Thursday, June 28, 2012

What I learned from Nora Ephron

Last night when the news of Nora Ephron's death popped up on the news feed on my computer, I felt a sense of shock and then sorrow.  She had written about the deaths of friends and many of the unavoidable annoyances of getting older in several of the essays in her last two books.  Still, somehow, I couldn't believe that she was gone.  Cancer (leukemia) claimed her at the age of 71.  Seventy-one isn't considered old by most of us these days and this news did nothing positive for my ever-growing cancer phobia.  Reading the various tributes and news stories about Nora Ephron caused me to reflect on just what she had meant to me as a teen-age girl in the 1970's.

I first became acquainted with her writing via my dad's subscription to Esquire magazine in which  Nora wrote a column.  I was a voracious reader and I probably read more of Esquire than my father did but it was Nora's column that really drew me in.  Here was a woman who could write about the everyday things in life and make them funny.   When I was in my freshman year of college, my English professor assigned two of Nora's books, Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble.  I was familiar with a few of the essays already but I was really hooked after reading these books.  Once again, I was struck by how she could turn the mundane into something I wanted to read about -- usually while laughing.  Not just any writer can do that and something about the way she wrote spoke to me.  I wanted to be a writer but I was never interested in writing fiction.  When I came across Nora Ephron's essays, it was the first time I understood that it was possible to write nonfiction the way that, well, Nora did.  She laid the foundation for my later appreciation of writers like David Sedaris, Susan Orlean and Patricia Marx.  

When I began sending out manuscripts for articles (I had decided that I wanted to write for children), I went strictly with nonfiction.  I figured if I could make a topic interesting or funny that others might respond.  Although I didn't write about having small boobs, my love for my apartment, the Pillsbury Bake-off or the joys of food, my subjects were also not blockbuster material.  (Armadillos, the Annual Garlic Festival in California, the history of the handshake and why crying is good for you aren't considered scintillating subjects, either.)  But I found great satisfaction and success in seeing these articles in print.  

Reading Nora Ephron's work helped me find my voice when I began to write.  She's not the only person who did that but she was the first.  How an Air Force brat with a rootless childhood raised by parents from the south felt so connected with someone with celebrity parents (and their celebrity friends) who was also Jewish and a die-hard New Yorker is either one of life's little mysteries or simply brings me full-circle to those early Esquire articles that I devoured.  Although we did share being short, dark-haired, a bit neurotic, and the oldest of four daughters.  Nah, it was definitely the writing. 

Like so many of her readers, I will greatly miss Nora Ephron.  But I'm very glad she was there for me during my formative years when I began my own journey.

Nora Ephron.  1941-2012.

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