Nora Ephron, My Writing Mentor

Jun 282012
 

When I was in journalism school in the 1970s, we looked to Esquire magazine, not the New Yorker, as the pinnacle of long-form narrative non-fiction. Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and other Successful White Male Writers were our gods.

The ’60s and ’70s were a time of Ms. magazine, supposed bra burnings, and Gloria Steinem. It was also when Nora Ephron became the first female columnist in Esquire. Ephron, a feminist, burst upon the national scene writing essays like “A Few Words About Breasts” in this magazine for men. She visited a feminine hygiene plant, explaining how testers sniffed to determine odor. Successful White Male Writers (and their White Male Editors) had never read anything like it.

As a feminist and journalist, I was hooked — not just because she could be outrageous, but because she wrote brilliantly on subjects no one had ever reported on before. I took this same approach in my first job out of school, as editor of the “women’s section” of a Canadian newspaper. Next to the brownie recipes and wedding announcements, I covered subjects new to the newspaper: homelessness, wife beating, venereal diseases and rape. My White Male Editor had never read anything like it. But he published all the stories, and never passed the resulting outraged phone calls on to me. I felt emboldened, but unlike Ephron, my sense of humor was lacking until I wrote this essay for Salon.com in the 1990s.

It was my first first-person essay, and writing it made me uncomfortable. Ephron would have approved. Like me, she had been a newspaper reporter beforehand, where the writer was never a part of a story. In her second collection of magazine articles, Wallflower at the Orgy, she describes her discomfort at transitioning to first person essays. It’s just as applicable today as it was in 1967:

“The work I have done is considerably more personal and considerably more full of the first-person singular pronoun, but I still believe that the best approach to its use ought to be discomfort. Do you really need it? Does it add something special to the piece? Is what you think interesting enough to make the reader care? Are you saying something that no one has said? Above all, do you understand that you are not as important as what you are covering?”

Ephron’s later work expanded to cover food, including a piece about food writers and her novel Heartburn, a story about a food writer at a newspaper who had a troubled marriage. When Ephron became a screenwriter, one of her most famous scenes (above) took place at Katz’s deli in New York. She also directed Julie & Julia, a food-centric love story. But it is her earlier writing that speaks to me the most, and I encourage you to read her books. You’ll find wit, entertainment and incomparable storytelling.

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  42 Responses to “Nora Ephron, My Writing Mentor”

  1. What a lovely tribute, Dianne. I knew Ephron primarily as a screenwriter (and of course loved her work in that genre) but must go now read some of her journalism, too. And I had no idea you were Canadian (but clearly not a communist) ;-)

    • My favorite boss used to call me a “smarty-pants Communist,” but I think that’s a little different. Thanks Ricki. Yes, please do pick up her books. You’re in for a treat.

  2. I have been a big Nora Ephron fan, her humor essays and her movies. I read that Amanda Mitchell had made all of the recipes from Heartburn, which was my introduction to Nora Ephron. I think I’ll do the same. I’m already working on the “neck” thing!

    • I can’t find my edition of Heartburn, but the recipes were pretty simple and at the back of the novel, right? That sounds like fun. Re the neck thing, if you have any tricks besides wearing a turtleneck, let me know.

  3. Another beautiful tribute, Dianne. Thank you so much for sharing the impact that Nora Ephron had on you and your writing. It is so important for us all to have people like that to look to – I dare say that you are now that people for many, many aspiring food writers.

    • Yes, two in a row this week! Thanks Katherine, for that very kind compliment. If I could accomplish just a millionth of Nora Ephron’s legacy, I’d be happy.

  4. Well put, Dianne. I discovered her later than you did–with “Heartburn”–and will have to go back and read the earlier stuff. We all need that mixture of humor, honesty, an originality in our writing. I haven’t written much about her, but here is one essay in which I at least referenced her (and her version of Lillian Hellman’s pot roast):
    http://www.ourgrandmotherskitchens.com/?p=5870.

    • What a terrific post, Tinky. I read the whole thing and loved how you blended Hellman (an earlier hero of mine), writing and food so beautifully. I’m going to have to read your blog more often.

      • I’m honored, Dianne! Most of my posts are pretty ordinary recipes, but every so often I feel impelled to use my doctorate and write something more thoughtful….

  5. Dianne,

    This really struck a chord! I too loved Esquire and I felt secretly proud that I was my choice reading instead of Glamour (and the like) coming out of Journalism school, even though my first real job out of school, ironically, was at Glamour. Regardless, your point here about Ephron and first person writing is so very important and I’m glad I read it. So much of today’s food writing and indeed, blogging is personal, but this is such a splendid reminder that it doesn’t have to be. I can work to make it more like the investigative or topical pieces I write for print, the ones that make my heart beat fast and call upon every research and reporting skill from J-school. Thank you.

    • How fascinating, Sarah, to learn all this about you. Esquire is still a good read, but all that focus on manly stuff gets in the way. I was re-reading Wallflower at the Orgy yesterday and came upon that comment in the foreword and thought it was a good reminder to all of us who blog. I am still grateful that I had the sense to go to journalism school. The skills I learned there serve me every single day, as a writer, editor and coach. It sounds like you feel the same way.

  6. A very nice tribute to her. I loved hearing about her early work. I’ve read Heartburn maybe four times, sometimes just for pleasure, sometimes to see if I can learn something about being witty. Somehow I thought she’d go on forever. Such a loss.

  7. “Crazy Salad,” the first Nora Ephron piece I ever read, hooked me. Who was this dame who had the gall to poke daggers at the inanity of the contestants at a Pillsbury Bake-Off contest? Her unique multi-leveled approach to writing is something we should all strive for in our own work. Long live Nora!

    • Yes. I looked for that book on Amazon but apparently it is out of print. I remember the piece and the furor it caused. I tried to find the essay to link to it, but her estate made Esquire take it off their website. Boo!

  8. Thanks for this tribute to Nora Ephron! The world is a little less romantic without her. But her memory will live on in her splendid work. Thanks for reminding us to keep her writing on our bookshelves and in our hearts!

  9. I love the outpouring of love for Nora that has erupted since her death and only hope she had some small idea of how we idolized her. I reread “Heartburn” upon learning of her death, my tattered copy that got my through a divorce similar to her own. She was a trailblazer for all of us who try to write our stories with grace and humor.

    • Indeed. I think I read about 20 tributes yesterday, plus the 3 in the NY Times. They excel at obits. Which reminds me, one of my jobs at the newspaper I mentioned was to write obits. They were part of the 14-page section I had to fill each week.

      What a great idea to reread Heartburn, except I can’t find mine. I have a yellowed copy of Wallflower at the Orgy, however, so I will go with that.

  10. Thanks for this tribute Dianne. I’ve never read her works (heck can’t remember the last time I read a book that was not a cookbook or food related) but I’ve been a fan of her movies. What you shared about her, and that she inspired you, makes me appreciate her more. Your Salon article made me shake my head at what you were put through! Crazy! Another fun insight into who you are. I think we all somewhere, at some time learn not to write in the first person. it’s uncomfortable to do so, yet there is a place for it. I have a hard time with it too. And look at you now, years later, and the many that you too have taught and inspired. Thanks!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Sally. Now you have a reason to take a break from cookbooks. Honestly, you will learn about personal essay from her. She is a great teacher about how to write in personal essay. Some of her earlier essays are reportorial.

      I’m also glad you enjoyed me writing about my prior life. I’m always nervous about straying off the subject, but it’s fun.

      Re the Salon article, it is mystifying, but I bet the process of becoming a citizen is much more complicated now, post 911.

  11. I was sad to hear of nora Ephron’s death. Like so many, I’ve long been a fan of her entertaining and incisive wit. Who will write decent women’s roles for Hollywood now?

  12. As always, lovely writing, Dianne. Beautiful tribute(s). I learn so much from visiting WWFF, and in so many different ways.

    I’ve never read a book (or article for that matter) by Nora Ephron, but at your suggestion, I just ordered Heartburn. I know very little about her. I’m a child of the 60s as well, and although what I was doing at the time didn’t include many women either (backpacking for months on end, ice climbing, rock climbing, flying around in small airplanes), I never thought of myself as a feminist and wasn’t interested in the “movement.” In fact, after sitting next to Gloria Steinem on a flight during the 70s, I decided I wanted nothing to do with feminists (she was incredibly rude).

    I’m on a serious binge right now, reading adventure books by women authors. I’ve gone from one book to another the past several weeks. I have 3 waiting in the wings. When I finish those (all seriously adventure related), I’ll move on to the Nora Ephron book. I suppose as women of that time, we were all on our own wild adventures, whatever those may have been.

    Thank you. After all these years, I look forward to “discovering” Nora Ephron.

    Melissa

    • Thank you for taking the time to say so, Melissa. I hope you enjoy Heartburn.

      You weren’t part of the movement, but you were off doing your own thing, which is all that women wanted back then — to not be prescribed into roles. The only job I was offered, when I graduated from journalism school, was to be the editor of the “women’s” pages, which were mostly about recipes, weddings, and gossip, until I overhauled them.

      That’s funny about Steinem. Maybe she was having a bad day. She was another idol of mine. I remember hearing her speak and then being invited back into a reception room to hang with her. I was so terrified I never said a word.

  13. Hi Dianne,
    I had never read anything by Nora Ephron before but, like others, have seen her movies. What an inspiration! As a mid30s woman I feel quite compelled to start reading her earlier works.

    Just as I favour food writing that is injected with intelligent wit, so too, these more serious topics. After reading this post, I am now looking forward to finding the cited titles. Thanks once again.
    Regards, Carly

  14. Great read!

  15. As a writer who still struggles with that first person thang, I appreciate Nora’s and your perspectives. Yeah, it’s all about discomfort and the written space that creates.

    And I always really liked your salon.com essay on becoming a US citizen. Thanks for reminding me of that. If your other followers don’t know it, y’all really should read it.

    • Now we don’t have to feel silly about still feeling uncomfortable after all these years, eh? Turns out our instincts were correct.

      Thanks for the kind words about that citizenship piece. I wrote it up just so I could remember what happened, and then I thought, hell, I’m going to get this published. I had about 5 rejections before Salon took it.

  16. Oh, how I miss the days when Esquire was a writer’s/reader’s magazine. As it started to look more and more like FHM and Maxim, which Ephron surely loathed as much as the rest of us do, I gave up my subscription and haven’t been tempted to go back.

    • Yes I must say that it hasn’t attracted me when I’ve looked at it on the newsstand. But then, I am not the target audience. And the food writing is excellent and has won many awards. So there’s always that.

  17. I gotta say…I subscibed to Esquire for a while a year or so ago, and yep, the writing was still so superior to just about anything else. Despite the irritating macho package, I was blown away by the writing talent. About food and other things, too.

  18. I think that all women of our age :-) discovered Nora Ephron during our feminist stage and promptly fell in love with her. I had no idea when I did that one day I would be writing, but in her works I think I discovered what writing should and could be – and what your wonderful piece in Salon is – writing in the first person about a personal experience can become something accessible to others in its intimacy; that something personal becomes universal for the fact that we can all relate to the emotions and the experience. I often wondered if writing in the first person closed readers out of a personal experience yet when I read both Ephron’s stories as well as yours I am reassured that in fact it brings the reader closer to the story itself; we nod in agreement, understanding and empathy (or sympathy), we laugh and we cry so much easier for the reality of the experience. This is what I always felt about Ephron’s work, maybe even before I realized that is what I was feeling. I was saddened to learn about her death, and your tribute to her and her work has brought back why, and especially as a writer, I loved her so and the impact she had on me. I think it is now the time for an Ephron-a-thon.

    • Yes! I have been enmeshed in an Ephron-a-thon, though mostly online, since beginning to write the post. I read at least a dozen tributes to her and watched several video interviews. There is lots to see, if you search on her name. I drowned myself in her for a while. Now I want to go reread Wallower at the Orgy. I bought “I Feel Bad About My Neck” but I gave it away, even though she had signed it after I attended an interview. I didn’t like her writing about the “trials” of being a wealthy person in NY, ex. having to go across town when her favorite bakery moved.

      First person writing is tough. Some people share too much; some not enough. It is hard to strike the right balance. That’s why events like becoming a citizen are easier. You condense it all down into one event, and write around the event.

  19. This was great, Dianne. It was interesting to hear about both yours and Nora’s revolutionary use of the first person, back in the days. I loved her essays, too, and flipped over her novel Heartburn. I’ve been making her “raw” spaghetti, and love all the recent repeats of her interviews. They inspired me to read Julia’s A Year in France, and now I feel like making all the recipes from Heartburn as well as Nora’s 3 Julia favorites (B.B., lamb stew, chicken breasts with cream and port!) Not exactly Weight Watchers fare…

    • Thank you Joanne. I don’t have her book anymore. What is “raw” spaghetti? Now you’ve got me wondering.

      Wow. Who is eating all this incredible food you’re making? Are you feeding it to the neighbors? Lucky.

  20. […] though, so it’s not so much of a stretch. Believe it or not, there are more. I’ve also been a reporter, a blogger, a speaker and a teacher. In fact, I’m still most of […]

  21. […] been lusting for The Most of Nora Ephron, a collection of her work, published posthumously. Ephron was my writing hero: sassy, funny, and so right about women, love, and politics. At $35, it’s a tome, but I bet […]

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