I found Nora Ephron, appropriately, on the shelves of the Strand Bookstore in New York, the city she (and I) loved. I had fallen for When Harry Met Sally like every other romantic teenage girl, but it was her collected essays from her days as a journalist that convinced me I wanted to be a writer.
That knowledge took a while to dawn. I had studied for the theater and was doing badly at it as a professional. I was writing steadily but mostly things I didn’t enjoy: paid marketing pieces that followed the overblown academic papers of my college years. The writing I did enjoy – parodies of my professional work – didn’t honestly register as writing at all until I read Nora. Her light touch with grave and personal subjects alike convinced me I might be a writer after all.
Not that her treatment was ever dismissive – on the contrary, everything seemed important – but not in a self-important way.
I shelved her essays next to Gloria Steinem’s, and I wondered what it said about me and my feminism that I chose Nora. I admired Steinem, loved to hear her speak – always pithy and rational – but I was not going to be her. I wasn’t built for long-term social action. I laughed a little too easily and had too strong a sense of the ridiculous to hold it together next to Steinem. Not the 90’s version of ridiculous – “What’s the deal with airline peanuts?” – but the idea that most everything is a little serious and a lot funny if you look at it long enough. There’s a delight in that, an optimism that defies too much earnestness. Like Ephron’s best movies (and even some of the others too), it’s a wonderful place to live. Nora helped me get over my regret and self-censure that, with all my education and grooming for a serious life, I would not be a Senator or an academic, but, if I worked hard and were very lucky, I might make a serious funny writer.
Of course, Ephron was a very serious person. She knew everything and, apparently, everyone. All that knowledge and curiosity was the foundation of her humor. She wasn’t flip, she was smart and clever. She took things like romance and small breasts and her neck seriously, but, as another Esquire writer put it, Nora was not self-serious, and I could get next to that.
We should care about lunch. We should focus on the people we love. These things are true no matter what we are doing with the rest of our attention, be it politics, addressing social injustice or a day job we dislike. They are serious things that are funny and filled with joy. Nora’s intelligent voice was a reminder of that amidst the fluff of other romantic comedies and neurotic essayists.
That she was informed and serious and still chose humor was an endorsement of what I secretly believed: that we are whole people who need lunch and friends in addition to serious pursuits and political opinions, that the world can only be taken so seriously, that looking for love is not a trivial matter, nor is table salt, even when we are well-educated and engaged in the serious matters of the world around us.
As for feminism, Nora had me covered there too.
About the same time I discovered her books, I was contemplating a career change. My college mentor sent me an encouraging email that said, “You can do good feminist work anywhere.” Since I wasn’t trying to do anything feminist per se, I had to think about this for a while. My feminist belief, such as it was, was that if you got on with your work and did it better than everyone else, it would stand on its own merits. Being a woman would be incidental to the work itself but meaningful to the outcome. Wasn’t that the point of feminism after all? (It was certainly more the point to me than excluding men from my college cafeteria on the grounds that their oppressive presence undermined my college’s feminists’ ability to eat their Froot Loops and tater tots. It struck me that a starving future awaited these poor souls.) I understood my mentor’s note of support in that context, and she was right: I could do solid work anywhere and, as a woman, it would mean something to feminism if I did it well.
I think Nora believed this too. She was good at what she did – better than most, regardless of gender – and moved forward to the next interesting thing regardless of male dominance, be it in journalism or directing films. It’s not that she didn’t encounter and acknowledge resistance and restrictions, but she kept working anyway, turning out columns, books, screenplays, films and, eventually, plays, doing it well and – incidentally – as a woman. The sheer volume and force of her excellence at what she did and her wit while doing it were a statement that spoke louder than, well, a statement.
In this regard as in so many others, I am so grateful that we had Nora. I wish we had had her for longer. Forever, really, truth be told. In that – suddenly – we won’t, I am doubly glad that I hovered online a few years ago to snatch up a ticket to the lunch she made for a few fans at The New Yorker Festival, that I got to try her famous Key Lime Pie, that I was able to tell her in person what so many have said these last few days, that she was why I became a writer.