While Francie always enjoyed writing, she never considered it might be a career path and opted for the safety of a law degree instead. However, five years ago, she began to rethink the possibilities as she began to publish her personal essays. This year, at 50, she published her debut novel, Chuckerman Makes a Movie, and is at work on her second book.
Tell us a little about your background.
I live in Highland Park, Illinois, which is the same town I grew up in. When I left to go to college at the University of Michigan, I thought I’d never come back. And for a while, I did not. I lived in DC during law school, the city of Chicago as a lawyer and later the owner of my own freelance writing business, the town of Wilmette, Illinois as a new mother. I finally moved back to Highland Park when my kids, who are now juniors in high school (twin girls), were in kindergarten.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
I’ve always been a writer. In third grade, I wrote my first book, a book of poems. The teacher who worked in the learning center at school kept a bunch of fabric at her desk, and if you wrote any sort of a story or book, she would “bind” it for you with cardboard, fabric (which you got to pick) for the cover. I thought that was the coolest. In sixth grade I wrote our graduation song. I wrote award-winning rush-skits for our sorority in college, I wrote for the Michigan Daily, I wrote papers and projects for my friends in college. However, I never considered that writing was something I could make a living at.
Colleges today all have career resource centers and counselors to help guide kids into internships and jobs. I don’t remember having that. It’s very likely we did and I just didn’t pay attention. So there were probably jobs out there that would have allowed me to write creatively—I could have gone to LA and tried to write for TV or gotten my MFA—but I didn’t know about these options. I had it in my head that I was going to be a lawyer. A lot of us back in the ‘80s had it in our heads that we were going to be lawyers. Today, we all are, but only a handful of the people I know who went to law school still practice.
Even if someone had presented me with the chance to, for example, go to LA after college to try my hand at writing, I probably wouldn’t have gone. I wasn’t wired that way. I was too practical. I’ve always been one to play it safe. I started to write creatively when I was practicing law. I took classes at night at the University of Chicago, Northwestern, Chicago Dramatists. Later, after my kids were born, I joined a writing group. But the creative stuff was always the stuff I did on the side. In the background.
Five years ago, when I was 45, that changed. I wrote an essay that was published in the Chicago Tribune and another that was published in Literary Mama. Both were personal essays, stories about my life as a mother mixed with social commentary. It was at that point that the light bulb went on…that maybe I could actually work as a “writer” doing the creative writing that I really wanted to do.
It was a combination of validation—nothing beats acceptance letters for personal validation that you have what it takes—and the rise of online magazines that led to my “aha” moment. There was suddenly a market for these 1,000-word essays that I was, apparently, not bad at writing. Within a year, I had a full-time job as a monthly essayist for Brain, Child Magazine. Gradually, I started to build a small following of readers. Because of this experience, I’ve been able to work as a college essay coach as well, which I love.
What is your next act?
My next act is “author.” I published a novel, Chuckerman Makes a Movie, this past October, at the age of 50. It’s is a dual plot line novel, told by David Melman, a successful thirty-five-year-old celebrity brander with deep affection for the 1977 Cadillac he inherited from his grandfather. Everyone in David’s life agrees that he needs some help in the relationship department, so when David’s sister, Marcy, suggests a screenwriting class, he tentatively agrees. Readers are then treated to the story of Slip and Estelle, David’s grandparents and characters in a real-life soap opera that is Jewish senior living in 1970s Miami. The novel, which alternates between David’s present day to his childhood through his movie script, blends romantic comedy with comedic coming-of-age.
It just won a Book of the Year award from the Chicago Writer’s Association. I’d been writing the novel over the past ten years, but I never thought it would see the light of day. I was intimidated by the publishing world, I didn’t believe I was good enough. It took me a couple of years after finishing my novel to actually go forward with publishing it.
I learned about the publisher, She Writes Press, from another writer, a virtual friend, who also wrote for Brain, Child Magazine. She Writes Press is a hybrid press, a fabulous new option for women who are, like me, a little older and may lack the patience to pursue the traditional route to publication—finding an agent and then hoping the agent can sell your book. She Writes Press accepts a limited number of books each year, so it’s a vetted system. Unlike traditional publication, you pay a fee to publish, but you also maintain control of the process and reap a bigger return. She Writes provides editing, cover design, and traditional distribution so all book sellers can access your book. It’s been a fabulous experience for me.
I am now writing a new novel, currently entitled Fish Out of Water. I love the writing process far more than the publishing process, but I’m so grateful to have gone through both processes. I understand what’s involved in publication and promotion; it’s far less scary and amorphous in my mind than it used to be. I can write this novel anticipating that it will be published rather than dreaming that it will be.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
I’ve never been one to “plunge” into anything. It was baby steps all the way—from writing briefs to business writing to writing essays. The decision to become an author, to publish my novel was really the first big “plunge” or leap of faith I took as a writer. Putting my work out there in this way terrified me. How would it be received? Was it bad? Why would anybody want to read it? Would I be able to handle the promotional part? These were the thoughts that occupied my mind.
When I was younger, I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it, but I was about to turn fifty. The nice thing about getting a little older is you have some perspective. I didn’t care as much about the outcome as I might have when I was thirty. Success now means something different than it did. Would it be nice if my book ended up on Oprah’s list? Of course, but my book’s success is not tied to my own success. That I did it—that I actually wrote the book and published it—is success to me now. That it was well-received, that I’ve had the opportunity to have author events, to meet new people, to speak about writing and my book to interested audiences is icing on the cake.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My husband has been extremely supportive of my writing since the beginning. When I wanted to quit practicing law to start my own freelance business, he pushed me to do it. When I was doubting whether or not I could come up with material to write an essay a month for Brain, Child Magazine, he told me I would. When I was debating whether to publish my novel, he told me to just do it.
Every essay I write, my mother sends out to her mailing list of friends. I also belong to a writing group, The Wesley Writers, for the past ten years, which has given me an incredible amount of guidance, support, and encouragement. If it were not for all the support I’ve had, I’d never have been able to do what I’ve done.
What challenges are you encountering?
I think struggle is inherent in the writer’s life—at least this writer—and it doesn’t go away. Maybe you’re struggling with carving out time to write. Or with not knowing what you want to write about. Or with thinking that you stink and no one will ever want to read what you wrote. Or with simply figuring out how to do it.
My most immediate struggle now is conquering the promotional learning curve. I’ve had to get used to putting myself out there, asking people for help, and posting frequently about my book and myself on social media. I’ve had to learn how to manage my website, to do Facebook ads, Instagram stories, to network. It’s been a ride, but I’ve grown in so many ways from the experience.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
The most important thing I’ve learned is that I can believe in myself. If deep-down I believe I can do something, and I really want to do it, I’ll probably succeed. I also learned that I’m actually pretty brave. The first time I published an essay, I was terrified to see it in print. I almost couldn’t look. Now, I’ve performed pieces at TEDx Chicago and Listen to Your Mother, in front of hundreds of people, and I’ve done author events. I get nervous but it’s normal nerves and not the kind that come from totally doubting yourself.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
It’s hard to say you should have done anything differently when you are happy with the way things worked out. Should I not have gone to law school? Maybe. But from where I sit now, thirty years out and having published a novel, I have a hard time saying I should’ve done anything differently. No, I didn’t end up practicing law, but I appreciate and use my legal education. I volunteer at the Highland Park-Highwood Legal Clinic. And, in one way or another, whether through characters or commentary, the law works its way into almost everything I write. I genuinely believe that things happen for a reason and they work out the way they are supposed to.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
When my kids were going into high school, a friend told me that now was the time to start asking myself “what’s next,” to figure out what I wanted to be doing with my life when my kids went to college and how to do it. She told me that it could take four years of research and legwork in order to hit the ground running as soon as my daughters walk out the door. Based on my experience, she was right. My daughters are now in their junior years of high school and I’m starting to have a clear idea of how I want my life to look professionally after they’ve gone to school.
What advice do you have for would-be writers?
Writing can be a lonely, solitary endeavor. I recommend joining a writing group—there are plenty you can join online—or taking classes to not only help you improve your craft, but to build your community and hold yourself accountable. I also recommend coupling your creative writing with a different type of pursuit. Creative writing doesn’t typically bring in money. But it can cost money—to take classes, to hire a publicist, to submit pieces. I fund my creative writing though my college essay coaching. Creative writing is also not something that I can do for eight hours a day. A few hours in the morning and then that side of my brain is done. I like to have a different kind of activity—such as editing papers, but also exercise—for balance. Finally, don’t give up!!
What writing resources do you recommend?
For those who want to write but don’t know where to start, I recommend reading some of the tried and true motivational, instructional books like The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron or Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.
I recommend taking classes. In Chicago, there’s Story Studio, Second City has writing classes, Northwestern’s Continuing Education Program offers Creative Writing as does the University of Chicago. There are a number of online communities that support new writers. Again, in Chicago, there’s the Chicago Writer’s Association, which is an active community, as well as Women Writers Women’s Books. And check out Facebook groups like Binders Helping Newbie Writers.
For those who are already writing and want regular feedback and a community, I suggest joining a writing group. I belong to the Wesley Writer’s Workshop, run by authors Steve and Sharon Fiffer, in Evanston, Illinois.
For those looking to publish a novel, read Green-Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing by Brooke Warner. Brooke is also the head publisher at She Writes Press, which published my novel.
Connect with Francie Arenson Dickman
Book: Chuckerman Makes a Movie