Do You Do You?: A Personal Essay By Kristen Ashley
By Kristen Ashley
Long ago, and yet it seems like yesterday, I arrived at my home in England after being back in my other home, the US, for a trip I did not want to take.
I’d been home for my mother’s memorial service.
What awaited me on the mosaic floor of our entryway among a tangle of other mail was a book. The very first printed book of my second published novel, Rock Chick Rescue.
And I thought, Oh, thank God.
Something to read. Something to take my mind off the fact that my mother was dead. That lioness of a woman who bore me, raised me, protected me and taught me to be decent and strong and hard working. To love openly. To stand up for what I believed in.
And to adore the act of reading.
Needless to say, even though I wrote it, I couldn’t wait to dive into that book. So I did. On a cold, dark, autumn night I read a book I’d read hundreds of times before while writing it.
Yet, when I came to a certain part, it took me by surprise. The part where my heroine Jet describes going to the hospital room after her mother suffers a stroke and shares her response to the sight of her mother in a hospital bed.
My response to seeing my mother just so in a hospital bed years before when she had the stroke that would debilitate her to such a degree, it shortened her life.
Of course, I burst out crying.
Then I railed at myself mentally because I did that. I shared that. It was no one’s business. Why did I give that to Jet? Why did I do that to myself, so every time I read that book, or thought of Nancy, Jet’s mother, I thought of that moment and then the ones later, with my powerhouse of a mother in a wheelchair, unable to smile her majorette smile because half her face was lax, unable to go to the bathroom by herself because she’d lost the use of one side of her body?
To my surprise, it was very shortly after, in defiance, and still so much grief, I reversed this thinking.
Thank God, through that passage, I would let anyone know in some small nuance just how deeply that affected me. Thank God I shared my love for my mother and my despair at what had befallen her. Thank God I had the opportunity to stand among anyone else who read that who knew that exact feeling and how alone and small and scared you feel when you see this perfect goddess of your life struck low and how impossible it is to deal with that.
In that series, I’d also given anyone who would read my work (and at the time, that “anyone” was a couple of friends and that was all…I had no idea this small cadre of beloved readers would grow) my neighbors from Denver, Rick and Jimmy. I gave these men in the form of the characters Tod and Stevie from the Rock Chick books. And I did that without a single change to their personalities or appearances.
Oh no, you might think. You shouldn’t write people you know into your books so explicitly.
Thank God I did.
My first book signing ever, Rick appeared, threw out his arms and proclaimed, “Burgundy Rose is here!” Burgundy Rose is his character, Tod’s, drag queen name. Chablis Lee Love was Rick’s real drag queen name.
I’d say he was honored to be immortalized in a romance novel. I might even go so far as saying he was proud I loved him so damned much, I created this character to prove it to the world. And knowing him, I don’t think it’d be a stretch that he was moved I would so frankly share his life and his relationship as a gay man. And last, I would hope he understood how privileged I felt he was a part of my life.
The last time I saw Rick, he was lying in bed, having to go there because he’d exhausted himself from sitting in his living room, regaling me with stories and memories and making me laugh until my stomach hurt. Jimmy had put him to bed, came out and told me Rick wanted to see me one last time before we went.
I approached his bed in his darkened room and he showed me a charm bracelet on his wrist. “This is you and me,” he said, pointing to two charms on the bracelet, a high-heeled pump and a crown. “I have you with me all the time.”
He was sending me a message.
I refused to hear.
I left their home, talking to my sister in my car and sharing how good Rick looked and how hopeful I was he’d beat the cancer he’d been battling for years.
Her response was soft, hesitant, but she gave it anyway.
“Kris, you need to prepare.”
I refused to hear.
I was in denial. Rick couldn’t have hit one hundred pounds. He couldn’t even get himself to bed.
Just weeks later, Rick was gone.
I was not prepared.
I was not because there is no way to prepare. None at all.
But, actually, I had prepared. Yes, I had.
I made Tod and I made Stevie and both could live on for as long as anyone read the Rock Chicks. They would never get cancer. They would never be forced to consider the last words they knew they’d ever say to me. They would never be put in the position to say them, and worse, know that they were.
They would be happy. And healthy. And in love.
One of the questions I often get about my writing is, “Do you do you?” or “What character is most like you?”
I write not only what I know, but what I feel.
Yes, I am in Jet. I’m in Roxie. Definitely Indy. I’m in Lauren and Nina. I’m in Tyra. And Gwen. And Julia. Also Izzy. And Greta. Not to mention Delilah, Cora, Josephine. I could go on.
My friend Jená is in Jules. My bestie Kelly is in Ally. Danae is in Annette. There are traces of my Aunt Grace in Shirleen. There is real life inspiration behind Kia. And Lily. Maddie. My darling Lucy is, well…Lucy (except American, and this Lucy is from my book Mathilda, SuperWitch). My grandmother is so very Lydia. Tex is real, and he was a Vietnam vet who sat on his porch across the street from my row house in the Highlands of Denver with a shotgun across his lap in order to keep the street safe. Mr. Kumar is real and owned the tiny corner store at the end of those row houses. He had trouble with his ears and a fear of western medicine. I worked at a neurological institute and he honored me with the privilege of holding his hand and explaining what was going on before our neurootologists did their tests.
The first is writing what I know. The Indys, Jets, Roxies, Laurens, Ninas, Tyras, etc. Times in my life I explore. Decisions I’ve made I can reexamine fictionally. Larks I’ve been on I can relive and get a kick out of them. Outfits I’ve worn (or wish I could wear). Homes I’ve lived in and decorated (or wish I lived in and enjoy the make believe of decorating).
The second is writing what I feel. My love and admiration for my friend Jená, an LCSW who died of complications of Hepatitis C. Working out my frustration at being so far away in England while my dear friend Lucy was dying of colon cancer in Denver. Giving power to and demonstrating the love and integrity I felt from my Aunt Grace, who was an African American teacher in the Indianapolis Public School system in the 60s and 70s, my grandmother’s best friend, and one of the kindest, most generous souls who ever touched mine (though she was soft-spoken, very soft-spoken, and Shirleen isn’t exactly soft-spoken, but I hope she’d love Shirleen just as much as I do).
So the answer is yes. Definitely. In my books, I do me. I share the abundance of my life freely with my readers. Sometimes secretly, sometimes explicitly. I give you the good. I give you the bad. And I give you the amazing. I ground myself in my world and experiences and share that with my readers through my words.
Mostly, I honor those who have touched my life by sharing how fortunate I am that they have.
So the answer again is…yes.
I most assuredly do me.
MORE ESSAYS FROM KRISTEN
MORE GREAT READS
About the Author
Kristen Ashley is the New York Times bestselling author of over sixty romance novels. She’s a hybrid author, publishing titles both independently and traditionally, her books have been translated in thirteen languages and she’s sold nearly three million books.
Find us here: