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.
My 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.
Most 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.
I 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.
- Wallflower 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).
- Nora Ephron at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival © David Shankbone; Creative Commons license.
More on Nora Ephron in TW
- "A Few Words About Nora Ephron" by Martha Nichols, Talking Writing, May/June 2012.
- "Eileen Fisher's Got My Back" by Fran Cronin, Talking Writing, November/December 2011.
- "The Search for a Snapper" by Emily Toth, Talking Writing, September/October 2011.
A 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.