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Finding your voice through honoring your strengths with Ashley Woodfolk
Meet Ashley Woodfolk, a Brooklyn-based mom and a full-time award-winning writer of books for kids and teens.
Meet Ashley Woodfolk, a Brooklyn-based mom and a full-time award-winning writer of books for kids and teens. Ashley shares how her interest in children, books, and writing has driven much of her decisions as she navigated her life and multiple careers. From teaching to successfully publishing her debut novel, The Beauty That Remains, while working in publishing, to now as a mom and writing full-time, Ashley has learned to hone in on recognizing her strengths to make her voice and contribution to the world stronger.
Interviewed in December 2022
Heads up, some explicit language in this conversation might not be suitable for all ages. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tell us a bit about you. I'm Ashley Woodfolk. I am a mom, writer, and contributor to society. I want to leave the world a little bit softer than before I got here.
How did these parts of your identity start to take shape? As far as being a mom, I have always wanted to be a mom. I've always been a very empathetic and compassionate person. Those characteristics lend themselves really well. So, it was always something that I wanted. But when I wanted it before, I wanted it in a very selfish way.
Now that I have a kid, I want another one in a different way. I want it because I can help make a person who will help others. And so I feel like, when I was younger, I was like, "Oh, I want a kid because they'll be so cute, and it'll be so fun to be a mom." But it's much more work than I fully understood.
There's now much more transparency about motherhood and what it's like. When I was younger, that was not really a thing. What do you mean by transparency? As a society, the zeitgeist has come around to talking about motherhood in a much more truthful way. Whereas when I was in my 20s and thinking about the possibility of becoming a mom, nobody was talking about it for real or being real about it. It was still very much like, "Everything is beautiful. Motherhood is such a journey." And it's not perfect, and it's painful! Right, exactly.
But now, on Tik Tok, people are like, "my child just cleared this table off. And now I have to clean it up." Or they're like, "breastfeeding fucking sucks." And, yes, it does!
So, anybody thinking about becoming a mom now has much more information than before if they're looking for it. And some people are actively seeking that out and making a conscious choice about it. Some people still have blinders and want what they want for whatever reason. But somebody's made the blinders choice first.
Consciously, I think about my own mental health and like what I have to spare. [Parenthood] is a very "if you do it for the right reasons," it can be one of the most unselfish acts you can contribute to the world. But it can also be extremely selfish if you're not thinking about it clearly.
As far as being a writer, writing was always something that I always wanted. But it was something I didn't really have much control over. It was happening, like whether I wanted to or not; I didn't make a conscious choice.
A great illustration of this was when I was in first grade, about six or seven [years old]. We were learning cursive. I already knew how to write cursive because my mom had gotten me one of those books to learn earlier. And so, when we were learning cursive in school, I was a bit bored. So when we got the blank notebook with the three lines to practice, I already knew how to do it. So instead, I just wrote a story. It was like a book because I filled the whole notebook. It was about a little girl who found a magic ring on her way to school and about the adventures she'd go on. My mom probably still has this story somewhere.
My mom was always ahead of the curve when it came to that stuff. I knew how to read before I started school. She was just on it, and she was super involved. And that contributed a lot, too [to becoming a writer].
I also remember we went to Disney World when I was eight or nine. We'd get this little autograph book where you're supposed to go to the characters, and they have a little stamp, so it's like getting Mickey Mouse's autograph. So I got two autographs and then [used the book] to write eight-year-old poems.
So any time you had a physical pen and paper? Right, it's going to come out. I was still young, but I don't remember what was going on in my head. It just happened. As I got older, I made a more conscious decision to be like, "oh, I want to write a poem, or I have an idea for a story or whatever." I was just somebody who always had stories and words inside of me.
Were other factors or people encouraging you to write, or were you interested in it yourself? My parents gave me a lot of positive reinforcement, for sure. I wrote a story, and they read it. They'll be like, "oh my god, this is great," or whatever. I figured that based on your initial story of how your mom is likely to have kept your first story! Exactly. And so, I definitely got positive reinforcement for doing it.
I was also a little people pleaser. I was a little good girl or whatever. And so, that probably did encourage me to know that people would positively react to me. But I wasn't looking for that the first few times I did it. It was a byproduct. Even now, when I try to take a break, I get ideas for things. And so, I think it's unconscious.
Making a conscious choice to pursue [writing] as a career was definitely really scary. The self-doubt was totally a part of it. And it's still there, even with published books.
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So did you get into publishing right away? Could you share how you got started? In college, I knew I wanted to be a writer. But I was too afraid to say that out loud. And so, I started looking for other things that I was interested in and good at.
It came down to two things. I love books and words, so publishing [was a path]. And I love kids, so that was teaching. I did some teaching internships and worked at daycare centers, the YMCA near my college, and all that kind of stuff. Teaching just felt like a much more accessible goal at the time.
And so, when I graduated, I got a teaching job. I was working at a Montessori school with infants and toddlers. Montessori schools are all about fostering independence in very young children and essentially child-led learning.
To advance [in the teaching career], you need to go back to school to get different certifications to work at different schools to move up. Additionally, for me, there was so much red tape. For the administration stuff, just having to do things because you have to or because some established process existed and you just had to do it [didn't make sense].
Parents are also fucking nuts. As a parent, I can say we're crazy! laughing And it just wasn't what I wanted or expected it to be. It was mostly dealing with administration. The parents—I could handle. For somebody like me who deeply loves children, it was very frustrating whenever I encountered a parent doing something harmful to their child and never on purpose.
Parents advocating for their children was totally fine for me, as I could deal with that. But when I saw active harm, it was very stressful for me. I was worried I would get into trouble because I was like, I'm going to say something I can't. So that was part of the reason why I was like, "I cannot do this long term."
Those are the two reasons why I felt that [teaching] wasn't sustainable for me. So while working that first teaching job, I started reading this book, "I'm an English Major, now what?" It had all of these career paths that you could take.
One [path] was these post-grad publishing programs. They're six-eight week intensive programs where you learn about the publishing industry. At the end of it, there is a career fair. The idea is that you'll go through the program and find a job.
I loved the program. The first three weeks were about magazines, then the remaining was about books. I went into the program thinking I would get into magazines because I subscribed to 80 different magazines when I was a teenager. And I really liked the idea of going into advertising or doing editorial stuff for magazines. I also liked the glamor of it. But, when I was going to the program, the people were fucking terrible. So I was like, "Okay, these are not my people." Then the books part of the program came. During that, I was like, "Oh wait, this is actually what I want to do."
As part of the program, you had group projects to make a magazine and an imprint. You had to come up with a list of books that you were publishing. It's very cute and actually gave you a lot of information about how it all works.
Unfortunately, in the end, I did not get a job right away since I did this program in 2009. I had no money, so I couldn't stay in the city. So I went home to D.C. and applied for jobs in the area. I ended up doing a couple of internships where I was a personal assistant for an author, another working at a magazine, and another where I was putting together a college guide. The internships were very publishing adjacent but not actual publishing jobs. laughing I haven't thought about these internships in forever!
And so, what happened after these internships? During 2010, I started applying for publishing jobs in New York because I was like, "I gotta get the fuck out of here." Like, this was not sustainable. So, I used [my then boyfriend, now husband] Cass' New Jersey address to apply for roles. Then, I would take the Amtrak up with my dad in the mornings to go to interviews, have lunch, and head back home afterward.
And eventually, I got a Marketing Assistant job at Random House. While I was there, I was writing the whole time. But I also wrote a book that was garbage. So I needed to learn how to edit; I didn't have a writing community at the time and didn't know anything about revision.
At the same time, I'm getting acclimated to my new job and like all that stuff. And I started reading some of these books we were publishing, and I was like, "this is shit!" I have some of those moments in the design world as well! Right. It's like, if they can do that, why have I doubted myself so much?
Exactly. And then, I started meeting people and learning about the publishing process. The way it works is that when you're first starting out trying to get published, it's best to write a full manuscript before you start looking for an agent. Then, when you find your literary agent, they are your representative to take you to different publishing houses or to present your work to various editors.
And once I learned that process, I started making a list of literary agents. You want to find literary agents who represent what you're writing or similar projects to which you are writing. So they know how to pitch you? Exactly. And agents are known for that. Agents also tend to represent authors who are writing things that they like.
To find an agent, you need to query them. And the way querying works is that literary agents have on their website the way they prefer to receive manuscripts. So, for example, some literary agents want you to send them a letter, so you write a "Query Letter." It's basically like, "Hi, my name is this. This is what my book is about." And you'll have a blurb of your book, share any accolades you have, like where you've been published. You then share that this would be, for example, "my debut work of fiction" or whatever it is that you're currently doing. Ah, this sounds like a cover letter! Yes, it's like a cover letter for your book. And so, it's really important to have a strong one.
Some literary agents want the letter, and some want the letter and the first five pages. Some agents want the letter and the first three chapters. And so, you'll send your query letter out based on their specific criteria, whatever they are.
Then, you'll basically wait to hear back. You send it out to the ether, and then what could happen next is that you'll never hear back again, get a rejection, or you get a request for a full. If they request a full, that means they liked what you sent and want to read the rest—which is very exciting when it happens. But at the end of that, you could still get rejected? Yeah.
And how did the first book you queried go? When I first started, finding a literary agent also took forever. I actually queried the first manuscript that I was writing. But again, I didn't know jack shit about revisions or how to cut things. And so, I queried the manuscript for like 18 months. I got a few requests for fulls and no offers of representation. So after the eighteenth month, I was like, "maybe we're done here." So I put that aside and started writing something else.
Around that time, I was working at Random House in Marketing on adult books, and I really wanted to get into Kid's books. Because, again, my interests were the same the whole time: I like books, writing, and kids. So I really wanted to get into Kid's books. And so I applied for a position in Children's books, and I got it. It was super exciting.
I loved my boss when I was working on the adult side. And I was actually nervous about leaving because it's so unpredictable, and I needed a healthy work environment to write. Which is also very rare! Exactly. It's very hard to find, and I knew that I was lucky that I liked my boss. I felt like a valued member of the team. But I didn't realize how lucky I was until I went over to the Children's book role, and it was a fucking nightmare. I cried every day—it was awful. I was so sad. After nine months of being there, I was like, "I have to get out of here." And so I started applying for new jobs.
I said to myself, "I won't, and I don't even want to stay in publishing." So at this point, I just needed to get out because it was terrible. And I got a job with McMillan with a lovely person. So I was back in a healthy work environment.
Once I started working at MacMillan, I started writing again. I finished the book, [The Beauty That Remains], within six months. And I queried this book for three months before I got an offer of representation. It was super fast.
When I first started writing that book, I felt like it was special. It was the right kind of thing. So many things were happening simultaneously, reflected in the novel about grief and anxiety.
While I was working that [initial] terrible job, my grandmother passed away. A lot of my abandonment issues were flaring. I started having panic attacks because I thought it wasn't a good place to be when I was in that terrible job. This was also the time that Cass moved to San Francisco. I was terrified that something was going to happen to him, and I wasn't going to know.
So that book came from that particular time. The offers of representation were so quick. When I picked my agent, amongst the four who responded, the book went to auction, and multiple publishing houses wanted it. And it was a very exciting first experience.
What do you think made people grasp the book so quickly? Well, it was the third or fourth thing that I had written all the way through. I was getting better at knowing how to make a book. It was the first thing that I wrote that was extremely personal that came through in the text. I was writing for my younger self and my current self. I was telling myself that it's okay to be scared and to have all these feelings about things and that, ultimately, you'll be fine. And so, that is what resonated. I also think people fucking love sad books, but it's also hopeful.
The book also offered different perspectives to help reframe and think about how everyone has their own point of view. So all of those things came together to make it work. The timing of it was also good because that year, Contemporary YA (Young Adult) was having a resurgence. But also, so much of this shit is up to luck and timing. But you were also prepared. Right. So you can be as prepared as possible and just hope that your book happens at the right moment. I got lucky that it did! laughing And I continue to get lucky! You also continued to put in the work! For sure.
And then, once you have an agent, it's much easier to have your foot in the door and additional deals after that, as long as you continue working. I love that your life has recurring themes in the joy of writing and interest in kids—personally and professionally. You were initially figuring it out and now intentionally putting so much work into making writing as a full-time career. And, of course, you have multiple careers throughout your life as a mom, writer, and so much more.
Why does the work you're doing matter to you? Or, in other words, why does it matter to you to focus on these particular values? I have always had a soft spot in my heart for children. I've always known at a very young age that I would be involved in kids' lives in some way. Because teaching didn't really work out or because I couldn't deal with the trauma of it. I knew that I still wanted to feel like I was having some kind of impact on kids. And like learning to heal your inner child: helping or feeling like I'm helping other kids helps younger me too.
There's also the representation part of it. There are so many kids who don't have an opportunity to see themselves in books. And so, if I can write a book that helps a kid who never saw themselves before and see themselves beyond "this character is Black" or "this character is Asian" but actually on an emotional level too–that is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
I want to make sure that people feel seen and feel like their existence matters. Life is hard, and if I can do something that I enjoy doing and it makes somebody's life slightly less hard, that is all I want.
I want to make sure that people feel seen and feel like their existence matters. Life is hard, and if I can do something that I enjoy doing and it makes somebody's life slightly less hard, that is all I want.
Are there any misconceptions about yourself, your identity, or your work? YA [Young Adult] has a bad rap. People think writing YA is easy, writing books is easy, or writing books for kids is easy.
People also think that everybody in publishing is making millions of dollars all the time. Maybe the publishing company? Right, but sometimes not even the company.
People think you're set for life once you write one book. Or once you write one book, you're guaranteed to write another. But I know many people who only wrote one book and never wrote again.
And so if you want to make it into a career, it requires a lot of commitment, work, and tenacity. So many people I know who are career writers have another job. I am very lucky that I am able to write full-time. I know a lot of people who are not able to do that. That's a combination of me having gotten very lucrative deals—which is great. And also have a supportive partner who has a great job and is open to me not having a full-time job because, living in New York City, it never hurts to have more money.
[Writing] is less lucrative than people think because the splashiest deals or the ones that reach beyond the inner publishing circles are the hugest. So people who are not within publishing, the deals they hear about are the ones that are big, get movies, and are best sellers. But unfortunately, that is not the case for the majority of humans who write books.
And the whole "kids' books are easier"—kids' books are a lot harder than writing for adults. Adult books can be as long as you want them to be. Kids' books can't be super long. Picture books are also really hard.
People are used to reading the finished product and never see the process. They never see the process like most books you're reading has gone through three or more edits of the entire thing like they have been rewritten from scratch.
There are so many misconceptions; we can talk about misconceptions all day!
Reflecting back on your career, do you have any self-doubt? A very good example of this is that I published a book this year called, "Nothing Burns as Bright As You." It was my first verse novel, so the whole thing is written poetry. And it's gay, and it's about two Black girls. So everything about that had me shitting my pants.
It wasn't that anybody knew that I was writing it since we were in a pandemic. It was a book that came out of me through complete isolation and not having to worry about external expectations. And through therapy and processing a lot of shit that had happened to me as a kid and things that were happening to me at that moment. And just like all these feelings, I had never truly taken a moment to process them. So, it was an extremely vulnerable book.
I was supposed to be writing a different book. And so, everything about it was terrifying. When I sent the book to my agent, she read it and said, "this is great." It also felt like, in my gut, it was the best thing I had ever written. But I was terrified it wasn't the best thing I had written, you know?
Terrified because other people would think it wasn't the best thing you wrote or that you thought that about yourself? Because I wrote it in such a vulnerable place, I was afraid that everyone would read it, which would color my feelings about it. The more revealing something is, the less I'm able to divorce the reception from it. It was also a hidden part of me that I had never really processed or even thought much about my queerness until a year before the pandemic. I had an identity crisis, and then we got stuck at home.
[For context], once you get an agent and a lot of agents are editorial agents, you might revise with the editor or agent before you go out to editors. And when that agent sends your book out to editors, they're essentially sending another query letter to editors to say, "hey, this is my client's book, and this is what it's about." [This process] is called "going on submission." So it's a very similar process where you're just waiting to hear back.
And so, when I went on submission [for Nothing Burns as Bright as You], it was only four days which is incredibly fast. But every day I was on submission, I vomited. Every. Single. Day. I didn't put anything down because I was so anxious.
It was awful. I was afraid that people are going to say that I'm not gay enough to write this book because I have a male partner. People are not going to care because it's too black. And you don't see many sapphic stories generally, especially not with black girls. The book is in verse, and it's fucking weird. It's a weird ass book! It's just feelings everywhere.
And so, I was just so terrified. It's probably the most recent experience I've had with self-doubt. It was just like...I shouldn't be writing this book. That is how I felt a lot of the time I was writing it, promoting it, and talking about it.
It's such an interesting insight because earlier, you shared that after getting your first book published, we would assume that it should be smooth sailing and that you'd be more confident. But, no! Each time you go through it again, it's just a different level.
And what I find really interesting is that your first book, "The Beauty that Remains," came from a place where you were processing that became a reflection of that particular time. Ideas can come from a place of being vulnerable, which is such a beautiful reminder that self-doubt will come out, and it's more important what you do with it and moving forward.
The important thing about any creative work is to be a little bit relentless with yourself but also with the outer world. The way your work is received is not so much a reflection of you but more of a reflection of the time and space the other person is in. There are so many different things that come into play. So, it's not always about you, even though it feels like it is. Something I'm currently learning as well.
The way your work is received is not so much a reflection of you but more of a reflection of the time and space the other person is in... So, it's not always about you, even though it feels like it is.
There's this video by Ira Glass where he's talking about creative people and their tastes. He's saying that if you're a creative person and if you're a person who likes to make things, then you have really great taste. But when you first start making things, whatever you make will not live up to your taste. The only way to get better is to keep making things. I always think about that because when I think "this is bad," it's because I have good taste, and I haven't had a chance to make this good yet. So I think about that a lot, too, especially when I'm in the first draft stage where everything fucking sucks! laughing
Every book is different; for instance, "Nothing Burns as Bright as You," I did very little editing to it. But everything I've worked on after that has been more normal, where when I write something, I have to edit it again and again and again. You'll never know; another book could just come pouring out again! Exactly, you'll never know because every book is so different.
What would you say if you could pick an Ashley in the past and give yourself advice? Jesus, there are so many different ones!
If I could talk to my 15-year-old self, I'd be like, "Just kiss a girl. Just do it now and get it out of your system!" So that we know that "that feeling" is valid. And that, you can like girls.
From a creative perspective, I would tell the Ashley querying the 18-month-long novel that, "that is not the story, but that doesn't mean you won't find the story. And it's okay to let it go. Like, you can stop." But I also think part of that process really prepared me for the next thing, so I'm not sure I would change that experience. But, I would be open to telling my younger self that "you can write something new."
I would tell my 20-something-year-old self who wanted a baby, "no, you're not ready." And to "take your time, focus on getting to know yourself better because that will make you a better parent in the long run." I obviously didn't have a kid then, thank god! But I was in such a rush. It was because I didn't want to deal with not knowing what else to do. [Having a baby] was something I always knew for sure, and I didn't want to take the time to actually get to know what else I wanted to do aside from being a mom. So, I think it would have been a mistake to have a kid at that point in my life without figuring out myself a little bit more.
And what about now? What do you currently have on your mind, present day? It's important to think about what you care about more than anything else to find your voice. And then use that to guide a lot of your decision-making. I didn't start doing that until very recently, and I wish I had done that earlier.
Even if you're not consciously making that choice, the things you care about will tend to float to the top. Your life can feel a lot more focused and a lot less directionless if you make those decisions and then use that information to guide the decision-making.
For instance, the fact that children have always been important [for me]: I think I should have kept this in mind when I was first applying for publishing jobs and only applied to work with kids because that would have made my life or my path a lot clearer and straighter.
And thinking about representation—I did think about, for instance, when I was applying for agents. I was not thinking about representation for the first time [applying]. But the second time, I was like, "you know what, I really want to work with a person of color." So when I was much more focused the second time, I made a list of agents and picked only women of color; I got an agent. I actually got four agents interested because they recognized something in my work that was important to them—the representation of kids of color in the book.
Taking the time to think about what is more important than anything else would make your life so much better and make your path straighter. That goes for finding your voice as well. Because once you figure out what's most important to you, you know how to dedicate your time, use your voice, and do what you need to do. It provides more clarity and direction that you could take. And not that you should take it, but you could.
Taking the time to think about what is more important than anything else would make your life so much better and make your path straighter.
Right and recognize your strengths, even if the world doesn't see those strengths. For me, I've always been extremely sensitive and extremely feelings forward. For a long time, I saw that as a weakness because the world doesn't really value that in the same way that I do. But recognizing that as a strength instead of a weakness has made my writing so much better. Because I now know how to pull on those heartstrings. I know how to make someone feel seen. And I realize that that is where my voice is strongest. And that's okay.
I'm not a big plot person. Plot is great! But that's something that I have to actively work with. But feelings, those emotions, like that is really, really easy for me, and it comes very naturally to me. And so, recognizing [your strengths] and then building your brand around what you're best at will make your voice and your contribution to the world stronger because it's based on something already there.
And so, recognizing [your strengths] and then building your brand around what you're best at will make your voice and your contribution to the world stronger because it's based on something already there.
Give us a list of 3 things you'd recommend.
These are my must-haves to have a comfy experience while working. My work is writing, but this can be relevant to anybody doing any sit-down work.
Sony WH000XM5 headphones. I remember the exact model name because I did so much research on these! They are one of the most comfortable headphones I've ever had. The sound quality is amazing, and I can wear them for hours without being uncomfortable. They also keep my ears warm, so I don't need to wear a hat. They are also Bluetooth, so they can connect to your phone or laptop.
Free People Socks. I love all the socks from them because they make really thick, soft socks. They're so cozy, and cozy is very important to me.
Matcha Latte Powder from Trader Joe's. I love it. The instructions on the back say to use three tablespoons of powder with hot water. But, what I do instead is take oat milk, heat it up, then add only two scoops, and the powder last so much longer. It's so fucking good. You could also just put it in a mason jar and shake it up.
What song do you currently have on repeat?
Swan Upon Leda by Hozier. This one is sad and very much a rainy-day song. It conjures feelings like you're in the woods with a cozy, maybe fireplace situation.
Drive and Disconnect by NAO
Ashley is also passionate about giving back to Food Bank for New York City. As part of this Conversation, a donation was made to Food Bank for New York City.
You can support Food Bank of NYC by donating directly.
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