Today marks the loss of Nora Ephron, a great American comedy writer -- as versatile as she was sharp-witted. As a longtime Nora uberfan and devotee, I feel compelled to pay tribute to this fabulously funny and astute woman and her work.
When someone tells me they love Nora Ephron's work, I hold my breath for a beat as the next moment, for me, will be the deciding one. We are at a fork in the road here. The next words will inevitably be: Sleepless in Seattle! or Crazy Salad! There are, no doubt, folks out there who hold Sleepless and You've Got Mail! in their hearts with the same passion as they hold Crazy Salad and Heartburn, but I haven't met them.
For me, it's Crazy Salad all the way, and naturally, there's some snobbery about this. The Crazy Salad folks fancy ourselves the old school Nora fans. We came to her through the printed form and maybe as far back as the early 80s. For many of us, Nora was a lone voice of a particular sort -- a funny woman who wrote about personal stuff with searing insight in a literary landscape still dominated by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. A woman who wrote memoir decades before bookstores had a shelf for it and who included recipes in her stories a generation before the word "foodie" became part of our national lexicon.
I can recall in detail the day I discovered Nora's writing. I was 22 years old living in a studio apartment in Santa Fe with white adobe walls and dark wood floors perpetually covered with a thin layer of red dust. I was a waitress who should've been a college student, a waitress who wanted to be a writer but had no idea how. A friend from Canada had just visited and left a copy of Heartburn behind. "You're going to LOVE this," she'd said. And she was right. I loved the voice, the humor, the first person voice that was authentic and female (up until then I felt like Holden Caufield had cornered the first person market), and I loved that the story was unapologeticly the story of a broken heart.
It didn't occur to me twenty odd years later when I was writing a memoir about my own divorce that I was going down a trail that had been cleared by Nora. Right before my book How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed was due to come out, I went to a talk Nora did at my local library (it was sort of amazing that she was even there in this tiny space, like seeing The Rolling Stones play in your neighborhood cafe). Of course, I dug out my copy of Heartburn for her to sign, which made me start rereading it once again, and then I was like... wait a minute... it was Nora who first dared to write about this topic. Even though I'd read her book so long ago and even forgot about it, she had signed my permission slip as a writer and somewhere that had been stored away for me.
Nora's last book, I Remember Nothing, was one for Team Crazy Salad. I Remember Nothing is a collection of mini personal essays that hit on a crazy array of topics (which, frankly, Nora is one of the few writers who could get away with this) from waiters' habit of pushing San Pelligrino water to her days as girl journalist in a time when journalism was a boys' club to the primary focus of the book, aging -- and most humorously, the memory loss that aging ushers in: "I have not reached the nadir of old age," she writes, "the Land of Anecdote, but I'm approaching it." That's the sort of Noraism you'll find throughout the book: pitch perfect moments that hand you your life back to you with exquisite economy.
A year and a half ago, I got to see Nora Ephron at Seattle's Town Hall where she was in conversation with local interviewer/ bon vivant Warren Etheredge. Of course, she was effortlessly funny and charming and had the audience believing we were all her best friends, but the thing that struck me most about her was her generosity as a writer. During the Q and A period, a few young writers -- one wanting to be a screenwriter, another a journalist -- came to the mike. All the vulnerability I'd ever felt as a wannabe writer came to life when the first one asked for career advice. How bold she was to just ask! With this question, Nora turned her full attention to the writer's question and made empathetic noises about how hard things are for young writers and gave the young woman some solid suggestions.
And, that to me -- beyond the pithiness, the insight, the creativity -- is the mark of a literary dignitary: a willingness to clear a path for the writers whose turn has yet to come.
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And you can read more from me on the subject of Nora Ephron here.
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