Seven Important Lessons I Learned from Nora Ephron

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Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons

Nora Ephron, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter, director and longtime journalist/essayist, passed away in Manhattan last night at the age of 71. Ephron’s career was vast and had much to offer in the way of teaching. She was beloved for her romantic comedies as much as her own brand of feminism, which included no shortage of realist sexiness. Here are some of my favorite lessons the impressively quirky and courageous Ephron had to offer:

1. “Take it personally”

In a 1996 speech to the graduating class of Wellesley College, her alma mater, Ephron urged the women to take every perceived attack on their gender personally. “There’s still a glass ceiling,” she said. “Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally.” Ephron urged against the kind of passivity and naivete that allow us to see public instances of marginalization as occurring inside a vacuum.

2. You’re only a couple hours a week away from being a homeless person (appearance-wise)

In I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being a Woman, Ephron writes in the essay “On Maintenance” about the fragility of being human, the thin, superficial line between being put-together and falling apart: “…the other day, on the street, I passed a homeless woman. I have never understood the feminists who insisted they were terrified of becoming bag ladies, but as I watched this woman shuffle down the street, I finally understood at least my version of it….I am only about eight hours a week away from looking exactly like that woman on the street—with frizzled flyaway gray hair I would probably have if I stopped dyeing mine.”   

3. You can write sappy romantic comedies and still influence national politics…maybe

Ephron claimed she figured out who Deep Throat was while married to Carl Bernstein (half of the team responsible for breaking Watergate), though he did not tell her. She alleged in the Huffington Post in 2005 she figured out his identity on her own and for years told everyone she knew. Apparently Mark Felt himself had begun revealing his identity as Deep Throat though, as with Ephron, no one took him seriously. Whether no one listened because Ephron was, well, Ephron, we’ll never know.

4. “Secret to Life, Marry an Italian.”

This was Ephron’s six word biography in Larry Smith’s Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. Ephron was married to screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi for over twenty years. It speaks to Ephron’s sense of wit when asked to sum up her life in six words, she steered clear of the preachy or esoteric.

5. Get Over It

The advice may seem trite, but in Ephron’s essays this conclusion is more or less a consistent theme. In a 2010 column on divorce for the Huffington Post, Ephron writes: “People are careless and there are almost never any consequences.” Of her two painful divorces, she writes: “I survived. My religion is Get Over It. I turned it into a rollicking story. I wrote a novel. I bought a house with the money from the novel.” She explains the “most important thing” about you at any given time seems it will last forever, but whether it’s being a divorcee or simply getting old, the “most important thing” always changes. And of course it’s always relative too—in “I Remember Nothing,” she writes: “I am old. I am sixty-nine years old. I’m not really old, of course. Really old is eighty. But if you are young, you would definitely think that I’m old.”

6. It’s okay to be a bad secret-keeper, if you’re whimsical about it

By 2006 Ephron was a renowned screenwriter after an early career in journalism. She still, admittedly, had a very difficult time keeping juicy secrets (of which she had a lot). While on a trip to Las Vegas, Ephron witnessed hotel tycoon Steve Wynn put his elbow through a $139 million Picasso. Everyone present agreed to keep the incident a secret, which Ephron wrote in the Huffington Post in 2006 was “the most painful experience of [her] life.” (If the case of Deep Throat is not evidence enough.) She kept the secret for nine days. Ephron may have changed her career four times and been a champion of the relativity of all things in life, but she also showed us some things—like a penchant for sharing delectable gossip— never change.

7. “Be the heroine of your life, not the victim”

The advice, also from Ephron’s graduation speech to Wellesley College, reflected her own trajectory as a woman breaking down barriers in her industry, spanning across four different careers. Ephron was widely considered one of the most successful female writers in Hollywood. Rather than allow herself to be defined by the tragedies which befell her, she made them humorous fodder instead. Ephron advised the graduating class if things did not turn out how they wanted, they had no one to blame but themselves.

—Alissa Fleck

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