When I saw on Twitter on Tuesday night that the iconic writer Nora Ephron had passed away, I felt the sort of panic you feel when someone you know in real life is in trouble. Though I’d met Nora Ephron several times in the past few years at parties, I could hardly say I knew her. Yet through her books and articles, which I’d read throughout my 20s, I felt not only like I really knew her but like she was a guardian angel figure in my life, an older aunt or a mom’s best friend who was always there with quick wit and common sense. Moreso than other second-wave women I admire — Gloria Steinem, Toni Morrison, Jane Fonda, Joan Baez — I would ask myself in moments of career crisis, What did Nora Ephron do when she went through this same thing? Like me, Nora Ephron had feminist sensibilities, but didn’t run in strict feminist circles. Like me, she was ambitious and talented, but wanted a family life, too. And most importantly, like me, she’d worked as a newspaper reporter, but really blossomed writing about herself.
A lot of people know Nora Ephron for her films like “Sleepless In Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and “Julie & Julia,” but us writers know her for her books, such as her collections of essays, Wallflower At The Orgy and I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being A Woman. I bought her last book, I Remember Nothing, for my mother for Christmas the year it came out. These books (and the others she wrote which I haven’t read yet) covered everything. She wrote about her apartment in New York City. She wrote about inheriting some money (some, not a lot) from a relative. She wrote about the quirks of writing for legendary Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown. She wrote about the Internet. And she wrote about her love life.
In her later career she was famous for all her movies, but earlier in her carer, she was famous for one particular movie and one particular book: “Heartburn.” Heartburn, the book and 1986 movie, were fictionalized accounts of Nora’s dissolving marriage with Carl Bernstein (the journalist of Watergate fame) who fell in love with another woman when Nora was seven-months pregnant with the couple’s second child.
My first favorite thing about Nora Ephron was that she wrote that book and did that movie and didn’t give a fuck how bad writing about it made Carl Berstein look.
My second favorite thing about Nora Ephron was that she didn’t give a fuck about how “bad” her confessional writing about herself made her look. She knew, and trusted in, the power of her own words.
If you are a woman who writes about yourself for a living, you spend a lot of time getting screamed at by other people for the very subjects you have opened up about. You are told you are selfish, or some other permutation of that word: self-absorbed, self-involved, narcissistic. You could spend all your free time washing an oil spill out of puffin fur, but the fact that you creatively express yourself by examining your own life and the lives of those around you somehow makes you a bad woman.
You will be accused of lying and misrepresenting your own life. (God help you if what you have written about was your own rape.) You will be accused of being desperate for attention. You will also be told that you’ve brought upon yourself everything that has been bad — as if the page or the Internet screen is a confession booth but instead of a priest on the other side, listening in non-judgment, you’ve got Judge Judy with a gavel and the shriek of condemnation. People will write you emails — or, I suppose, in Nora’s early career, letters — telling you that you are ugly, fat, stupid, and talentless and no wonder XYZ happened to you. This commentary will come from people you’ve never met before in your entire life.
I don’t know how Nora Ephron withstood it. But she must have — for much longer and in many more mediums than I have. In that way, she was one of the original ladybloggers, even before such a thing as a “blog” existed. Although she surely kept some topics private (as any writer does), her fearlessness about being so balls-out is what I hope to emulate. In the days since her death, one particular line from her 1996 Wellesley commencement speech has been quoted everywhere: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” I can only hope that the inner strength she possessed to write so honestly, to be so honest, became strength that kept her from suffering in the end months of her life.
Nora Ephron continued to write in the first-person about herself and her experiences up until her death. She leaves behind a body of work — the writing, the movies — that the rest of us can only hope to approach. I mourn her death this week at times with tears pricking my eyes. Thank you, Nora, for what you gave us.
Contact the author of this post at Jessica@TheFrisky.com.