Ann Randolph will teach Write Your Life for the Page and the Stage, on March 12 and 13. Here are her three writing secrets—plus, check out the prompt at the end.
1. Dare to Bare
Speak about the very subject you are most trying to hide. What secret, what shame, what passion are you hiding from the rest of the world? In my solo show, Squeeze Box, I wrote about my ten years working the graveyard shift at a homeless shelter for mentally ill women. I never wanted to write about this subject, because I thought people in the entertainment industry would perceive me differently if they knew I worked full time at minimum wage at a homeless shelter. I wanted to appear as a successful writer and performer, so I lied about what I did for employment. I was ashamed that I hadn’t “made it” like so many of my peers. On top of that, I had shame about lying because I knew the work I did with the homeless women was worthy. When I finally wrote about my experience, it culminated in Squeeze Box. I spoke my truth, and I felt liberated.
Over the next several years, I refined Squeeze Box onstage while continuing to work at the homeless shelter. One night, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft came to the show. I could see them in the audience laughing and being moved by my story. Afterward, they came backstage and said they would like to make a movie of the show and to produce my play Off-Broadway. In 2004, Squeeze Box opened on 42nd Street, and my life forever changed.
2. Lowly Listen
What does it mean to lowly listen? I first came across this beautiful phrase when reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Spiritual Laws.”
Emerson wrote, “We need only obey. There is guidance for each of us. And by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.”
For me, lowly listening requires quieting the mind to allow what wants to come through, listening for what yearns to be expressed. Emerson reminds me to listen with humility and a deep trust in a knowing that is greater than me. This is not always easy. My mind has a tendency to think, “Oh, this will get a big laugh if I do this.” Or “Won’t I be clever if I write this?” Or “I bet this will be a huge hit if I write about this subject.” As you can see, my mental chatter has to do with the outcome, rather than what really wants to be spoken.
This lesson really hit home in 2008 when I was halfway through writing a new show and trying out scenes in front of a live audience at the Marsh in San Francisco. I had been working on the show for two years, which I considered a long time in comparison to other shows I had written. The material I was exploring was about the economic and cultural divide in the US—and it was as hot topic then, as it is today.
One night, the artistic director Stephanie Weisman came backstage and said, “Ann, the material is fantastic and I’m giving you a deadline to finish it.” She gave me four months and a date to perform the full production in front of a live audience.
I was thrilled—and also terrified that I wouldn’t be able to finish it in time.
Over the next several months, every time I sat down to write, I heard the voice of a character named Frannie Potts. She gave me her name early on, as characters often do. She had nothing to do with the current show I was trying to complete, but she wouldn’t shut up. I’d say to her, “Go away! I don’t have time for you now.” There was too much at stake if I listened to her. I could lose the promise of a full production, which is so hard to come by as a solo artist—not to mention that I was counting on the show to be a box office hit to pay the bills.
I expressed my frustration with fellow writer Laura Lentz. She surprised me by gifting me a writing workshop with the brilliant poet Ellen Bass at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Laura and I agreed that a weekend retreat would help me focus on completing my show, and Ellen would be the perfect catalyst.
I’ll never forget the opening class! Ellen gave us fifteen minutes to write on a specific topic, and when I picked up the pen, Frannie took over. Finally, after months of struggling, I gave it all up to Frannie. As Emerson wrote, “I obeyed.” I let go of trying to complete the current show and let Frannie have her say. When it was my turn to read to the other writers in Bass’s workshop, I literally felt Frannie enter my voice and body. She was fully present and alive in a way I never imagined. The class enthusiastically applauded me (and Frannie) when we finished reading.
From that moment until the date given to me by Stephanie for the full production, I did not stop writing. Well, writing may not be the right word. I listened. Frannie spoke and I took notes. It was the easiest show to write once I stopped resisting.
What evolved over the next several months was a painfully funny show about an oddball named Frannie Potts who is unable to deal with the death of her mother. On her way to scatter her mother’s ashes, she has a breakdown midflight from LA to Ohio. The themes I was exploring were not trendy, and I knew it would be challenging to find an audience, but I didn’t care. The most important realization I had was that Frannie’s words were helping me to move through my own grief. At the time, my Dad was dying, and my Mom had recently had a stroke, leaving her paralyzed on one side. Frannie helped me speak what I was most afraid to say out loud. As Emerson said, “There is guidance for each of us.” Frannie helped me through these losses.
When I arrived back at the Marsh, I had a brand new piece called Loveland. I am grateful Stephanie loved the new piece and green-lit the show for a full production. It was scheduled for a six-week run, but the show kept selling out. Stephanie extended it numerous times, and it ended up selling out for two years straight and winning “Best Solo Show” in both San Francisco and Los Angeles—and I went on tour, performing throughout the US.
I am so glad I listened.
3. Explore your contradictions.
Within you resides an infinite number of sub-personalites, and often they are in contradiction with each other. These contradictions are a gold mine for writers. For example, in Loveland, one character is saying, “I need to meditate,” while the other is saying, “I want to masturbate.” They are really different aspects of myself, and I create characters based on their wants and needs.
Prompt: Set the timer for twelve minutes and write about the contradictions residing within you. How are you at war with yourself? What parts of yourself are you seeking to integrate?