Theatrefolk playwright Allison Williams recently participated in a nearly year-long writing competition and won! She gives us all the gory details.
Lindsay: Welcome to TFP, The Theatrefolk Podcast. I am Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk. Hello. I hope you are well. Thanks for listening. Today it’s an interview with Theatrefolk playwright Allison Williams. But first let’s do some Theatrefolk news. Happy Halloween everyone. Oh that was the worst. That was the worst evil laugh ever. Sorry. Who knows when the next calendar event will actually land on a podcast publication day so I’m going to take what I can get. October is always a fabulous month when you’re in the theater. When we used to be a production company rather than a publishing house, you could get any costume piece you needed for any kind of play leading up to Halloween.
This past year Craig and I were in Disneyworld for Halloween, so we went to the Character Connection, which is a Disney outlet store, and we were initially going to go as Tacky Tourists but shockingly we just couldn’t find anything ugly enough, but then we stumbled upon the high school musical section so we went as adult high school musical fans. Apparently I love Troy. If you’re looking for an extra spooky play to read today, and why not, have a look at my adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, complete with instructions on how to build your very own headless horseman. And one of our newest additions to the catalog, The Bottom of the Lake, by Steven Sack, I love this play because it is both incredibly creepy and wonderfully funny, a great combination because it provides that sought after roller coaster effect between tension and release.
When you are building up a story, it’s the best, and as I often tell writers, you always want to make your audience laugh right before you punch them in the guts, metaphorically of course. It would take a long time to punch every audience member in the guts. It would slow down the story and by the third guy, they’d guess what’s coming. Lastly, where oh where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every Wednesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Face Book page and Twitter, and you can find us on the stitcher app and you can also subscribe to TFP on i-tunes. All you have to do is search on the word theatrefolk. Hello, so we have a guest on TFP. It is Allison Williams. Hello Allison Williams.
Allison: Hello Lindsay Price. I am so glad to be here at the Theatrefolk World Global Headquarters.
Lindsay: Well that’s exactly where we are, deep underground in the bunker.
Allison: Just down the hall from the fax machine.
Lindsay: That’s right. That’s what we tell people. It’s our secret. And so Allison Williams, for those of you who are Theatrefolk regulars will know Allison from her plays in our catalog, Drop Dead Jullliette and Beth and Hamlett, and the Scarlett Heart.
Lindsay: That’s a nice collection.
Allison: Yeah. I should write something new. It’s been a while.
Lindsay: And we were just talking about how we’ve known each other for a very long time.
Allison: We’ve known each other an incredibly long time.
Lindsay: And I don’t remember when it was. I know where.
Allison: We met at the International Thespian Festival in Nebraska and what happened was my partner Todd and I were teaching workshops and you and your partner, Craig, were teaching workshops.
Allison: And Todd and I and you and Craig were sitting in the crying baby booth in back of the Lied Center and we were all four watching a . . .
Lindsay: Some show.
Allison: A less than stellar show. About halfway through the first act, Todd and I kind of whispered to each other and we looked over at you guys and we said, “Is this as bad as we think it is?” and you guys were like, “Oh my God. We thought we were the only ones.” And we hitched our chairs closer together and spent the rest of the time talking about the play.
Lindsay: And then I think for every show after that we either talked a lot about the plays at then at some point, on some of them we just left I remember.
Allison: Yeah. Thank God for the Crying Baby Booth or the Late Comers Booth.
Lindsay: I know. There’s not many of them. There’s more theaters that need to have far off booths so people can talk about the plays.
Allison: But we also saw so many good shows there too. Do you remember Historia Still a Tiotros from that school on the very southern tip of Texas?
Lindsay: As soon as you said that, I didn’t remember the name of the school.
Allison: It was 50/50 in Spanish and in English. Four kids in jeans and tee-shirts with chairs they had borrowed from the bar across the street.
Lindsay: So I would just like to point out that Allison and I both held up four fingers to the microphone.
Allison: And I think that show was such a testament to the power of good acting and good theater, because it was four kids in jeans with four chairs. It was incredible.
Lindsay: And it was just pure storytelling, and the Lead Center is huge. It has what, like 3,000 seats?
Allison: Yeah. It typically stages mega musicals. They put Children of Eden in there, They put The Phantom of the Opera in there. And this was the best show I’ve ever seen in the late summer.
Lindsay: It’s the one that I remember most.
Allison: Yeah. Those kids had power.
Lindsay: And they just did this little teeny tiny show on the.. They don’t do that anymore because they have the other theater.
Allison: To put smaller shows. So I’m thinking we’ve known each other since probably ’95 or ’96 maybe?
Lindsay: I think, you know what, It has to be ’96, because Craig and I were married and we didn’t. we were married in July so in ’95 in July, so in June we wouldn’t have been married, so
Allison: Then we would have met you in 1996.
Lindsay: 1996, yeah
Allison: Yeah. So it’s 17 years.
Lindsay: Oh my God. All right.
Allison: We’re old.
Lindsay: We’re old. We’re seniors.
Allison: And I’d like to state for the record that we did just eat dinner at 5:00 in the evening.
Lindsay: Yeah. See, I’m so old. What are you going to do?
Lindsay: So one of the reasons that I have Allison here to talk with me is she has just completed the most interesting writing project. So what was this most interesting writing project that took up practically a year of your life?
Allison: Almost a whole year. It took 11 months. I participated in an online contest. There’s a blogging site called “Live Journal”. That’s kind of an old school blogging site. It’s been around for a long time. It goes back before Word Press, and there’s a contest on Live Journal that’s hosted by a member of the blogging community. It’s not official or anything like that, but it’s called the Real LJ Idol, and it’s structured like a reality show, and it started last year in October in 2011. And every week for 39 weeks, we had to write a new thing. We got issued with a topic. Everybody had to write on the topic. You had a deadline. You posted the thing in your own live journal and then posted a link to it at the contest site, and then there was online voting. And every week the low people went home. We started with 337 people last October.
Lindsay: And ended with?
Allison: And ended with one who was me.
Lindsay: Allison Williams, winner.
Allison: Yeah. And I loved this contest for a couple of reasons. I loved it first of all, because it made me write every single week whether I was feeling it or not, whether I was having a creative week or not, whether I had time or not.
Lindsay: If you wanted to stay in the contest you had to write.
Allison: Yeah. You had to keep writing and you have to be in by deadline. So there is none of this pouncing around waiting for inspiration to strike. You have to decide. “Okay. I’m going to write this week, and I’m going to write on time. And I’m going to write something good enough than I’m not ashamed to ask my friends to read it and vote. The other thing I really loved about this contest is was just getting to see the variety of work that’s out there and getting to read all of these different pieces. People wrote so many different things. They wrote poetry. They wrote pros. They wrote fiction. They wrote non-fiction. They wrote literary stuff. They wrote science fiction. They wrote horror. Yeah.
Lindsay: So there was no limitation to how you could approach a topic?
Allison: Right. As long as your piece in some way tied into the topic, you can do whatever you want with it.
Lindsay: And what kinds of things did you write?
Allison: We started with, When You Pray, Move Your Feet, and other topics that we had included Walking a Tightrope, Walking on Eggshells, Leviathan, Disappear. Current events was a fun one. You got to pick something that was currently in the news and write it anyway that you wanted to.
Lindsay: And what kind of genres did you choose to write in?
Allison: I wanted to stretch myself as a writer so I deliberately wrote as many different styles as I possibly could. I wrote poetry pros, personal essays, non-fiction about other people. I wrote one piece where I was trying to copy the style the New Yorker. They have their short pieces at the beginning of the New Yorker every week, and I wanted to write a piece that looked like it would go into that magazine. One week I actually asked the community, “Hey, what have I not written that you would like to see me write? And somebody said, “You should write science fiction.” And I used to read a lot of science fiction, but I have not written a piece of science fiction ever in my entire life.
Lindsay: How was that for you?
Allison: Well, the theme was Once Upon a Time, so I wrote about a time traveler from a totalitarian future facet society whose job it is to go back in time and shoot the wolf before it threatens Red Riding Hood. And I started with this image of this woman walking down the hall and there’s all of these trophies up in the hall, and the challenge is, the trophies are all there, but they haven’t actually accomplished all of the missions yet because it’s time travel. And so I wrote about this and the fundamental part of it was that the society wants them to extinguish fairy tales because they don’t want people warned about the wolves in the woods. You know fairy tales are these old stories that warn us to look out for ourselves, that warn us not to talk to strangers. They warn us not to trust the king. And so this society wanted to take away those warnings so that they could have greater control over the people. And I ended up very proud of it. It was a piece that I was happy with and it was hard to write.
Lindsay: Yeah? Was that your hardest? What was your hardest piece?
Allison: It got technically easier and emotionally harder as I went because on a technical level, writing is an exercise, just like anything else, and when you exercise your writing muscle, it gets easier and easier to do it. So near the beginning of the contest, it took me two or three days to write a piece, to get the idea, think about it and do a couple of drafts. Near the end of the contest, one of the best pieces I wrote for the entire contest, I started with an idea where I had once said to someone who was in a juvenile delinquency facility, I said nothing is as compelling as trouble. So whatever you are going to do when you get out of here, you need to find something that is as interesting as trouble so that you can do that instead of getting into trouble, which is compelling, and fun, and interesting. He said, “Okay. I’ll start with that.” And then about an hour later, I was walking from one place to another in my regular job and it hit me like “Oh I need to talk about that time when I was in the mental hospital as a teenager.” And it was very emotionally tough to write because it went to this dark place for me, but it was technically very easy. I thought about it for about two hours. I did my first draft in about an hour. I did my second draft about an hour after that. And it was one of the piece that touched a lot of people who read it because people were struggling with their own darkness and for them to be able to read that somebody else was having these issues, that was really powerful for them. And so I found that it got technically easier, but the more I wrote about challenging personal stuff, the more I needed to write things that were more challenging. Things that went deeper and yet not stray into “Oh poor me, here’s my diary.” You know it’s still has got to be a piece with a universal application and that people can grow from and learn from.
Lindsay: So a part of this contest is also to, not only do people vote, but they also comment, and sometimes that was a part of it, wasn’t it. That you needed to comment on other people’s work and they needed to comment on yours.
Allison: Yeah, because just like the writing world outside the contest, you have to be able to promote your own work, and get your work out there, and stand up for your work. And I’m not going to lie, the contest was, I would say, 60 percent a good writing contest, and 40% a popularity/reality show contest. And it was very important near the beginning of the contest, because it was in the eighth year of this contest, the ninth year is this coming year. And a lot of the people already knew each other. Nobody knew me. So I made it my goal that I was going to comment on every single person’s piece of writing, every single week. And we started the contest with 337 people, and I read 337 pieces and commented on every single one of them. And I did that through the entire contest so midway through I’m reading 200 pieces a week and commenting on them. Near the end, you know, I’m reading 10 pieces, but giving more constructive feedback as I go. And not only was it a good strategy, it helped me win votes. It helped me get people to like me. It helped me to get people to read my writing, because if you had 300 pieces, you’re going to start by reading the ones of the people who care enough to read you.
Allison: But it also helped me as a writer because I kept notes for myself. “Oh, this piece had a good idea but it really needs a better grasp of grammar and spelling if they are going to get that idea to the audience. This piece really skillfully written but it’s kind of boring. This piece doesn’t have a clear voice. Anybody could be saying this.” And I kind of broke it down into four areas: craft, voice, concept, and structure. And I started looking at each piece every week and thinking, “Okay. This is really good. Why is it good? The structure is really strong. It’s got a really clean voice.” And it helps me think about how to make my own writing better by look analytically at other people’s writing.
Lindsay: Those are four good elements to be always thinking about when you are putting something on the page.
Lindsay: Can you think about what the most useful pieces of criticism that came your way? Is there one that sticks in your mind?
Allison: Useful, the most useful piece of criticism I got . . .
Lindsay: Not to put you on the spot or anything.
Allison: Yeah. I think being in the contest helped me really think about knowing my audience and knowing where I was sending these pieces out into the world. In addition to trying to get votes from inside the contest, I was keeping a spreadsheet of all of my friends. I had a list of about 150 – 200 friends I thought I could count on to read my pieces and vote, but I didn’t want to wear out my welcome so I rotated through and did them in batches. And I tried to think about, “Oh, this person is really going to like a science fiction story. This person is really going to like a personal essay.” I think the best piece of feedback I’ve gotten so far was that I was kind of avoiding the main topic a little bit. You know I wrote a piece that was kind of personal about my dad, and I was critical of myself, but I was shying away of being critical of my dad because you don’t like to speak ill of the dead. And the person said, “You know. I think you might be being too soft on your dad here and it makes me detach from your piece because I don’t really feel like you are being as honest as you could be.” So I think that was the most useful piece I got.
Lindsay: Okay. Now, what about the most unuseful?
Allison: Enjoyed reading, Smiley. You know and that’s the thing. I would have to say that I’m a really lucky person. I am a skilled enough writer and by that I mean I have spent a lot of time becoming a skilled writer. But I’m a skilled enough writer that I get a lot of favorable feedback. Positive comments, while they are pleasant, while they sustain me and help keep me moving forward, because I feel appreciated; they are not as necessarily as useful as constructive comments. And you get to a point where you, you know they say if you want to be good at tennis, play tennis with better tennis players, and I had to make a point of seeking out people who were at or above my level to get feedback from them. And in my personal life, outside the contest, I’m friends with a group of really good writers, like Lindsay, who I could ask for feedback.
Lindsay: I paid her to say that.
Allison: Who I can ask for feedback on my pieces and I trust them to give me good criticism. Ann Lamont, in her wonderful book on writing Bird by Bird, . . .
Lindsay: Love that book.
Allison: It’s a great book. If you are a writer you should totally read it.
Lindsay: If you take nothing else away from this, if you are a writer you must go buy Ann Lamont book Bird by Bird.
Allison: I think it’s the number one book on writing out there.
Lindsay: Allison gave her copy of the book to me, and I passed it on to a writer friend.
Allison: Yeah. And Ann Lamont says that in your life, you need at least two people in your critique circle. You need one person who loves everything you write and is always going to give you positive feedback, and make you feel good, and make you feel like, “Yes, I’m accomplishing something. I’m moving forward.” And you need one person who is always going to give you criticism, who is always going to be able to see one more thing that you should have done better. And even though it hurts a little, I really have to cultivate my critics, and my people who I can trust, where I know that they will give me feedback, and I will start with an initial round of sullen, angerful, hurtness, where it’s like, “How dare you criticize my writing. You don’t get what I’m going for. You just don’t understand.”
Lindsay: I’m the best thing there ever was. How can you say those horrible things.
Allison: Then I’d go away and sulk for a while, and then I’d come back to the notes and say, “Oh yeah. There right. I need to fix this and this, and I was hoping no one would notice that I didn’t do that very carefully.” And then take that criticism because in the end, that’s what makes you better. And I have a story. A friend of mine, who is a theater director, an actor came up to her and said, “You know, I just don’t feel like you give me enough positive feedback. I need more encouragement.” And she said, “Honey, you have to think of me like an Olympic running coach. It’s not my job to go, “Oh sweetie, you ran real fast. It’s my job to help you run faster. And even though it hurts, and it never stops hurting, no matter how professional you get. No matter how much money you make, it never stops hurting to get criticism. But once you can move past that. Once you can accept that the hurtfulness is a place where you need to be, and then you move forward with the feedback, it is the greatest thing in the world. It is the most helpful thing in the world. And it is incredibly brave of your friends to give you feedback that they know is going to hurt you, and that they know you might resent them for.
Lindsay: Absolutely. Now the result of this contest has ending up with you, Allison wears a lot of hats.
Allison: I do. I’m a full-time performer and I own a small circus company.
Lindsay: That’s right. But as a result of this contest, you decided to take a six-month hiatus, what does that feel like?
Allison: It is scary but incredible. I’ve been saving all of my playwright money for a really long time. I don’t spend my playwright royalties; I just shove them in a bank so thank you all you people who have purchased my plays. You are helping me be a better writer by allowing me the freedom to take time off. so I’m taking a six-month period, and it’s actually three months, and then a month of work so that I don’t get completely out of shape, and then another three months. And I’m going to do as much traveling and as much writing as I possibly can. I’m going to go to a couple of third world countries, India and Mexico where it’s warm and cheap. I can live somewhere and experience new things, and not have my phone ring and be focused on writing.
Lindsay: And what is your goal for the end of these six months? What product do you want to have at this end?
Allison: I am going to finish my young adult novel that I have well started on and really excited about. And I am going to have three pieces that pitch to This American Life, and I’ll see if any one of them get accepted but that’s kind of one of my big dreams. My goal is to submit a short piece to a literary magazine every week while I am gone. I’d like my goal to be that I get three pieces accepted, but my life coach told me it’s better to focus on the end that I can control. You mean I can’t control that they are going to take my piece.
Lindsay: Come on. They love you.
Allison: And that’s something that I’m doing too. I’m setting some really specific goals for my time, because I don’t want to get to the end of my time and feel like I’ve wasted it.
Allison: So I have these benchmarks where I say, “Okay. You’re six weeks in, have you submitted six pieces. Have you one pitch to this American Life? Have you written another 45 pages of the young adult novel?” And even though we think of writing like, “Ooh, it’s creative. It’s my art,”
Lindsay: It’s work.
Allison: It’s work, and if you want to get it done, you have to set specific and measurable goals. And it’s okay to do that. It’s okay to turn out 15 pages of crap, then you have to edit and revise.
Lindsay: But if you did not write 15 pages of crap, you would have nothing.
Allison: You would have nothing. Exactly.
Lindsay: Exactly. Allison, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to come in and sit in our Global Headquarter Bunker and talk.
Allison: I really appreciate that and thank you listeners, because seriously, it is directly thanks to you for purchasing my work that I can do more work, and I really appreciate that. If you are interested in checking out the contest, because the new season will start up this coming October, I highly recommend this to writers of any age. It’s at therealljidol.livejournal.com. And if you are interested in reading some of my work, it’s at whipchick and that whipchick.livejournal.com..
Lindsay: We’ll put that in the show notes.
Lindsay: Sweet. Thanks Allison.
Allison: Thank you.