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Ephron wrote everyone’s life

27 Jun 2012
Posted by Shannon

It’s odd when someone we never knew dies and leaves a huge gap in our lives, but for many of us the death of writer Nora Ephron, 71, is like that. 

Perhaps it’s because for almost 50 years Ephron wrote our lives while writing her own. Her death prompted my writer pals, male and female, to reminisce on their favourite  works and what they’d learned from them about writing and life. 

Heartburn, her hilarious and thinly veiled roman a clef about one half of Woodstein cheating on her while she was pregnant with their second child, taught us that writing well is the best revenge. Her husband, she wrote famously, was “A man who was capable of having sex with a Venetian blind.”

She was good at big, memorable comic lines like that but she also had a knack for spotting small, significant truths. That book taught me not to take it personally when, after a divorce, certain married friends drifted away. As Ephron observed, “Couples date couples.”

The ironically misnamed, “A Few Words About Breasts,” written for Esquire in 1973, has her going on-and-on about the adolescent traumas surrounding her lack-of-a-rack. The obsession dogged her well into her 30s, when she wrote the piece.  “If I had had them I would have been a completely different person. I honestly believe that,” she deadpans.

On re-reading it I realized my adolescent self probably pinched the term “girldom” from her and then promptly forgot its origins.

She knows people, and has a whole series of thoughts on the treachery of the teary.

“Beware men who cry. It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.

“Show me a woman who cries when the trees lose their leaves in autumn and I’ll show you a real asshole.”

But what really sticks with me is her sharp, insightful dialogue in movies like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail. Generally, rom-coms bore me, not least because they insult and patronize the female audience they’re aimed at. I call them dick flicks.

But Ephron had a genius for writing highly intelligent, articulate, crazy people you wanted to see again and again – probably because they remind you of your friends.

There’s Sally’s gal pal who urges her to get over her break-up fast with a twisted logic my friend Dee would embrace: “All I’m saying is that somewhere out there is the man you are supposed to marry. And if you don’t get him first, somebody else will, and you’ll have to spend the rest of your life knowing somebody else married your husband.”

The digital lovers from You’ve Got Mail seem whimsical rather than what they probably are – creepy – due to her putting quirky Ephronesque conversations in their mouths. Like the (entirely true) observation that men use the Godfather movies as a metaphor for everything. I didn’t see The Godfather until recently (don’t judge me) and found it comforting to learn that I wasn’t the only one crinkling up my brow and wondering what a guy meant when he said, “Go to the mattresses.”

Tom Hanks character explains it. “The Godfather is the I Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any questions. What should I pack for my summer vacation? “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” What day of the week is it? “Maunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday.” And the answer to your question is “Go to the mattresses.”

It means to go to war, by the way. But you probably knew that.

Although I have to say that I never did understand why everyone laughs when Sally argues with Harry that she is not high maintenance, despite her detailed restaurant orders.

“I just want it the way I want it,” she says, quite reasonably.

I spent last night reading the various obits celebrating Ephron’s extraordinary life and came across a telling detail about her childhood. She was the oldest of four girls whose parents were Hollywood screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron and from the time they were young, the girls were taught to come to dinner prepared to tell stories about their day. These tales would later find their way into their parents’ scripts. Nora’s letters home from Wellesley College were apparently the source material for the 1961 Jimmy Stewart film, Take Her, She’s Mine.

The obit paints this as charming and the explanation for why all four girls became writers, but I felt nothing but horror. These people were actively mining the lives of their children for copy.

This is wrong. Insane. They were cannibals! There’s nothing worse one writer can do to another than steal her stories. Then another equally horrifying thought hit me: Maybe I should have had children after all?

I have a sneaking suspicion I owe that line to Ephron. Oh, I would have thought it without her, but I wouldn’t have had nearly enough nerve to print it.