An article written by Jack Jennings, published in The Clarion
“I wonder what became of the other folks?” was a comment from one of the first people to read “Girlie,” a play that I finished writing in October. Elly, Tommie, Birch, Mrs. Herrity, and Mrs. Sweeney are those other characters in the play that revolves around a woman who is deciding whether to run off with her lover or to stay in a difficult but comfortable marriage.
I took that comment as high praise because all eight characters in the play are the product of my mind. They are not real people. Their depiction in the play, though, must have made them seem real.
After half a century writing non-fiction as a major part of my jobs, “Girlie” represents a shifting to composing fiction. Fiction and non-fiction are two separate worlds.
As the chief education expert for Congress and then as head of a think-tank in Washington, DC, I wrote during a 50-year career hundreds of pieces of congressional legislation, research reports, speeches, and magazine articles. With each piece of writing, I had to be fact-based, generally non-partisan, and otherwise balanced to withstand the scrutiny of judges, lawyers, researchers, lobbyists and others.
Precision in wording and being able to verify each assertion made in the piece of writing were the keystones. This type of writing was not designed to attract someone who was looking for something to read on vacation. Anyone who has read a government report or a research summary would agree that these documents are not composed to enhance enjoyment at the beach.
Fiction writing, at its very basis, has to be attractive to lure readers. Then, it has to be interesting to retain the loyalty of readers. The reason for this is simply that, except for those who are in school, no one is required to read fiction.
My experience with fiction writing is limited to “Girlie.” I hope, though, that the colorful history of the origins of that play will attract readers. Then, the words and actions in the play and the quality of the acting will have to lure viewers.
We bought it from the head of a coal company who had gutted the building so that it could have a modern décor of large rooms and exposed brick walls. His plans were aborted when he had a heart attack.
The concept for “Girlie” began in 1974 when Steve and I bought a building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The property had been constructed as a family’s home in 1865, immediately after the end of the Civil War, and more recently it had been occupied as a rooming house.
After we bought the building, we hired a contractor to construct a new house within the outer walls of the old house. This was quite costly, and we didn’t have enough money to finish the work. So, we did some of the tasks ourselves. One of those jobs was to clean and paint the rafters of the house that undergirded the first floor. This had to be done in the basement, which we had dug out to have a 7-foot height instead of the 3-foot height it had been when we bought the building.
When we were cleaning and painting in the very rear of the basement, we saw some paper stuck up in a rafter. We pulled it out and it was a cache of letters between a married woman and her lover. He called her “Girlie” as a statement of endearment.
Naturally we were fascinated with the letters, which were from the 1920s. The woman must have crawled in the basement to the very end and pushed the letters into the space in the rafters to hide them from her husband. For years, we showed them to our friends and relatives. Then, we forgot about them.
In 2017, we sold our house in Washington and moved to The Clare. In the process of packing, we re-discovered the letters. I asked my niece, who has been involved in the theater scene for decades here in Chicago, if she wanted to write a play based on the letters. She demurred and suggested I do it since I did more writing than she did.
I thought about it and decided to try it, although I first had to finish writing an education policy book. Despite what I said earlier, I tried to make this book attractive to readers although it was non-fiction. That book, “Fatigued by School Reform,” is selling well and I was able to turn my attention to my play.
So, I turned to the letters. I imagined some scenes that could occur between the wife and her admirer. I did some research on divorce law in Pennsylvania, Nevada, and several other states. I read about the accents of inhabitants of Pennsylvania and Maryland. Then, I set to writing.
In writing, I imagined a beginning scene and then proceeded to describe what happened next. The writing seemed to flow as if the scenes were already constructed in my head. I never hit a writer’s block; rather, the characters seemed to define themselves through the conversations that came out of my head.
The characters were a composite of individuals whom I had met over the years. No one person in the play is any one person in real life. No situation is exactly as I had seen any episode in real life.
After I finished a draft, I went over it many times to improve it. Then, I asked some friends to look at the draft and to give me suggestions for improvement. John Clum was very helpful in his remarks, as were HD and Beth Mitchell, Chris Lyon, and Dorothy Pirovano. Steve Molinari was my editor, correcting text and pointing out holes in the plot.
I learned a lot during this process. I hope that others find this effort worth reading and maybe viewing. I thoroughly enjoyed the project and found writing fiction more “fun” than non-fiction. Also, as our fellow residents here at The Clare have discovered from the memoir classes, all of us have gone through life with many experiences, and each of us has a story to tell!
The Clarion is the monthly publication of The Clare, Chicago, Illinois.