Caleen Sinnette Jennings, 2009
In Capital Letters: What authors/poets/books/poems/stories/writing do you return to again and again?
Caleen Sinnette Jennings: Shakespeare (especially Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear, R & J—they are endless wellsprings), August Wilson (each play is poetic, gut wrenching, shows such incredible craft), Annie LaMott (she makes me laugh at myself).
ICL: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process?
CSJ: Most favorite--the first out loud read thru. Whether it's done by actors or I do it myself. You don't know what you've got until the words hit the air. The most surprising? Same as above. Painfully surprising when you discover you've said the same thing 50 times, magically surprising when you discover that the words hang together. The most challenging? ALL OF IT. Only crazy people write and share their writing. Only the psychotic put it on stage. Every time is the very first time, no matter how many years you have written. It's an addiction. Every time I do it, I ask myself—"Why?!"
ICL: What was the first piece of writing you ever wrote, and when?
CSJ: A poem in 4th grade. I took it up to the teacher and handed it to her. I was too shy to say anything, I just gave it to her. I guess she thought I had found a piece a stray piece of paper on the floor. Without looking at it, she said, "Thanks," crumpled it up and threw it in the trash. I walked back to my seat stunned, silent and on the verge of throwing up. Maybe she was my first critic.
ICL: Are certain techniques central to your writing?
CSJ: Clustering and free writing using exercises from Gabriele Lusser Rico's, "Writing the Natural Way." I go back and forth from the pencil and yellow pad to the computer.
ICL: Are certain themes central to your work?
CSJ: Other people have told me that there are—and that's fascinating to hear. I write about African Americans, I write about multicultural and multiethnic groups of people. I keep trying to find ways for people to fall in love despite obstacles. I keep trying to find ways to put a human face on tough issues in society.
ICL: How have those themes changed over the years?
CSJ: The themes have not changed that much. As I get older, I'm less worried about finding answers and resolutions. The last play I wrote had four different endings and I put them all in the play. Audience members during the feedback session told me they liked that I didn't tie everything up with a bow – which is something I've worked to overcome. Closure does not always have to be satisfying. But leaving questions still represents a risk for me.
ICL: How do your stories come to you? For example, is it by an image, character, line, phrase, idea?
CSJ: It's all of the above. To your list I'd add news items, a snatch of dialogue in a super market, family issues, student stories, re-reading Shakespeare, Wilson or any great playwright. I'm blessed to spend a lot of my time intellectually and artistically engaged through my teaching at AU, Folger and other places. There is an endless source of inspiration. I've usually got 2-3 plays on the burner at the same time. I am also blessed to have incredibly inspiring actor and director friends who say to me, "Write me something." That's an honor and I try to comply as often as I can.
ICL: Do you have a set writing schedule/any writing rituals?
CSJ: I write at least one play a year. I learned that from Neil Simon. Suzan Lori Parks recently wrote a play a day for 365 days. Some day I aspire to do that. Otherwise, I write in the cracks of time. I usually complete a draft of a full-length play in summer (because a friend of mine has a summer theatre festival and invites me to participate). I usually try to respond to one or two contests a year. They are long shots, but I have an incentive to write a piece, refine it, and meet a deadline. I've almost learned to stop caring about whether my work is selected, and write for the curiosity about whether I can discipline myself to see an idea through to completion.
ICL: If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be?
CSJ: Easy—the gospel tune, "I Am Blessed."
ICL: Tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.
CSJ: I love kickboxing.
ICL: What projects are you working on right now?
CSJ: I am going over the page proofs for my children's play—Chem Mystery—which had its debut here at AU in fall, 2008 and is being published by Dramatic Publishing Company. I am conceptualizing a 10 minute play to enter into a contest in November. I am sending off a short play for consideration in an anthology.
ICL: If you weren't focused on writing, what would you be doing?
CSJ: Since I am a full time teacher of theatre and co-chair of the department of performing arts, I actually wish I were "focused" on writing. I've only ever been "focused" on writing, and that was when a theatre gave me a grant to do a 10 day writing retreat. The first day I wandered around trying to find other things to get in the way of my writing. The second day I got out of bed and wrote straight through from 6 am to 2 pm. The same thing happened for the rest of the retreat. I completed a one-woman one act and started a full length. It was completely exhilarating and it's never happened again in that focused and concentrated way. Since I can't count on that, I write in the cracks of time. Playwright Sam Shepherd once said that he likes to write on a notepad while driving a flat, open road in his truck. To paraphrase him, to take your eye off the road to write a word or phrase means they have to be pretty important to you. For me, writing is less of a focus, more of a series of precious stolen moments.
From Hair, Nails & Dress
Bonnie Hale, an African American nurse, speaks to her dead husband
So much has happened since you left. The world is just spinning and spinning and I can't keep up, Robbie. There's two little girls in the White House look just like Pooh and Gogo used to. They shot into the moon a few weeks ago. They actually exploded bombs on the moon. They're looking for water cause I think a handful of them are gonna move up there when this earth is no good anymore. We're getting to that point, you know. So they're blowing up the moon. Did anyone ask me? Ain't it my moon too? People throwing their old medicine into the water and we're all drinking it. They're talking about a new pandemic. They got e coli in tomatoes and mercury in fish. They got dogs going to therapists and cats wearing tuxedos. They got rich white kids eating trash out of dumpsters to shame our wastefulness. Same greedy guys who knocked the bottom out of Wall Street say they're gonna fix it now. Everybody's losing jobs 'cept the bankers who just got bonuses AGAIN. People digging up bodies to re-sell the graves. Got two wars cooking and a couple on the back burner. Can't afford food, gas, or a mocha-chino-frappe-latte light. Babies sexting each other and selling their bodies in hotels. The ceiling's leaking, your mother's sick and our daughters are lost. My feet can't move, but the world's yelling, "Run faster!" I'm working morning til night, and mourning you all night in my dreams. Got a big old ex-cop who thinks he loves me 'cause I'm the only one who smiles at him. I've forgotten how to feel, Robbie. How can I ever touch a man after you? I'm fifty two years old and it's too late to start over.