Creative Personal Writing: Write the Real You | Ashley C. Ford | Skillshare

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Creative Personal Writing: Write the Real You

teacher avatar Ashley C. Ford, Writer, Editor and Speaker

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Writing From Memory


    • 3.

      Reporting on Yourself


    • 4.

      Pulling Memory into the Present


    • 5.

      Creating Memory


    • 6.

      Sharing Your Work


    • 7.

      Start Your Essay


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About This Class

That one story from childhood? That song that always takes you back?

Join renowned writer, editor, and speaker Ashley C. Ford for an inspiring, half-hour class on writing from memory! Ashley takes you through one of her own essays, then shares prompts and frameworks so that you can write your own.

You'll learn essential skills for writing from memory, including:

  • reporting on yourself
  • what to do when you don't remember something you want to write about
  • pulling memories into the present
  • sharing your memories with the world

All students are encouraged to write and share their essays from one of her favorite prompts: Write an essay inspired by a popular song from the year you turned 13!

This is a beautiful class for writers of every level, whether you're just starting out or already published. Ashley's honest, thorough approach to her own writing is reflected in every lesson, and you will leave with both inspiration for writing your own piece — and also the practical knowledge of how to do it.


Looking for more inspiration? Head here to discover more classes on creative writing.

Meet Your Teacher

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Ashley C. Ford

Writer, Editor and Speaker


Ashley C. Ford lives in Brooklyn by way of Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a writer, editor, and public speaker. Currently, she is writing a memoir (among other things), and co-editing the anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture with Roxane Gay. Ford has written or guest-edited for The Guardian,ELLE, BuzzFeed, Slate, I-D, Lenny Letter, Matter, Design*Sponge, and various other web and print publications. She's spoken at SXSW, Earlham College, Girls Write Now, and was a featured opening writer on Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl book tour. Ford has been the recipient of a writing residency from Hedgebrook, and is the co-founder of The Lulu Fund. She teaches writing at The New School and Catapult.Co.

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1. Introduction: My name is Ashley Ford and my trajectory as a writer has been uncommon, I think. I write primarily right now for Elle Online, I've also written for iD, the Guardian, BuzzFeed. I primarily right about tough subjects. I write about the body, I write about race, I write about sexual assault, I try to write in the grey areas. So many people think that you know black and white are the way things are, and I think anyone who's honest with themselves and with the rest of the world knows that that is not true, and that the interesting things, the marrow, the in-between, all of that stuff is what's really, really good to write about. So the class is called Writing From Memory, we're going to talk a lot about reporting on yourself, about what you do when you don't remember something or you're not sure if you remember it accurately. We're going to talk about pulling those memories into the present and we're also going to talk about putting those memories out into the world, what's right for you and what's not. What do you do when you don't remember something perfectly? How do you write about that? And can you still write about that? Short answer is yes. I read somewhere that the sense most closely tied to memory are the smelling sensors, but I can't really take all of you back to your childhood homes and have you take a big whiff and write something about that situation. So instead, I'm going to do the second one which is hearing. I have a link to the nostalgia machine which is a wonderful website where you plug in a year and the top songs from that year pop up. I would like you to figure out the year you were thirteen years old, put that year into the nostalgia machine and listen to the first song you recognize. After listening to that song, write an essay about how ever it made you feel. These songs are going to bring up memories, they're going to bring up something for you, write it down, tell me that story. I think it could be a really awesome practice for how we remember things and sharing those memories. 2. Writing From Memory: Before you even go any further in this video, you need to read the essay When The Monster Saves You, which is on There'll be a link for this essay on the site. Go read it for about five minutes and come back. As we go into talking about memory, I wanted to show you an essay that I've written almost purely from memory except for a few instances where I had to look things up and I'll tell you how that went and where I got that information and basically how it turned the essay into a better essay. Essay is not the only way to write from memory. There are memoirs, there's poetry, journalistic articles and papers and all kinds of things. Memory informs a lot of what we choose to write because it informs so much of who we are. One of the best poetry books I've read about memory recently is called Boy With Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis. Another book that's been really fantastic for me to read that involves memory has been Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Also, Drawing With Blood by Molly Crabapple. It's not exactly a graphic memoir like Persepolis but it does have drawings and it's really really wonderfully written by this wonderful journalist Molly Crabapple. One of the main ways that I learned about books is the Internet. I've been really diligent about creating spaces online where people who have written things I love are talking about the kinds of books and articles they love. So, it's sort of a constant deluge of information and suggestions for both reading and writing material. I learned about most of these books through those online spaces, through Facebook, through Twitter. What's important to me? Books, reading. What's important to most of the people that I talk to online? Books, reading. So, a lot of these works naturally come into my life through either a word of mouth or word read on the web. Sometimes you have to rely on your memory as is and that's just because you don't have anything else to go off of and we're writing about things that are not benign but definitely not dangerous. When you want to try to find things that back up your memory or talk to other people about what you remember is when you're writing about subjects that are a little more sensitive or if it's just really important to you to get it exactly exactly right. Not everything has to be. You might have a memory of a conversation with your brother that it turned out you actually had with your sister and it's no consequence to the story but then there are times that you're writing about something that happened to you or something that happened to someone else, and in those moments you probably want to talk to at least one person who can verify the way that situation went down. One of my friends, Daniel Jose Older, wrote this amazing essay called Writing Begins With Forgiveness. Until he wrote that down, I don't think I understood how important it was to sit down at my desk in this chair where I do this work every day and begin by forgiving myself for whatever I didn't do or didn't write yesterday. Whatever I didn't get right yesterday as well. So, when we're writing from memory, one of the easiest things to do that we'll ultimately throw you off track is to start to get down on yourself about the things that you don't remember or the things that you can't verify or the things that you didn't get right the first time. Every once in awhile we have a memory we talk to someone or we find something that changes that memory that gives us a little more reality, and in that moment it's really very easy to tell yourself, "Well I can't write this because I don't know what memory is, anyway" and it's not the case; we all get things wrong. If you did your best and you found out what actually happened, great. That just means what you're writing is even more accurate than it would have been before. It's not a reason to think of yourself as less capable or that your story is less worthy of being in the world. 3. Reporting on Yourself: So, if you're going to do this project, what if you need a little more help? What if you need some tools to help you remember things? That's actually probably the easiest part. Some of the things that I do to jog memory when I'm writing an essay or if I'm working on my own memoir about a certain time in my life, is that I create playlists. Whether they're on Spotify or Pandora or Apple Music, just something. I create playlists of songs that I was listening to at that time in my life. You would be shocked by some of the things that I remember once I'm listening to a song I haven't heard in 15 years. The music we listen to is usually indicative of how we're feeling at that time in our lives. I didn't feel the same every day, but I know that there were certain songs I'd listen to when I was feeling a particular kind of sadness, or heartbreak, or joy, or excitement. So, when I hear those songs again, it transports me back into those places. Suddenly, I'm not just writing about who I was when I was 14. I'm writing about how I was feeling when I was 14. I'm writing about it in an accurate way that maybe before listening to these songs or this work, I wouldn't have been able to. Another way that I jog my memory is reading old journals, reading old diaries. Not too long ago, I found a journal that said I wanted to leave the job I was in but I didn't think I ever would or ever find a way out. Spoiler alert, I did, and now I'm here, and doing this, and this is fun. But I couldn't really get in touch with those feelings of dissatisfaction and discontent until I read that old journal. I read how I was feeling in the moment, and suddenly, something bloomed, an idea bloomed, a memory bloomed. All of these information came rushing at me at once, and I started writing things down. Those raw emotions are going to be what takes your essay and your memory to the next level. Give yourself space to write what you need to write. Which means, if you need to be in a room by yourself, if you need to be in a coffee shop in the far corner with no one around you, give yourself some physical space to inhabit that feeling, and to write those things down. Because every once in a while, like I said before, memories will come to you that you didn't exactly remember. Things will come back that you'd maybe just not thought of in a long time. That can be a really emotional and overwhelming experience. So, you want to give yourself literal room to experience that feeling. You also want to give yourself the space of time. This is not a project that I would do on my lunch break from work, because going back to your desk after remembering something particularly poignant might not be the best way to end your day at your job. Part of what makes an essay or any kind of writing about memory convincing is whether or not you own the story you're telling. Getting other people's perspectives can help you confirm memories and it may even give you more elements to your memory to work with, but it is not your job to include anyone else's version of events in your writing. You don't want to accuse people of things that you can't back up. Especially, if those things can have legal ramifications. However, when I'm telling a story about my experience with a parent, I do not have to write. But, you know, I talked to my parents about this experience and they said it happened like this. The story that you're telling when you write from memory, especially if it's about yourself and about your memories, are your own story. When I was around 15 years old, I found out that one of my oldest memories was not a memory at all. My cousins for years had been telling me that when I was around two or three years old, I caused a fire that burned down my family's first house. I had been playing with an iron of some sort or something, and that I had set an iron down on something and plugged it in, and eventually that thing caught on fire. That's what happened to our house. Cut two, me being 15 years old, having a conversation with my mother where I finally bring up the fire that I started, and her looking at me like I was crazy and saying, "Oh no, that wasn't an electrical fire, and I don't have anything to do. None of us were even there." That's probably the first moment I realized that what I remember is not necessarily true or what happened. So many of the things that we think we remember are stories that we've been told. There's nothing wrong with going to people in your family or friends and saying, "Hey, I'm thinking about writing this particular thing. How do you remember this happening?" Sometimes it's a matter of no one remembers exactly what happened, and that's okay. It's okay to write down, nobody remembers exactly what happened. That can be part of a story. It's not necessarily that you always need to know, it's that you need to be honest about what you don't know. I knew when I wrote this essay that it was going to include elements of private conversations I'd had not just with a school counselor, but also things said between me and my family. This essay also had to deal with some sensitive subjects that got into legal things. That meant, when I was writing this, I wasn't just writing from my own memory. I was going to have to check in with some people about what was said, what happened, and I also ended up having to check some legal records. Not everything you write will require you to go look up old newspaper clippings. This particular thing required that I did and organizing that information not just in the essay but before I had the essay ended up being way more important than I thought it would be. I had information on note cards. I had to write out a timeline of when things had happened just to keep it honest and also to keep it together in a way that made sense as I was writing this work. One thing that people ask me a lot is, how do I ask permission from the people in my life to write about them? The short answer is, you don't need their permission. But the larger, more advanced answer is, do you want their permission? What does their permission mean to you? When I decided that I was going to use my father's letters in my memoir, I didn't need his permission, but I didn't want to use them without him knowing about it and without him giving me his blessing. That was more so to make sure I kept the lines of communication open with him, so that I could be honest with him. Also because I like my dad and I didn't want him to be too upset with me. For a lot of people, it's not necessarily that you write about them or use elements of private conversations. It's the fact that you never actually told them that you are going to do so. You want to be as compassionate and cognizant as possible when writing about these things. Not necessarily that you want to hold yourself back, but that you want to be thoughtful about how your words and how you're telling this story might affect other people. Again, this does not mean don't tell the story. This simply means check in with yourself, and check in with other people if that's important to you. It won't always be important to you, and that's okay. Some stories we really do need to tell in our own way before we can give them to other people or share them with other people. But other stories, especially those with more sensitive subjects, if you want to maintain those relationships and retain those relationships with people that you hold dear, then you do probably want to reach out to them and let them know that you're going to be writing about this thing, and putting it out into the world. Because once it's out in the world, you can't get it back. 4. Pulling Memory into the Present: Now that we've done all this pre-work investigation and interrogation of your memory. Let's get down to actually writing the thing and in some cases bringing it into the present. So many of our memories come to us in moments that are either reminiscent of something that has happened to us before or maybe just in conversations where everyone's talking about their own experiences and then you have something to say about it as well. In any case, our memories are special because they don't stay in the past, we carry them with us forever. If you're going to be expressing your memory in an artistic way, it's okay to talk about how that memory ties into the present because who we have been ultimately discerns who we become. So many essays that you might write for specific publications on the web will ask you for something like a news peg or something that shows that this particular piece can be put out into the world right now and people will connect to it and understand why it's important to read it. Some of those things are evergreen. There are some things you can always write about that will have eyeballs on it, that will get eyeballs on it or that people will be able to connect to. But you want to have something going on in the present time when you're writing essays from memory that make that memory relevant, if you're writing for a specific publication that would ask for that kind of thing. In this essay, one of the things that I write about is coming to terms with my own queer identity and also coming to terms with the fact that I have to think of people complexly. The person that I'm writing about in this essay is a school counselor who I wanted to think of as a savior of sorts, an angel, someone sent to me specifically to save me and ultimately I find out that that counselor has done some very terrible things; some things that ultimately make her not a great person and then I have to make the decision as a child whether or not I can still think of that person fondly in the way that they interacted with me, while still holding them accountable for their actions with other children. It's a very tricky subject, something that I can bring into the present now as there have been so many conversations about the bodies of young women and young men and about what we tell them about their bodies and about how we react to their bodies being violated, abused or misused. When I bring that conversation into this piece, it fits even though they're not happening at the same time. This essay was the last essay I wrote for BuzzFeed before I became a full time staff writer there. It was a hard pitch to make to the editor, not just because I wasn't sure what he would think of it, but also because I wasn't even sure I really wanted to revisit all these memories. It's tough stuff to look at this essay. I'm talking about childhood sexual abuse. I'm talking about figuring out your queer. I'm talking about depression. I'm talking about being hurt. I'm talking about all of these overwhelming emotions that could easily have had me falling back into a well of darkness or despair. Part of the reason why that didn't happen is because I was able to take those memories and write them down and see them as something apart from me. I knew that some of these things that I wrote down would upset people, not just people in my life, but people out there who would read it and wonder what I meant when I said that I decided to think of someone as good when they had clearly done something bad. You know, I wanted more than anything to say in this essay that people are complex. That's what I wanted to put in here, that was my thesis and at the end I wanted to prove my thesis. I think I did. I hope I did. But more than that, I hope I told a good story. At this point, if you've finished the essay, which I hope you have, one of the things that you want to take a look at is a really honest assessment of what you've written down. Is it raw? Is it polished? When I say those words, what I basically mean is, is this a raw piece of writing that just came tearing out of you and it's just emotion, after emotion, after emotion or is it something that you've really been nitpicky with and it's very polished and maybe even a little overpolished. It's something to have a look at just to make sure you know where you are and you know what kind of tone you're writing down and whether or not that's the tone you actually want to go for. Some people don't want raw even if that's how it came out. Some people don't want polished even if that's how it came out. You want to make sure that what you're writing down, or at least what you've written so far, is in line with the finished product you're hoping to see. 5. Creating Memory: Every once in a while, there are things we want to write about that we know happened but we don't have a real memory of. In that case, what you're doing is validating or gathering evidence to support your memory. This essentially means that you're going to do more of those interviews that we talked about in the last video, with family members and with people who were around at a certain time, only this time, you're not trying to confirm something you already know or already think you know, you're trying to create something out of thin air. So, you have those interviews, you go back and you look at what was happening in the news at that time, especially if you're writing about something big that happened. I was recently working on an essay or I'm actually still working on it about an obsession I had as a young adult with disaster preparedness. One of the things that I wanted to write about was the fact that while I was in the midst of this obsession, there was an earthquake in Indiana which never happens or at least not as far as I knew but I knew it had happened. I couldn't remember all of the things around it, so what did I do? I went and looked up pieces online about this earthquake that hit Indiana. I talked to my sister who also felt the earthquake. I talked to the people I was living with at the time who felt the earthquake. I didn't have all the pieces. I didn't even have a clear memory of this thing happening. I just knew that it had and by the time I finished doing all of my research, I realized that there were a few memories I had of this moment but I needed every other element and every other tool to bring that out of me and to bring it to the forefront in my mind, because I hadn't thought about it in very very very many years. So, every once in a while, that's something that you will need to do and it'll be really helpful to your story and it'll also be really helpful for you as a writer in the future because anytime you practice those researching skills, it will come back to help you. So when do you need to validate something? You need to validate any memory where you're making a claim of factual events. If I'm writing about an earthquake that happened in Indiana in 2008, I can't confirm that with a feeling. I can't just say, "Well, I feel like there was an earthquake." Automatically, I'm losing credibility with my readers, I'm losing credibility with myself if I allow myself to write about things that should be factual events but I'm just going by how I feel or what I think happened. That is obviously an area where you need to validate a memory. However, if I'm writing about a friend who gave me a book and I'm talking about where they gave me the book and I don't exactly remember where, that's less pressing. That's something that we give space for the inconsistencies in memory and that's okay for something like that to fit into that space with those inconsistencies. When you're writing from memory, there are a few elements that you absolutely have to have. You'd have to have a setting. So if you can remember the setting, write it down. Have it somewhere around you where you can always go back and remember where you are, how old you are, what year it was. Having a document which is what I usually create when I'm writing from memory is I'd put the year at the top and then from there, I put anything that I can remember from that year. I try to think, "Was my little brother born yet? What house where we living in? What neighborhood where we living in? What school was I going to?" Just having that one sheet that is that year in that block of information really helps me write everything from a place of knowledge of not just setting, but also of time and that knowledge of time as I'm writing helps me stay in the moment and in the flow writing that piece and not have to come out of it over and over again to remember exact details about where I am in the story. Secondly, I would say, if you're going to use factual events and have to confirm those factual events, whatever you used, newspaper clippings, interviews with family, photos or journals, have them around you as you're writing. Don't have to get up and go into another room and find something. It is very, very, very important to not break the flow of a memory because that's when we get those gaps and those gaps of time where we're not flowing into what we're writing really will read differently on the page than everything else. So, in order to avoid that, make sure everything is close to you. So the dialogue in here has the words I do remember but more importantly, the things I write around the dialogue set the tone for how I felt in that room. One of the things that I wrote about was the fact that my family talked about everything and didn't really hold back in front of children, but that we weren't allowed to talk back to them. I use my words to create a tone and a feeling about what's happening in that time. I remember things like where I was sitting. I remember nights that were bad. I remember New Year's Eve in a very specific situation with a friend of the family and I'm talking about being seven years old. I remember that I was seven years old because my birthday was at the beginning of this year and I had written that down on my one sheet. This year, seven years old. This day, this happened. It was something that came naturally into the essay because the information was already there beside me. 6. Sharing Your Work: Congratulations, you finished your essay. What do you do with it now? It depends. Is this something that you want to put out in the world or isn't it? That's the very first question you have to ask yourself. We've just gone through this whole process and you've hopefully written something that you really like, or at the very least, you think you can do something with. But that doesn't necessarily mean that what you want to do with it, is put it out into the world and have it be a public piece of your career or of your legacy. That's totally fine, if that's the case. If you decide you don't want to share it, fine. That's totally, totally okay. Writing doesn't have to be for the world, sometimes it's just for you. But if you're like me and you definitely want to write things that go out into the world and connect with people that way, you have to decide again how you want to do that. Do you want to write something for a blog? Do you want to write something for a literary site that's small but publishes the kind of thing that you write really well? Or do you want to play with it? Do you want to be edited heavily? What do you want? Once you know what you want to do with the essay, you can start doing your research about which publications do those things will. Some publications are going to have editors that edit you hard, other publications are going to have editors who want something to come to them pretty well done that they can do some light edits on. Figure out who does what at which publications and then think about the right place for whatever you've just written. Not every place is going to want a long form essay, not every place is going to want something that's really short. Once you know where you want this essay to go, do a little more research. Don't ever send it to the first place that I ask and don't ever send it to the first place you think of. Do a little research, and once you think you've found the best match for your work and a publisher, send it on and send it with courage. 7. Start Your Essay: I can't wait to read your essays in the gallery. Go ahead and put those up as soon as you want to. We're going to have a really great time talking about them, looking at them, critiquing them. We'll all be in this together. Try to critique compassionately and make sure that whatever you write you'd say to the other person's face.