Enough With the Copy

Essay by Christine Grimaldi

Nora Ephron Has Some Explaining to Do

 


The initial news of Nora Ephron’s death in June 2012 interrupted dinner with my writing group in Washington, D.C.—a gathering of writers in the city she had fled.

Nora EphronMy phone buzzed atop the white tablecloth. There it was in my inbox, news alerts from the Washington Post and the New York Times: Nora Ephron, dead at 71, gone with so much more to commit to the page.

We clinked our glasses of red wine over platters of kibbeh and other Mediterranean delights. We toasted to Nora, who loved both writing and food.

At the time of her death, I sought out many obituaries, feeling the loss more acutely for not having known her words better in her lifetime. I was more familiar with Nora’s screenplays than with her books and columns. “I’ll have what she’s having,” indeed.

I soon learned that she had lived by a firm rule: “Everything is copy.” Nearly every obituary contained that cutesy aphorism, passed down from her screenwriter mother, Phoebe.

Initially, I wanted to read everything Nora had ever penned, from Wallflower at the Orgy, her very first collection of essays, to I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections, her last.After awhile, I just wanted to rail at her about the copy business.

“Why does everything have to be copy? Why does so much of it have to be so painful?” I would have whined as she sat across from me, cutting into a key lime pie made from the recipe she provided in Heartburn, her 1983 roman à clef about discovering her husband’s affair while pregnant with her second child. And not just any husband—Carl Bernstein, half of the Hardy Boys of Washington journalism. In the film version, Meryl Streep’s love-spurned character shoved that pie into Jack Nicholson’s poker face.

“Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much,” she would have replied, quoting Heartburn with a knowing smile. “Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”

But Nora’s pearls of wisdom, imagined or otherwise, could not make the grain of sand at their core any less irritating. I still blame her for the positive spin on suffering for the craft.

• • •

Of course, writers draw from life all the time. But writers tend to modulate that advice through good times and chant everything is copy, everything is copy through the bad. We seem to think the writing process will save us. 

Wallflower at the Orgy book coverMost normal people would take up running or go to therapy or drink. I’ve tried all of the above and more, and yet some internal voice commands me to “write it out,” as if it’s easier to sit at a computer all day and grasp for words to explore my pain than talk about it for an hour with a trained professional and schedule a follow-up appointment at the local bar.

I brought up the topic with some writer friends as we sat on a porch in coastal Massachusetts shortly after Nora’s death, staring out over a slowly rising marsh that threatened to carry away the porch and our laptops filled with half-started stories.

They agreed with me about the weight and wear of copy. Sheryl recalled a fellow student in our graduate creative writing program who didn’t understand the burden: “She said she was jealous that I had so much material to mine from.” Sheryl’s chronic illness. Suicides of friends. A family member’s addiction. How lucky.

What I wouldn’t give to have the raw material for copy—my life, thank you very much!—run dry for a change. There’s a current of this sentiment even in my first serious forays into memoir. For a week straight, I compulsively wrote what I termed the “guidonovella,” a 6,000-word piece of nonfiction that read more like a Shakespearean tragedy, starring my beloved and myself as a star-crossed guido and guidette marooned in Washington, the land of suits and serious business. I knew of no other way to deal with the uncertainty I faced.

But I would have traded the whole story—the tender words, the carefully crafted narrative arc, even the thrill of potential publication—for a happy ending. I couldn’t understand why this otherwise-nice Italian boy from New Jersey couldn’t commit. Then I found out he had a secret, second life with a fiancée and a wedding that did not include me. Now I have to write about that, too. Thanks, Nora.

Almost a year later, I sat across the table from a man who moved me in a way that I had not been moved since the discovery of my Jersey boy’s secret life. The bar was dark, the bourbon rich with allspice and bitters. We talked about his recent heartbreak and the difficulties of finding a genuine partner in power-hungry Washington. I said if I met the right man, I would be willing to leave this city. I just wanted to write, I said, and I could write anywhere.

“I just want to be happy,” I said.

He looked at me like I was something special. He told me it was refreshing to hear that someone out there aspired to be happy. Not successful, or important—adjectives that pepper conversations in D.C. to the point of indigestion.  Watching him watch me with wonder, I felt that I could be happy again with a man. Maybe even with this man.

He later disappeared after he got what he wanted from me—not all of me, at least, but most. Still, I remember that look: the seeming sincerity, the hope it evoked. I write about it now, wishing I wasn’t.

• • •

Where do I begin to sort through a lifetime of copy? Where do any of us writers start? For both fiction and nonfiction writers, the copy unfolds from birth—from parents and siblings, friends and relatives, the relationships that coexist between four walls.

Heartburn book coverI write a lot about “Brooklyn Tommy,” my gruff but lovable father, who predicts that he will drive nails into wood until he’s blind from sawdust and age. I could write him an early retirement—money in the bank and a house on the beach—but I’d have to call it a work of fiction.

I think back to Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and try to imagine her writing process. Did she tense up when she detailed her husband’s infidelity or swear at the words as they appeared beneath her fingertips, as I have been known to do? Did she tear up when she reread certain sentences?

“I married him against all the evidence,” Nora wrote in Heartburn, and I know exactly how she felt (if you swap out “married” for “loved”). “I married him believing that marriage doesn’t work, that love dies, that passion fades, and in doing so became the kind of romantic only a cynic is truly capable of being.”

Still, Heartburn is often a very funny book, despite—or perhaps to spite—the subject. “Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me,” she wrote. In the end, humor is almost as great a defense mechanism as writing.

I get that writers write because it’s the only way we know how to process pain. That’s why I write, after all. That’s why everything is copy. Because if I tell the story, I can make art out of heartache, sense out of senselessness.

“Do you regret that you have these feelings and painful experiences to write about, or do you think that’s all you have to write about?” my friend John asked, as we workshopped this very essay not so long ago.

Both. I wish that many of the things that have inspired my copy never happened. And I fear that writing about the same things over and over will marginalize me, as a writer and as a person. I have more to voice than just my painful experiences. I am more than my painful experiences. I am more than just copy. Or so I tell myself.

I imagine Nora felt the same way, but she recognized that writers validate themselves and their experiences through words. Like Nora, I return again and again to the page. I still raise my glass to her. I toast to copy, copy be damned.

 


Publishing Information

  • I Remember Nothing book coverWallflower at the Orgy by Nora Ephron (Viking, 1970).
  • I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections by Nora Ephron (Knopf, 2010).
  • Heartburn by Nora Ephron (Knopf, 1983).

Art Information

  • Nora Ephron at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival © David Shankbone; Creative Commons license. 

More on Nora Ephron in TW

 


Christine GrimaldiA recovering congressional reporter in Washington, D.C., Christine Grimaldi writes about her (very serious) feelings as she pursues an MA in nonfiction writing from Johns Hopkins University. Topics include her Italian family worrying and cooking 300 miles away and her attempts to find a man that her father, "Brooklyn Tommy," would approve of.

He certainly doesn't approve of any guy who shows up to the date drunk and mistakes her for the hostess or who makes her buy her own Five Guys. True stories. And that's why she writes nonfiction, because you can't make this stuff up. Follow her @chgrimaldi

"Enough with the Copy" is her first published essay.

Photo of Christine by Raymond Bryson.


 

Comments

Christine,

Phenomenal. Your voice shines through. May I be able to write vicariously through your eyes, your mind, and your words.

Keep it up. We are lucky to have your perspective.

Imagined pain is not honest pain -- it is stolen and parodied for the benefit of fellow thieves. It is the real stuff that makes real copy, and I have immensely enjoyed yours as words dragged across my skin and raised the flesh...When others can see themselves tucked neatly between the sentences, the magic is complete: you have lifted your words beyond copy and cast shadows every reader can recognize -- happiness, and its colorless absence with the tightrope in between.

Brooklyn Tommy, I see a gruff but tender saga of a middle aged Harry Potter or an Italian Portnoy. (Phillip Roth)

The essay -- personal, memoir, review, critical -- is my favorite nonfiction genre. In this genre I also include collections such as Oliver Sacks, Anthropologist From Mars; Robert Sapolski's The Trouble With Testosterone, and A Primates Memoir; the entire works of the late Lewis Thomas (Lives of a Cell, & c.); and also of a writer who is also a doctor who wrote as beautifully as Thomas and credits his influence. She is Avodah Offit, an M.D. psychiatrist specializing in sex therapy. (The Sexual Self, Lippincott 1977; Night Thoughts, Congdon and Lattes 1981. I have both. In her introduction in Night Thoughts she tells how she became addicted to writing.) I namecheck Dr Offit because I think she deserves more Google hits. (I love Annie Dillard, and I include her too in this list, but she's doing fine on the hits thing, I'm sure.

So, to this genre, where it is really difficult to stand out, because so many think it's easy to assay, but their work shows it's not and they can't, Christine not only entered, she assayed to take on something that Has Been Done ("Art, Writers suffering for" and "Writing, as way of dealing with your shit") and then done to Triteness and then Done to Death and Then Done Some More so that we want everyone who wants to chime in too to please oh please just STFU already.

Then she raised the level of difficulty by bringing Nora Ephron's life and awesome work to the challenge.

And wow, did she ever pull it off. Take a bow, Christine. This belongs in the corpus of "Writings about Nora Ephron, and about Writing, that you should not miss." Your piece rings true and sings lovely and is going in my personal anthology, as in taped inside my 8.5x11 sketchbook where I capture first drafts of poems. Also there: Dillard' 1989 NYT essay, "Write Till You Drop.

ps. Your taut recounting of your imagined conversation with Ms Ephron is pitch-perfect, and rhetorically adroit.

So much so, I have the shooting script totally written in my head, and I know exactly how I would direct the scene. I leave the casting up to you.

And the role you gave the Key Lime pie: It should win "Best Supporting Food Item In a Nonfiction Essay" and "Best Use of a Food Item in Telling a Story." Because, Pie in Nicholson's poker face. Yes.

Congrats Christine! Excellent insight into the Christine-brain. Will happily retweet, post, and share all over the interweb for you

Thanks, KC and Joni, for such heartfelt comments! They're so beautifully written, they could each launch their own essay. I find redemption and strength in words. Never vengeance. That's something I've been thinking about a lot lately and really hit home at a writers conference I went to this past weekend. As writers, our motivation should never be to "settle the score," even if we're writing about people we don't particularly care for. We should always strive to do no harm, even if our subjects have harmed us. Thoughts for another essay...

What a wonderful, heartfelt (ouch) essay! I find that writing "my life as copy" does double duty. The initial pain flows into my personal journal, where it stays hidden between leather covers and gets just enough air to begin healing. Then, once the healing has begun and I have some perspective, I need to bring the wound out from between those protective leather covers and expose it to more air -- to readers. As I write for readers, the sharp, cutting edges of pain begin to wear off, and my experiences morph into their true shapes so that I can recognize where they belong in my larger story. What patterns they fit; what lessons they hold. Your essay is a fine example of that process. Thank you, Christine!

Christine,
What a great essay for me to read right now. I, too, have been guilty of the same thing. I tell my students that every experience is material. I tell myself the same thing. And now I am going through crisis, and the thought of picking up the pen is hidden in the back of my mind. Instead, I think of the fact that I have to be present, really present, for what is happening right now. The writing can wait. What needs to happen right now is for me to stop being a writer and to be the loving daughter. That I'm doing. At night, instead of scribbling in my notebook, I crawl into bed, too exhausted to think of anything before falling into deep slumber.
The copy can wait. Maybe the copy will never be written. It's a hard habit to break, but right now, this emotional pain I'm dealing with does not feel as if it's for public consumption.

Lorraine and Martha – I really appreciated your comments. I’ve thought about them often and couldn’t agree more. I used to think that you got your best copy only by writing in the moment. “Perspective?” I’d scoff. As a former reporter, I still think there’s something to be said about the quick turnaround. But the passage of time really does help when it comes to writing about certain experiences. I’m still so thankful for some of the notes I took and stories I wrote when I was living the experience, but looking back, those stores are very unformed, very rough, all emotion and no structure. “Pre-writing,” one of my writing group buddies called one such essay. Now that time has passed, I can use some of those rough sketches to create something that I hope reflects the full spectrum of the experience and resembles an actual polished piece of work (narrative arc, transitions, you know, the basics I forgot about when rushing to get things on the page!). Of course, even if we write something with the perspective of years gone by, that perspective might change the years continue to advance. That’s got to be one of the great joys of writing: meaning changes, meaning deepens, but meaning is never lost.

Christine, terrific essay, especially given the events of this week. After the Boston bombing, I felt compelled to write. Was I creating copy out of my family's response? I don't think so. For me, writing really is a way to work through difficult feelings, although it's certainly true that I make very little of it public.

The Boston bombing called for a public response, I think. The recent death of my mother remains scrawled across the smudged pages of my personal journal. Someday I may write about that, too, but not any time soon.

Lorraine, I completely understand your need to remain focused on the current crisis. Thinking about how to turn one's experience into copy is a defense, of course, and it should never get in the way of being present in the here and now with those who need your help.

And yet, I have to believe that writing is a healthy defense, in the way Nora Ephron (at her more serious) would likely agree. We need ways to grapple with tragedy, personal and national. For me, writing fills both existential and spiritual cravings, and I feel blessed that I have this lens for viewing the world.

What an excellent piece. I've made much of my life and most of my living writing and ghostwriting memoirs, and I cringed a little when I realized how many times I've told my clients "everything is copy" as a way to help them process their stories. The courage to be truthful is the greatest challenge in the art of memoir, and somehow that makes it easier. But you're so right here. It can be an irritating copout - maybe because processing a story on paper is not the same as processing it emotionally. The storytelling process might help, but the hard work of truth has to happen in the skin.

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