Though the certificate says “English-Writing,” by eschewing my non-fiction professor’s urges to stick to a more common narrative form in my senior seminar class, I was effectively a screenwriting major. Where others wrote of period pieces in dreamlike bucolic settings or modern tales of their disdain of suburbia, I favored the explication of an well-executed exterior shot or the baritone notes of a heavy-handed voice-over. At its root, the screenplay is driven by well-crafted conversations. Even today, you’ll notice so many of my stories begin with dialogue (one of my mentors, Tom Chiarella, quite literally wrote the book on dialogue).
Comedy’s rule of three in full effect. “You made a woman meow?”
And while Cameron Crowe and Billy Wilder before him will forever be the writers to whom I most dearly cling when coming up with my own quirky turns-of-phrase, and while I will forever aspire to write with the intelligence of Aaron Sorkin or Noel Coward, I know I’ll never have the knack. Yet, there is one writer, one so esteemed in my mind that she will forever remain the most influential on my style and certainly the most approachable, both as a writer and as a person.
Incorporating The Wave was dir. Rob Reiner’s idea, but “Mr. Zero” was all Ephron.
She was leaving the set of the Today Show, where she was promoting her new book I Feel Bad About My Neck. I was nervously stewing outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza, awaiting my first-ever audition inside the NBC studios. My pacing as homing device, Ms. Ephron approached.
“Is everything alright?”
“Yes. Yes. I’m just heading into an audit– Oh my god!”
“You’re being audited?”
“You’re Nora Ephron.”
We quickly cleared it up. I was auditioning, not being audited (though, come to think, never having actually been audited, and seeing as how they share a root, that audition in particular was as close to an audit as I can imagine). As anyone who has spent time living in New York will tell you, running into someone you admire though a common occurrence, is as much a dream-come-true moment as it is a wake-up call that, “Hey, at the end of the day, we’re really all just people.” Still. This was Nora Ephron. My audition nerves getting the best of me, I found her encouraging, calming even. She even offered to ride the elevator with me. I accepted. Of course.
Once past security, as we waited for the gilded doors to open, she provided an anecdote about how she arrived at the name “Max” for her own son. I wish I’d had the forethought to skip the audition and buy the woman lunch. I can only imagine the germ of knowledge I would have gleaned. Alas, it was not in the cards that day. As we parted she offered one last bit of encouragement as only she could,
“What’s the worst thing that could happen? So, you fail? You’ll probably fail at least one more time in your life. So, this might just be that.”
She then went onto to explain that she’s nothing if not a failure. I sighed with agreement. She, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, award-winning filmmaker, lifelong columnist, and noted blogger, was indeed a tremendous failure. As I headed off to audition for the role of a “new kind of super hero. An approachable one” I gave her a wave and mimed “Thank you.” And I didn’t fail… at first. I was called back a couple times, but ultimately, the role went to a guy who was 6’6″, with gigantic, apparently approachable muscles. If only Ms. Ephron had explained the virtue of having above-average height and large pectorals, I might have stood a chance.
It’s a common thing for my friends Blake and Elin to grab one of my Fiestaware dishes from the drying rack and launch into Harry’s rant.
I first became familiar with Nora Ephron through her work in film. It’s widely remembered by college friends that I would sit in the back of the school library’s computer lab watching When Harry Met Sally, the landmark 1989 romantic comedy she penned which explores the differences between men and women, in the corner of the screen while writing papers on everything from the regolith breccia of a Martian moon to a romantic comedy short which was — I assure you — a sad apeing of some amalgamation of Ephron’s work. But it was after reading Ephron’s 1965 profile of a young troubadour, who — to the dismay of fans — had recently dropped his acoustic act in favor of an electric one, that I began to understand her abilities to converse, to transcribe a conversation in a way that’s moving, humorous, and often powerful. It should be noted, it was in this interview with Bob Dylan, in which he is described as looking like an “underfed angel,” that he says one of the coolest things he’s ever said.
NE: I hear you are wearing a sellout jacket?
BD: What’s a sellout jacket?
NE: Black Leather.
BD: I’ve had black leather jackets since I was five years old. I’ve been wearing black leather all my life.
After learning of her early career as a journalist, I went back and read more of Ephron’s writing. Of particular interest were her pieces in Esquire. She manages to speak profoundly about everything from blow-drying her hair to the social value of a home-cooked meal to the devastating emotional journey of divorce. Her ear for dialogue may have been what first drew me to her, but it was her eye for life, sharing how we can take control of and enjoy even the smallest moments to their fullest (there is a better way to make a non-alcoholic Bloody Mary on an airplane. Let me show you how) that has kept me in her grips this whole time.
The word is poignant, keenly felt. I can’t think of anyone who captures a moment with more poignancy than Nora Ephron.
To Nora Ephron, someone who felt her way through life, one word at a time.
Nora Ephron, 1941 – 2012