Don’t Forget to Feed the Animals

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” Nora Ephron (May 19, 1941 – June 26, 2012)

By Elizabeth Cutright

© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer


This is what I remember…wandering down the silent stacks of the university library, searching for a screenplay to read and review as part an assignment in my Introduction to Film Studies class.  And out it jumped from the pile – When Harry Met Sally.

Flipping through the copy of that script and seeing how conversations that seemed so effortless and natural I’d assumed they were either adlibbed by the actors, or – in the case of the elderly couples that punctuate the film like a Greek chorus with stories of their courtin’ and marryin’ – simply interviews of real people caught on camera, was revelatory and intimidating: how could I ever measure up?  But Ms. Ephron was always the egalitarian – encouraging writers  (especially women writers) to give it a try.

“The only way to learn is to keep doing something new,” she once said, “ and, if you’re lucky, learning with people who really know how to do it.”

As Carrie Fisher remembers, “”In a world where we’re told that you can’t have it all, Nora consistently proved that adage wrong. A writer, director, wife, mother, chef, wit–there didn’t seem to be anything she couldn’t do. And not just do it, but excel at it, revolutionize it, set the bar for every other screenwriter, novelist, director. She was inspiring, intimidating, and insightful.”

I’m sure that over the next few days, variations of the following sentence will flood the internet in tributes to Nora Ephron large and small, but I’m going to say it anyway: Nora Ephron was one of the reasons I dreamed of being a screenwriter.  She made me realize writing could be a profession.  And for a kid who loved storytelling but who worried that a practical trade made more sense, the idea that I could do what I love and get paid for it seemed amazing.

A few weeks ago I wrote about finding mentors and kindred spirits, and I discussed the idea that a mentor could be someone you’ve never met.  Certainly Ms. Ephron fits the bill for me.  Just scanning the internet this morning, going over the many pieces lamenting her death, I came across some many tidbits that immediately resonated with me.

In many interviews, Ephron talked about using real life as material – something she called “feeding the animals.”  She believed tragedy could be mined for content; her mindset similar to the Garrison Keillor quote I love: “nothing bad happens to a writer, it’s all material.”

As Ephron explained, the ability to use personal difficulty in your writing is a healthy skill to have.  “I think my parents taught me and my sisters a truly life-saving technique. ‘Someday this will be a story’” is a strange thing to say to your weeping child, and it’s counter-intuitive to me now that I’m a mother, but that’s what my parents would say to all of us.”

As such, Ephron often discussed how, deep down inside, there was always this awareness that what was happening in the present could be used in the future.  “It does reinforce that thing that writers have, which is that ‘third eye.’ Whatever horrible thing is happening to you, there is always this other thing thinking, ‘Hmm, better remember this. This might be a story someday.’”

I particularly relate to Ephron’s thoughts about seeding your content with events from your past, and how it’s less about catharsis and more about what happens once you get over something.

“You get through that, and then you write it. It is not the writing that is the catharsis. The catharsis has happened, and it in some way has moved you from the boo-hoo aspect of things to the “Oh, and wait until I tell you this part of the story! Wait until you hear this, if you want to hear what…” where you really don’t want people to feel sorry for you. I have such a strong sense of that, that I did not ever want people to think, “Oh, poor Nora!” You know?”

In her novel Heartburn, Ephron mined personal tragedy – in this case her husband’s affair while she was pregnant  – with great success.  In an interview, she spoke about one real life incident that found its way into the book.  She and the cuckold husband decide to meet to discuss their cheating spouses.   As they tearfully embrace, she says “Oh, Peter, isn’t it awful?”

Ephron continues: “He said, ‘Yes, it’s just awful… What’s happening to this country?’ And you know, I didn’t stop crying, but I thought, Oh, that is hilarious. I knew someday I could use that. And it’s in Heartburn! The point is: It doesn’t mean I wasn’t a complete basket case, but if you are a writer that is what you do. That’s what your life is for, to feed the animal.”

Ephron was unabashed in her love of journalism – a career she advocated to all aspiring writers – in part because of the way a news story reveals itself in stages.

“I just fell in love with the idea that underneath, if you sifted through enough facts, you could get to the point, and you had to get to the point.  You could not miss the point.”

“I just fell in love with solving the puzzle,” she explained, “figuring out what it was, what was the story, what was the truth of the story.”

My first paying gig as a writer was reporting for a local newspaper – although I certainly paid my dues on student newspapers from high school through law school – and there’s an immediacy and detail to newspaper work that you just can’t duplicate anywhere else.  You learn plotting – how one event leads to next.  You can craft an ear for dialogue by listening not to what your source says, but how they say it – the pauses, the misspoken phrases, the doublespeak.  Journalism forces you out of your comfort zone – most writers are a little bit introverted or shy – and gives you courage to go after the story.

Ephron did a great job of explaining how journalism can inform and enhance your writing craft:

“My advice to everyone is: ‘Become a journalist.’ I think everyone should be a journalist, and that is totally narcissistic on my part, but I think it’s the most amazing way to learn about how people live. I mean, to be able to dip into other people’s lives at the unbelievably ludicrous points you get to when you’re a journalist, either when they’ve just been killed, or they’re just about to win the Oscar, or they’ve just written a really wonderful book, or they just demonstrated against something worth demonstrating against.”

“It’s truly a way of getting out of whatever narrow world we all grow up in. We all grow up in the most narrow worlds, and then we go to another narrow world, which is college, where no matter how different everyone is, they’re all the same. Suddenly, they’re all wearing the same thing suddenly, and reading the same books suddenly, and thinking about the same philosophical question suddenly. You know, if you have a chance to be a newspaper reporter for three or four years — before you do whatever you want to do — do it, because you will know so much.”

Wrapping up, here are some advice from Ephron on writing that I think is worth repeating…

  • On creatives repeating themselves, Ephron said “ I think if you’re lucky enough to find a voice in whatever you do, that voice will come sneaking out no matter what.”
  • Asked what to describe the most difficult aspect of screenwriting, she said “The middle is the hard part, yes. The beginning and the end are the easy parts.”
  • On Writer’s block, “I’ve had friends who occasionally call and say, ‘I’m blocked!’ And I’ve said, ‘Well, how are you going to pay the rent?’ To me it was so obvious, you just had to work through it. In the old days, I would just type the piece over and over in the hopes that it would somehow push me into the next sentence.”
  • How to keep going when you feel stagnant or stuck: “I think one thing that you do is just make notes. You have to sit in a period called “not-writing” and write pages and pages of anything that crosses your mind. Or you can read things that will help you.”
  • On dealing with failure: “Well, I’m a writer, and I’m very lucky because I don’t always have to write the same kind of thing. I know how to write in more than one way, which is one of the luckiest things about my life, but I think failure is very hard, because you don’t really know. You really don’t know. People see things that don’t work, and they think, ‘Didn’t they know that wasn’t going to work?’ Well they didn’t! They really didn’t. They really thought it was going to be fabulous and great, and everybody working on it thought it was, and then it comes out, and it doesn’t work. It really doesn’t work, and you go, ‘Hmm, too bad that didn’t work.’ But you don’t learn. I wish one learned more. It certainly doesn’t keep you from failing again, I’ll tell you that.

Last, but not least, Ephron said she always followed her mother’s deathbed advice: “Take notes.  Everything is copy”

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