Four Things I Learned From Nora Ephron
By LZ Nunn
When Nora Ephron died in June of 2012, I was stunned. I had read and reread her essay collection I Feel Bad About My Neck at least six times, dragging it to and from the gym until the soft, dog-eared pages started to come loose from the binding. I read it fiendishly, reflexively, searching for clues for how to improve my own writing.
I felt I had lost a friend.
Of course, this was a one-sided friendship, founded on my reverence and anonymity. Reading Nora felt like cozying up over a midday cup of chamomile tea, with a fuzzy blanket, a couple of tractable cats and a plate of peanut butter sandwich cookies. More recently, while tinkering away revising my own work, I thought I should delve a little further and decode what keeps me coming back to her punchy prose.
Here are a few stand-out tips I noted re-reading Nora Ephron.
- “Everything is copy.” No topic was too small to escape her fine attention to detail and the small humors in life. Nora was a master of regaling us with short puff pieces about otherwise mundane details of existence – for example, readers will remember her hilarious riffs about the avalanche of modern-day emails, the uselessness of ‘the egg white omelet’, a mess of scraps that she finds forgotten and accumulating in her purse. Who else could take a title of a book largely about aging and make it so fun to read, even for thirty-somethings like me? Yet, her writing is never mundane. In the details she finds, and ably addresses, the tough, and often poignant, topics too. Nora wrote about her mother’s drinking, the death of a dear friend, her tense friendship with Lillian Hellman. In her classic, gutsy fashion, she showed us our own humanity by revealing fault lines in her own.
- Write like you’re having a meaty conversation with your friend. I don’t know if Nora ever said anything of the sort, but that’s what I think when I read her. Her style is so clean, so casual that the words bounce right off the page. It’s pure magic. “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four.” Nothing trips on the tongue. She mastered perfectly timed bon mots. Remember the scene in When Harry Met Sally where Sally fakes the orgasm and the old lady in the next booth says: “I’ll have what she’s having”? So brilliant it’s part of screen lore. Too often when I attempt this sharp, saucy tone, I come off all thumbs. It takes work to sound so natural and effortless, and that can be maddening. That dour New Englander Nate Hawthorne may have said it best, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
- “If you make the right decision about structure, many other things become absolutely clear. On some level, the rest is easy.” What a pithy and simple statement. This is so elegant and obvious, and yet for some of us writers—myself included—we live in search of a structure. Usually, I grope in the dark, noodling around for the ideal form a piece should take. Like a small child with an outsized erector set, I scatter all the elements out over the living room floor in clumsy disarray. Nora had a sixth sense about structure. Maybe this came from her training as a journalist, or growing up in a family of writers, or her own trial and error. Whatever the case, she was a master of the personal essay, the feature story, the novel, the screenplay. She could float between genres--dramatic screenplays like Silkwood, romantic comedies like You’ve Got Mail, and humorous essays like her last collection, I Remember Nothing--often transcending them.
- “Above all, be the heroine of your own life, not the victim.” Nora had no patience for solipsistic writing. While her essays can be personal, there’s always a tight control at the center. We only know just what she wants to disclose. Of course, she is generous with us. She tells us about her ‘Arubas’ (those little baldish spots we get when we sleep funny and have kinks in our hair), her turtlenecks masking sun spots and wrinkles, her issues with handbags. While Nora often wrote about topics that ranged from the personal to the profound, she displayed an unwavering lack of self-pity. She turned a famously bitter divorce from Bob Woodward into the wonderful novel Heartburn, which later became a successful movie featuring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. This makes me want to hate her, just a little. “My mother wanted us to understand,” Nora noted at a Neimen Journalism Conference, “that the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be the comic stories the next.”
There’s a wonderful cadre of contemporary writers—like British journalist/author/self-avowed feminist Caitlin Moran (How to Be a Woman), Rhoda Janzen (Mennonite in a Little Black Dress), and Cheryl Strayed (Wild)—who apply the “be a heroine in your own life” principle and turn out rich, witty, insightful prose. I go back to these writers, and to Nora, weekly, in search of magic, the X-factor to crafting zesty prose that keeps us coming back for more.
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