By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
While writing a book on the well-worn path of Jewish family dynamics decades ago, Highland Park’s Francie Arenson Dickman went against the grain just to put tens of thousands of words down on her computer.
She opted to go from the law to authorship, from plenty to possibility dovetailing with poverty. Dickman doesn’t yet know how much she’ll bank from her-just released “Chuckerman Makes a Movie” book, but she is still rolling the dice a bit.
If anything, ink-stained wretches, if they have foresight, traditionally tried to leave the near-volunteer wages of media to make some real gelt. They most often chose law school, partly because they could apply their writing skills to some degree. Oh, a handful of attorneys find the time and energy to do both – yet they don’t give up their day jobs. Best-selling Chicago Jewish author Scott Turow finds himself in his exalted position because of obvious skills in both creativity and endurance.
So at a time when making a living as a writer has never been tougher given those little IPhones that distribute free content no matter how spurious the source, why has Dickman transitioned from the law to scribe status?
“I didn’t choose it,” she said of writing. “It chose me. The problem with practicing law is you work for somebody else.”
Dickman spent her undergrad years at the University of Michigan and then went to law school in Washington, D.C. at George Washington University. She then signed up for work at the Illinois attorney general’s office under Roland Burris and Jim Ryan.
But from the very beginning, Dickman dabbled in writing. She wrote a book of poetry called Winter Poems in third grade with the help of the librarian at Kennedy School in Highland Park.
“I like working for myself and don’t like having to report in,” said Dickman. “I sort of sidestepped into writing. I was the one called to do writing projects in college for my roommates. I was helping everybody.”
Dickman also served as a student reporter for the Michigan Daily paper while writing award-winning skits for her sorority.
“Out of college, I had friends working for First Chicago Bank. They were charged with setting up their first web site. I provided the copy for that. I got into business writing. I was doing law-firm writing and the newsletter for Whole Foods. I was making more money as a business writer than a lawyer.”
“I was never a journalist, and was not interested in journalism,” she said. “There was a creative element to my web site and to all my projects, and I was always my boss. I had time to focus on writing fiction and support myself. I’d be sacrificing flexibility and freedom to climb the ladder at a (law) firm. We’re talking 20 years ago. Being a woman and having kids – firms were not friendly to that. I wanted to work.
“Now that I have more freedom and my kids are a little bit older, I volunteer as an attorney for the Highland Park-Highwood Legal Aid Clinic. I kept my (law) license, and I use it in a way that’s more satisfying. I help with immigration law.
“There’s a big Hispanic population in Highwood and Waukegan. The clinic is not that much older than the Trump Administration. The clinic started to overflow (with cases). I imagine if I had gone into this from the beginning, dealing with family law rather than public enemies or corporate, I might have stuck with it longer (full-time). I like dealing with the personal impact.”
A huge influence on Dickman was father Arthur Arenson, a child of the Great Depression.
“He would have been a great lawyer, but did not have the opportunity to do so,” said Dickman. “A lot of his friends became lawyers. He had to help his parents (as an only child) run their business. He loves the law. He can talk. He can tell stories.”
Indoctrinated with the survival genes from hard times, Arthur Arenson owned a chain of currency exchanges, working six days a week. In his rare spare time, he also supported his daughter’s divergence into writing.
A writer learns how to write by reading. Dickman read Judy Blume’s books. And she dabbled with her own work of fiction, as yet unpublished, while toiling in the law in her 20s. The wordage might have been a nascent autobiography – about a fictional young attorney who had no interest in practicing law.
Dickman began injecting snippets of family life into essays published in the Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, Today Parents and Motherwell Magazine.
‘Chuckerman Makes a Movie,’ published by She Writes Press, is the sum total of her Jewish upbringing and family life divided between the Chicago area and Miami Beach. Fittingly, the cover image is a 1977 yellow Cadillac, one of the last true GM “land boats,” a status symbol of Jews in Florida at the time. Her family’s own journeys took them to the Miami Beach version of Winston Towers. Yes, there is a second complex by that name full of Jews to complement the nicknamed “Weinstein Towers” along the 7000 and 7100 blocks of North Kedzie Avenue.
“The characters are an amalgam of people in my childhood,” she said. “It’s like Neal Simon in Brighton Beach. It was a different era. You have a family coming down from Chicago to stay two weeks (with grandparents) in a one-bedroom condo. You don’t have that type of lifestyle anymore.
“They all smoke. The cigarettes were such a big part of it. There was no sunscreen. A lot of sitting in the sun and smoking. The lack of awareness of health food. No one exercised. They would walk to the boardwalk or beach. A lot were Holocaust survivors – the numbers were on their arms.”
The plot, branded as humor/contemporary fiction, is summed up as follows:
“Thirty-five-year-old bachelor David Melman has been living in comfortable denial, branding fragrances for C-list pop-stars, dating his clients and doting on his sister’s kids. When he realizes that the pop star he’s currently dating is almost the same age as his niece, he acknowledges that change may be in order.
“To help him get on with his life, he reluctantly agrees to attend Drama for the First Time Film Writer, a class taught by his sister’s friend Laurel Sorenson, an independent, naturally sexy Mormon whose life also happens to be at a crossroads. Unexpectedly, the two find they enjoy each other’s company.
“Gradually, David begins to fall for Laurel. The film she forces him to write (revolves around) comic-calamitous events occurring over Christmas vacation 1977 at his grandparent’s Miami Beach condo involving his grandfather’s then new Cadillac. David’s movie script and relationship with Laurel progress, though eventually decisions that Laurel must make force David to make his own decisions as to whether to abandon their relationship. As he struggles, he begins to see how the movie about his past sheds light on the movie that is his real life.
“Melman’s grandmother’s bywords become: ‘Love matters a little, but luck matters more.’”
Dickman has provided Chicago Jewish News with two excerpts to demonstrate the flavor of ‘Chuckerman Makes a Movie.’ The first, from Chapter 9, deals with Melman’s character, nicknamed Chuckerman in the novel:
“’You know, Venn diagrams. The circles. Some intersect. Some don’t. Subsets.’ I drew in the air, trying to explain. I had a circle of girls from Utah and another of real New Yorkers, the kind I knew from Imperial Towers Building 100, the kind who tugged on pool chairs, the kind whose grandchildren were probably the ones six floors above us, tugging on Vera Wang. Most of the Imperial Towers 100 women were widows for a reason. They pulled and tugged their husbands to death. The two circles don’t intersect.
“’I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ Laurel yanked open one of the boxes to have a closer look.
“’I’m saying that there cannot possibly be any overlap between the circle of real New Yorkers and the circle of Mormons with eight siblings, two horses, and a homemade daisy bathrobe in the closet. You can wear Vera Wang ’til the cows come home and you still won’t be a real New Yorker. It’s not in your genes. To punctuate my point, I gave a long slurp on the last bits of my smoothie.
“Laurel looked up from the boxes and smiled wide. ‘That’s quite a theory, Chuckerman. Let’s make sure I understand. Are you saying that our circles cannot overlap or that you don’t want them to overlap?
“’Both,” I told her. ‘I wouldn’t want the circles to overlap, but luckily, overlap in our case is genetically impossible.
“Laurel stood. ‘And you wouldn’t want them to overlap—by, say, me converting to Judaism—because if I converted and we stayed together in some crazy, hypothetical world, I’d eventually end up killing you?
“’Cause of death would be more of a gradual erosion of spirit than murder in the first degree, but yes, that’s the basic gist…’”
Another excerpt, from Chapter 11, exemplifies 1970s Jewish life in South Florida:
“From our line—Parties of Five or More—Estelle will hike up her slacks and lift her leg to show her shoes to her friends in the adjacent line, Parties of Three or Four. Eventually, a big to-do will brew around the shoes. One friend will tap another, and gradually they’ll all lean over to see Estelle’s Adidas.
“As the women bend down toward the shoes, the rest of the Rascal House crowd will clamor skyward toward the finger sandwiches, mini corned beef, and grilled cheeses that are being handed out to appease the Christmas Eve crowd. A panoramic shot will best capture the competing interests at work.
“’Are they really that comfortable?’” one of the women will ask Estelle.
“’Yes, they are so comfortable, like standing on cotton balls.
“’How much did you have to pay?
“’I haven’t the faintest. They were a gift from Allen!
“My father will keep saying, ‘Enough, Ma. Take your foot off of the bar.
“My mother will laugh and her mother, my Grandma B, who always joined us on Christmas Eve (a splitting of hairs, really, since Aunt BoBo and her crew were the party behind us in line), will ask my mother if she’s getting shoes, too.
“’No,’ my mother will answer.
“’Good,’ my grandma B will reply. “’They’re not my style.’ Any shoe that promoted physical activity was unlikely to be her style. Grandma B was, by anyone’s account, the laziest woman alive. House shoes were her style.
“Adidas, now they were mine. As I’ve already mentioned, I wanted blues too—the Roms —but to no avail. They were leather and deemed too expensive for a ten-year-old boy. But perfect, apparently, for a sixty-eight-year-old woman.”
Although the kind of Jewish culture Dickman depicts in her period-piece humor novel has somewhat died out, she believes evolution produces something with equal staying power.
“I still think Jewish people are family people,” she said. “Their parents and grandchildren and children are still generationally inter-connected. Grandparents, as mine do, still probably play a big role in their grandchildren’s lives. Something else in Jewish ideals has replaced it. Jews are Jews. Their habits change and the way they live change, but the core of who they are and what they believe in and value has not changed.”
And if humor is also central to the Jewish existence, then Dickman aims to please with her writing.
“I’m able to skew reality in such a way that whatever the issue of the day (and there always is an issue of the day),” she said. “It seems much less dire when I’m done writing about it. I credit my writing with keeping me in school, off drugs, married and out of the eye of child protective services.
“Every so often, my writing helps other people, too. Along the way, my readers have said things to me like, ‘Thank you for giving a voice to my own feelings.’ Or, ‘You have a way of saying what we all are thinking.’ Or, ‘Your pieces make me laugh.’
“This — touching others — is the best part of writing.”