try to separate things by if they would qualify as great examples of art or if they look like something already out there. In your mind, the great ones always have these complicated concepts and everything is really intense. And anything that’s more in the vein of everyday life is supposed to be not a good story.
But we know that’s not true. Because in those everyday moments, that add up to our lived experience, there are things that happen that get us very excited. The only reason nobody else cares about them is because it happened to me and not them.
But this is the power of storytelling. If I write about it, if I tell a story about this very mundane thing, others can see themselves in me through that experience. Through that story, they know where to find themselves.
Most people’s lives do not exist on either end of an extreme. Most people’s lives are not all this, or all that. We all exist with our own complications and contexts and circumstances. So when I started writing, I wanted to tell big grand stories, and I didn’t understand that the grandest stories are about humanity and humans, and humanity exists in that gray area. That’s where the meat is. Everything on either end is, you know, just a very, very bleached white bread.
Not all people are going to have the same circumstances growing up. Not all humans are going to have the same story. And also, not all people are going to have the same reactions to those stories. So that’s why writing in the gray is really hard for people: there is no predicting how anyone else will react to it. But that’s why it’s important.
“I talk about being bi, about being Black. I talk about being kind of fat. . . They’re just parts of me. Not one of them being a whole. They’re just parts of me. And they are wonderful, beautiful parts.”
Speaking of the gray areas, you’ve written about the fact that you identify as queer and are married to a man, and that that’s confusing for some people. Do you think culturally we are evolving to hold a more nuanced conversation?
I do think that the more we have the conversation, the more nuanced the conversation becomes, because the more people are able to access language they didn’t have before to express themselves with. And then when they throw their voice into the mix, they might add some personal circumstances that others didn’t consider. And then the conversation just gets so big and wonderful.
I wanted to write about being queer because I found myself in this place where I knew something deeply about myself. I knew something in my blood and bones. And I wanted to be able to talk about it in a way that acknowledged the privilege that I have of being in a relationship that appears to be one cis heterosexual man with one cis heterosexual woman. And while I don’t necessarily need to tattoo “I’m bisexual” on my forehead, I also didn’t want it to be a thing that I ever felt like I needed to hide.
More than anything else, I want to make more room for people who understand that this part of them is something quite beautiful, but it’s also a part of them that the status quo has chosen to oppress systematically. So what do you do with that? Do you get quiet about it? Are you scared about it? I don’t have any reason to be.
So I continue to flap my gums. I talk about being bi, about being Black. I talk about being kind of fat. I talk about coming from an impoverished background. I talk about all those things because those aren’t things that I’m ashamed of. They’re just parts of me. Not one of them being a whole. They’re just parts of me. And they are wonderful, beautiful parts.
When you are writing or when you’re encouraging or teaching people to write, are you writing for yourself? Are you writing for others?
I believe that when you write for yourself, you are writing for others.
The thing to remember is that when you write about love, when you write about your version of love, your version of pain, your version of anger, your version of fear, somebody else out there can relate to that. Even if they don’t define it the exact same way, they can relate to the complications of dealing with big feelings, big emotions, big circumstances, all of those things. So when you write about yourself, when you write for yourself, you are writing for someone else.
Also someone else will then say, “Well, they wrote this book for them, I could write something for me.” When you give yourself permission to tell your stories or to tell stories that matter to you, it gives everybody else around you permission to do the same.
What role has the queer community played in your life?
I have had queer folks in my life in an encouraging way since I was probably in the third grade. And I didn’t always know that these people were queer, or LGBTQ+, but as I grew up, it was like something in me understood that there was an opportunity for community here and sought that out.
That’s a pattern that kept repeating. The first time I read something I had written out loud was to a gay man who worked at the Boys and Girls Club in Fort Wayne, Indiana. My choir teacher in middle school, who loved me and believed in me and did whatever she could to make a really tough time in my life so much better, was a lesbian woman. In high school, some of my closest friends were queer.
These are the people who have loved me, held me, comforted me, housed me. There is no Ashley, The Artist without my queer community, and the people who make that up. Even in coming to New York as a 27-year-old, the friends I made, the people who gave me big opportunities, the people who suggested me for awesome projects, I would say 75% of those people were queer. I was this secretary from Indiana, who got lucky and published a couple essays, and got a job offer in New York City. I was terrified. And these people saw that fear in me and they offered me community.
“There is no Ashley, The Artist without my queer community, and the people who make that up. ”
I actually printed out a draft of my book this morning. I held the pages of my book, and I had this swell of emotion. And I immediately started thinking, “I can’t wait to work on the acknowledgments page, because there are so many people that I need to thank.” 75% of that list is queer. People who have been through something know how to be there for people who are going through something. I’m just really lucky to have had that.
What does Pride Month mean to you? How are you recognizing it or honoring it this year while sheltering in place?
I think this month, more than any other year before, what Pride really means is the opportunity to be your full self and to live with dignity as your full self.
Pride is this affirming time. It’s a time where a community of people are able to look at one another, and the allies of that community are able to also turn to those people, and say, “Yeah, I care. And I think you matter. And I’m going to celebrate your life because that’s how much I care. And that’s how much I think you matter.”
I don’t see that not happening this year. My friends are already planning things digitally. Making art, connecting with each other, looking for ways to create opportunities for mutual aid. That’s what Pride is about: affirming and taking care of each other. We’ve needed it all along, but we definitely need it right now.
In collaboration with our featured artists, we’ve curated a list of online resources and content for the queer creative community. Explore their recommendations here.
To learn with Ashley, join her Skillshare Original Creative Personal Writing: Write the Real You.