Ash Ambirge used her knack for words to escape trailer park poverty, and she’s been changing worlds through her writing ever since. Her latest newsletter, Meat and Hair is the latest her constellation of what she calls intellectual property assets, the atomic units of the knowledge economy. Here Ash talks about working is sprints, upward mobility and why automation has a much better ROI than one-off newsletters. This interview is like an MBA in newsletters.
Tell me about Ash. Where are you? Where did you grow up?
As much as I wish I could say Galway, Ireland 😀—(I was there a couple of years ago when finishing my manuscript for The Middle Finger Project, ha!)—I grew up in a smaaaalllll, tiny little town in rural America. Northeast Pennsylvania, above Scranton, which yes, is definitely home of The Office. Except that was the “big city” for me, back then: I’m from a place where I can get any car up an icy dirt road in the dead of winter—and that’s a promise! When I was writing The Middle Finger Project, which is all about my journey to escape my circumstances growing up in a trailer park there, I noted some really interesting things about my hometown that you can only “appreciate” as an adult—like the fact that rifles are literally auctioned off at happy hour, and many adults have never been two and a half hours east to New York City.
It’s a whole other world, and that’s partly why it’s become a significant research interest for me today: as a writer who focuses on upward mobility and personal agency among rural communities that do not promote it, it’s my job to observe, and ever since the 2016 election, I’ve become fascinated with shared beliefs: how they’re formed, how they spread, and how they can become a person’s truth. In a small town like my hometown, one of those shared beliefs is around ambition and how much of it is acceptable before becoming insulting to the current way of life. So, how does that impact progress? And, more importantly, how does that impact the type of career a person feels comfortable pursuing?
My work is all about mentoring young creatives in rural areas who feel like they have no one to mentor them, so, while I live and travel all over the world as a digital nomad today—when we first spoke, I was in France, and am now in Costa Rica with the world’s funniest Christmas tree wannabe!—I often return to my hometown of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania to do participant research and further my understanding of the current cultural climate and how I can continue to serve as a bridge.
How did Meat & Hair come about? (What. A. Name!!)
Isn’t that fun? Over the years I discovered that one of the most important tools for achieving upward mobility was communication: the ability to speak with power, and write with persuasion, and use words as a tool. You can get anyone to say “yes” to you if you use the right words. Unfortunately, most people are bad communicators—and they suffer because of it. You might have a great idea, but if you can’t convince someone it’s a great idea, it’s dead in the water. One of the reasons I was able to create opportunity for myself was because I happened to have a knack for language: I developed it as a skill to “hide” our poverty, growing up, because if I didn’t sound like we were poor, you might never guess.
It was a tool for me, in that regard, and helped me gain a lot of academic respect when I was younger. Later, marketing became a natural-fit career for me: I was very, very good at “spinning” a product and making it seem like the best thing in the world, even if it were just a regular old back scratcher, because it’s essentially what I had been doing my entire life. I started writing on the internet in 2009 to share my ideas, and because of my irreverent, personality-driven voice, quickly amassed an audience. As the culture of the internet shifted (speaking of cultures!), and personality-filled copy became more de rigeur, I was often called upon to help others develop a voice that was relevant. That’s when I realized how much of a tool creativity is, paired with communication: a clear message is one thing, but if you do it in a way that also brings delight? You really can have anything you want in this world. So, I started a newsletter for marketers and content creators that specifically teaches you how to write with personality, humor, and wit.
I named it Meat & Hair because for me, that represents “substance” and “style,” and it came from a quote from a literary critic I once read, who commented: “If you like your prose with meat and hair, you’ll love this.” And I thought: PERFECT.
What else are you working on?
I’m launching a brand-new podcast & Tik Tok channel called “UNINTIMIDATED,” which is like church for small-town creatives who need a mentor who doesn’t roll their eyes at them when they say they want to be a writer, or an illustrator, or a painter, or a speaker. There’s always this attitude of “who are you to do that?” and I want to be the person out there saying, “you’re the person to do that!”
How many subscribers do you have, right now? What have you done to grow the audience? What worked? what didn’t?
My brand new Meat & Hair baby just had its 3,000th subscriber and I’m like a proud little mom, over here! I know that’s not a lot—most of those subs came from my existing audience at The Middle Finger Project, where I have around 50,000 subscribed to my list since my last scrub—but I’ve now completed the initial testing phase and got some necessary systems in place, including an evergreen version of the newsletter—so I’m juuuuust starting with Google Ads now. I’ve got 4 different ad sets I’m running based on what you’re Googling for: creative writing advice, content writing advice, funny writing advice, best-of funny copy examples. Each ad is tailored for the search intent, and then takes you to a dedicated landing page with matching messaging. So far, I’m seeing click through rates of 7.72%, cost per click of .28 cents, and ad conversion rate of 11.31%.
I’m focusing more on ad strategy with this newsletter because I don’t necessarily want to become known for it and make it a central part of my identity (The Middle Finger Project is my “brand”), so I haven’t been trying to get on podcasts, per se: I’d like to build a system that converts, and then leverage technology to run the newsletter on autopilot, while contributing a valuable product that helps people find their voice and have fun with their writing again. Oh, and convert like gangbusters, too!
What’s your big goal for Meat & Hair? How does it fit in with your other projects?
I’m a huge fan of building intellectual property assets that work for YOU. This is the knowledge economy, and I see no reason why you wouldn’t package what you know into a newsletter format, and then you can set it to run on autopilot like I do with some of my projects (I also have one for tourists to Costa Rica that’s evergreen and addresses all of the commonly asked questions, with a cultural twist) or you can run it real-time and create a meaningful career out of your passions. I like to think that my company is really a newsletter publisher publishing across a variety of verticals, because it allows me to do what I love—write—while still build valuable assets that contribute ideas in meaningful ways. If I know about it, chances are, I’m creating a newsletter around it!
I’m obsessed with other peoples’ process – how does your newsletter come together? What’s your workflow? What tools do you use? Who else is involved?
I’ve experimented with a few different processes over the years, and the one that’s working best for me right now is working in 3-month sprints. So, for 3 months I’ll produce content for Meat & Hair, which allows me to really get into it, focus on it, build it up, and then set it to run on autopilot, while I’ll then turn to The Middle Finger Project and do a 3-month sprint there. This seems like it would be very start and stop, but I view it as “producing seasons,” like you might a Netflix show, so once you’ve completed Season 1, you need to wait for Season 2 to drop. In the meantime, new subscribers can be nurtured on autopilot with Season 1.
Another reason why I like working this way is because I don’t do well with open-ended projects that feel like they are NEVER DONE—so that’s why I appreciate and build as much evergreen content as I can, working in 3 month blocks of time, and then letting the content do the work for me. I hate the idea of creating content that only gets seen once, and then just fades into the oblivion. That’s a lot of work for very little ROI, relatively speaking.
What’s your business model for M&H?
For Meat & Hair, I have two upgraded newsletter products: one is a creative writing email course that’ll teach you how to replicate the techniques you’re seeing in the newsletter; the other one is a freelance email course that’ll teach you how to take your newfound creative writing skills and sell the hell out of them. Both are completely built and operate on autopilot, with subscribers being pitched the upgrade as soon as they opt-in, and then again at the 1-month mark, and then again each month, as a part of a greater ecosystem. Right now, I’ve been pleased with sales: right now I’m converting that cold traffic at 11.31% that I referenced earlier, and it’s a really nice testament to the power of great copy that delights.
How the hell do you get away with such ballsy writing? And where does it come from?
Ha, sarcasm is a way of life, where I grew up. Banter is an art form, and the perfectly-timed comeback will earn you more respect than a perfectly-ironed shirt. It’s a unique form of cultural capital.
Looks like you have a few other newsletters too? How do you do it all? Is it all *you*?
You know it! I love building things on the internet. I have an assistant who handles the inbox, and a designer I work with every Thursday on visuals (I’m THE WORST), and, of course, support people like bookkeepers and accountants, but other than that, it’s me. I’d like to add a social media person on soon so we can repurpose more content and build faster—I haven’t focused there in the past, since newsletters for me are god, but I need to. I’m on it!
What big idea would you work on if you had unlimited time and money?
This is such a great question! And the answer is: I’m really passionate about small town revitalizations. There’s an organization called Main Street America that revitalizes older and historic districts, and for a loooooong time, I’ve always wanted to go back to my hometown and renovate it, the way you would a house, but an entire town. Almost as an experiment: what would it take to turn this place around? Over the years, so many buildings have become derelict; there’s not enough money in the local economy to re-invest in the maintenance and upkeep. Even the tennis court in the public square has been busted for a long, long time.
I always fantasize about getting together a team of people with a variety of skills, bringing them to New Milford, Pennsylvania, and then filming a TV show that documents us literally renovating the town from drab to fab: let’s bring the market back, let’s get a produce stand, let’s get a bistro that sells modern food (you literally can’t find a salad to eat in the whole county; it’s truck-stop hot dogs and pizzas), let’s get a career center, let’s get the old skating rink back for the kids, let’s leverage the abundance of nature and bring tourism to the area with kayaks, and ziplines, and bike trails, and camping, let’s brew beer, let’s build cabins as Airbnbs—let’s use entrepreneurship to “make America great again,” but make it progressive. That’s a marketing message that resonated, and I understand why: but unfortunately, no one’s going to make any town great again without leadership. The town needs entrepreneurs who can build, rally, and create excitement about the future. Unfortunately, because of brain drain, the kids who are the most motivated end up leaving for the cities, where they can pursue bigger opportunities. As a result, small towns like these get left behind. And the residents become jaded. And all they see around them is decay. It creates the question: “why isn’t there more personal agency?” And I think that goes back to one’s understanding about the world and how you view yourself relative to authority.
Most people do not view themselves as authorities. They don’t think they have any agency to change much of anything. They feel like victims, whose destinies are up to chance: by the government, by rich people, by the people in charge. But, none of that’s true. Anyone can create change, but they need to first believe that it’s possible, and that they’re qualified to do so. That’s where my work comes in: showing people that they’re already qualified to begin—they just have to start. Whether it’s a newsletter or a business or a new career, you don’t have to be the most experienced person in the room. You just need to be willing to enter. That’s what I want all of my work to teach: it’s not about newsletters, or creative writing, or middle fingers. It’s about using modern tools to make life better. It’s about marching toward your ideas with a dagger in your hand, despite the people trying to tell you that they’re stupid. No idea is stupid, and in fact, it’s your responsibility to try. Hell, maybe I will have to pitch this TV show after all, eh?