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I Feel Bad About Nora Ephron, But Good About What She Taught Me

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Unlike most of my peers in journalism school in the Watergate Era of the 1970s, I did not want to be like Carl Bernstein or Bob Woodward -- even though he was much better looking. I wanted to be like Carl Bernstein's wife.

I did not want to uncover wrongs, chase fires, topple governments or even stay up all night waiting for a secret call. I wanted to write essays, columns, features, profiles, trend stories and books, digging into popular culture and honoring the sanctity of individual stories -- even my own. I wanted to correct persistent ill-conceived notions through a personal lens, framed by my own experiences with wit and savvy intelligence that was part Erma Bombeck -- but wickedly cool.

I wanted to be Nora Ephron.

In 1972, as a high school sophomore, I bought a subscription to Esquire magazine after I read her column, "A Few Words About Breasts," in a communal copy at the River Forest Library's magazine rack. Her risky writing liberated me, made me feel that it was alright not to aspire to be a war correspondent, but to dream of artfully capturing the life in front of me, the details that could be construed as universal if well-crafted. She made the personal profound and I dreamed to do the same.

I feel bad about Nora Ephron -- not her neck, as she exclaimed in her bestseller of the same name -- but that she is gone before she could write or say anything more.

She was 71 when she passed this week. In her lifetime, she offered us many treasures that will live forever on screen, in text and online, but I want more. And though she divorced Carl Bernstein and remarried a much kinder, gentler man years ago, the lessons she gave of dignity in life and integrity in work still resonate. Hers was a driving force of humored reason. She achieved more than I can hope to, but she shows me what is possible.

From her early books, The Wallflower at The Orgy and Crazy Salad, to her movies, of course, When Harry Met Sally, Silkwood, Julie & Julia and even the maligned Michael (where John Travolta is a winged angel), her truth-telling and phrase-making was genius. She was prolific and intentional, deliberately upbeat.

In the aftermath of The Atlantic cover story claiming "Women Still Can't Have It All," and the ensuing blogosphere chest-beating concerning the diametric mommy myths of work-life balance and the surrender of ambition for maternity, I look to Nora Ephron. I wonder what she had to say about the hullabaloo in the last days of her life. I bet she thought the whole hand-wringing was crap. She would have said you can do it all if you want to do it all, and whose all is it, anyway?

She was my role model as a writer and a mother -- to sons -- as she has two and I have three. Never did she claim they stood in her way of enormous success. Never did she write that she had to stop loving her work to love her family. Never did she imply she had to stop loving her family to love her work. She did it all with a flourish.

In all the photos of her taken over the last 40 years, she is smiling. In many of them she is with her three sisters -- Delia, Amy and Hallie -- and they look and act as I do with my three sisters, Mary Pat, Maureen and Madeleine. They appear like a tribe who understand, support and commend each other unconditionally -- even in the face of heartbreak and success.

In other photos she is smiling with her husband and her sons; it is the imagery of her joyful and transparent, alongside this celebrity megastar from one of her blockbuster movies, alongside that famous writer. In each image her smile shows her ability to transcend any immediate discomfort or derailment. And it demonstrates for me that you can use your love for your work to uphold the rest of your life. And you can use your life to inspire your work.

When I was a student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University from 1975-1979, most all my professors told all of us every year that we should strive to be reporters on the national desk of the New York Times. This was the news business we were being groomed for, not the features business, which was fluff. Hard news was real news and everything else was, well, soft.

It didn't take a math major to figure out that if the professors were telling roughly 150 new students a year to apply to the national desk at the New York Times, that there would be a lot of eager journalists shut out of that dream. There were few female role models for what I envisioned for myself. But there was Nora.

Younger than Nora when she died, I am 54. Due in no small part to her example, I have written books plus thousands of articles, columns, essays and posts about culture, media and women for newspapers, magazines, blogs and more. I teach at my alma mater, where I advise my journalism students that it is perfectly admirable to write personal narrative and features. I have never written a novel, screenplay or a movie script, but I have survived breast cancer and I look again to her for inspiration in that challenge.

I heed what she advised regarding trying new things in her 2010 book, I Remember Nothing: "If you really want to do them, you better do them. There are simply too many people getting sick, and sooner or later you will. So I'm very much a believer in knowing what it is that you love doing so you can do a great deal of it."

I love what I do and want to do a great deal of it because Nora Ephron showed me I could. And I could do it all while having a family, good friends and a life.

Though I wish for a different ending for my favorite role model, it was all she wrote.