Writing (My) Reality

I hope being interviewed a lot has made me a better interviewer

The story of how I ended up conducting my first magazine cover interview is a pretty good one. A reporter and essayist I admire, even from the first time I read her work, was offered the interview first. When she turned it down, she responded to the assigning editor by suggesting he reach out to me instead. Not only did she send him my way, she cc’d me on the email with the details of what she had been offered as payment for her services. At the time, the offered rate was more money than I’d been paid for multiple writing assignments combined. It was such a thoughtful and kind thing for her to do, and the rub was, we didn’t know each other. But she is a black woman who writes and I am a black woman who writes. This was a vote of confidence, an opportunity passed along in love and solidarity. It’s the only reason I didn’t talk myself out of trying.

The one time I’d run into this writer, months earlier, my awkward attempt to say hello while also conveying my awe AND navigating the crush from a bookstore just after the end of a literary reading...didn’t work out. I wasn’t sure she’d heard me speak. But she did smile at me. Months later, the email came, and the editor followed up with me. I wasn’t convinced I could do it, but I didn’t want to let her down when she believed I could get it done. So I got it done. Since the summer of 2018, I’ve written eight more magazine cover profiles. Nine total. Then I wrote a book, and on the day it became publicly available, she sent me another email alluding to the potential of this moment for me. Her copy had only just arrived, but still she typed out and sent the word, “Triumph.” 

It feels good. Having my work well-received by the people whose opinions actually matter to me feels so good. When there was still a chance that might not be the case, I braced myself for the impact of that disappointment, but I knew it would not devastate me. First of all, I started writing Somebody’s Daughter ten years ago. I wrote the book I meant to write. I’m proud of my work, and its reflection of my most potent creative self to date. If someone I love didn’t love my book, it would be okay. I already loved it enough for both of us. 

After years of doing my best to tell the stories of my short encounters with famous talented strangers, interrogating the motives and motivations behind their careers, I knew no amount of public attention could be as important as how a person feels about the people in their everyday lives and community. My life doesn't look like the lives of those people on the covers of those magazines, but my relationships hold the same weight in my life. So when my people read it, and they told me they loved it, it didn’t feel like a starred review or being selected for a list. It didn’t feel like getting paid, holding a copy of my hardcover for the first time, or seeing a celebrity hold it too. Those things are nice, but they’re not like holding your sister’s hand while she walks into the ocean for the first time or stepping out of the shame-soaked dark. When the people I love love the things I make, the little ways I show them who I am in my underneath, something in me glows. That’s the win I can best recognize.

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Almost every time I sit down for an interview they ask me about the relationships I wrote about in my book. They want to know more about me and my father, me and my mother, and all the other lives I mentioned here or there, scattered around the edges of my story. It doesn’t bother me that they ask, though I wish I didn’t have to give the same answer over and over again. It’s hard to come up with different ways to say, “My mother hasn’t read it.” It’s even harder to seem believable when I say it doesn’t bother me that she hasn’t read it. I think I know why. I think people think to themselves, “If I’d written a whole book and my mother didn’t read it, I would be upset.”

I suppose I am upset. Not because she hasn’t read it, but because I never really got the chance to expect she would. There was and is no foundation in our relationship for that kind of expectation or the ensuing disappointment it would bear. I know it’s uncomfortable to hear, but it’s not unkind to say. It’s not a very exciting answer to the question; it’s just reality. In some of my relationships, we built windows to see each other from our own houses. In some of my relationships, we built walls.

When I write about other people’s lives, I try to base them in the moment between us, in the context I have access to, and the information they hand over. I need as much of their reality as I can get to tell a story that feels human and true even as the details seem fantastical. I need to be able to bring them home, onto the page, and into the laps of those eager to learn more about them. When I write about myself it’s a lot of the same. A bit more excavation. Digging, cleaning, and displaying what’s interesting, not what’s private. That requires some control and a lot of thoughtfulness. I aspire to both at all times, but I don’t always get it right. That’s why I keep trying.

I didn’t think a newsletter was going to be my way of connecting, but a loved one and I chatted about it, and I changed my mind. We made a plan. It hit all the “Wants” I have for consistent communication with my readers and flexibility for me. I got to hire a friend to help me manage it, so I don’t have to worry so much about doing it all on my own. Nobody does it all on their own. I always knew that, but now I believe it too. I’m hesitant to get back to writing regularly in a publicly available space about whatever the hell I want. This doesn’t seem like the best time to do such a thing. But I’m not going to talk myself out of trying. The last few months of constantly being interviewed have proven to me I have a lot more to say. 

Thanks for reading this, 

Ashley

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