Farewell, Nora Ephron

The journalist, screenwriter and director, who died this week aged 71, should be remembered as much for her fine, conversational essays as for When Harry Met Sally.

Nancy McDermott

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It’s been nearly a year since Nora Ephron and I sat down together. We met relatively late in life so I am still playing catch up with her writing. I’d seen the films, of course, mostly sweet romantic comedies for women of a certain age. I’ll be honest. They put me off. Not that I didn’t enjoy When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail. It’s more that films like these became a shtick, at the hands of people like Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated, Something’s Got to Give): cue the hilarious kitchen scene. The truth is, chick flicks are only good if they aren’t continually shouting ‘Isn’t this just madcap and adorable?! Well, ISN’T IT???’

Ephron wrote hilarious kitchen scenes and most of her characters were madcap and adorable, but somehow it never seemed formulaic. No matter how implausible the situation – Sally faking an orgasm in a booth at the diner or Annie leaving her fiancé to race to the top of the Empire State Building – they embodied some essential truth that made it easy to suspend disbelief.

The reason was simply that Ephron was, first and foremost, a very good writer. Though she will probably be remembered for her essays on everyday life, divorce, cookbooks and the travesty of the egg-white omelette, she was actually very ‘old school’.

She began her career at the New York Post, which was, at the time, even more reviled than it is now. Post reporters almost never got interviews or cooperation simply on the basis of being from the Post. This forced Ephron to be resourceful and to write around her subject. Can’t interview Ayn Rand? Interview everyone who ever knew Ayn Rand.

She learned to write quickly and she learned to write short. Most of all she learned to sacrifice the things she loved most in her writing and that her pieces were better for it. ‘I am a journeyman’, she wrote in Wallflower at the Orgy. ‘If these articles work, they work as examples of old-fashioned journalism. I am not a new journalist, whatever that is; I just sit here at the typewriter and bang away at the old forms.’

Looking back, Ephron may be credited for banging the old forms into something new. Her essays became more personal over time. And there were times, especially in her collections I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing, when the subjects seemed random. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Today, it’s become old hat to write about other people’s dogs or toe jam. It is all over the internet and it is mostly drivel. A thousand blogs bloom everyday, all written in the first person, all telling us things we’d rather not know. Facebook is even worse.

In spite of the superficial similarities, Ephron’s writing was never like this. For one thing, she was never completely comfortable with writing in the first person. She used it sparingly and only to make a bigger point. For another, she knew what made a good story: face crème, yes; toe jam, no. And most of all, whatever form it took, what she was writing about was ‘more important’ than she was.

She was almost too good at it. She made it look like anything might be fodder for an essay and always seemed to be fielding well-meaning suggestions about what to write about, usually laughing it off with a raised eyebrow saying something like ‘Oh well, I don’t know about that…’

But whatever she happened to be writing about – whether it was Teflon, her neurotic attachment to her New York apartment, or parenting – she served up nugget upon nugget of home truths. Reading her essays, it is easy to forget that they are essays – she made them seem like a conversation. In that way, she was a big sister to a whole generation of women writers. She was wise and honest and clever and she never talked down to us or belittled her subject matter. Nora knew that sometimes the most important things hide in the details.

Though we never really sat down for coffee in the same place, at the same time, together, it felt like we did. I will miss Nora. We all will.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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