How I learned to talk dirty with Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron is not my favorite writer of all time, but for more than 30 years she has been my favorite female writer, or woman writer, or writer who happens to be a woman.

I hope the confusion in that last sentence would have amused her. So too the confusion in the Twitter world yesterday about whether in fact she had succumbed to leukemia. I’m sure she would have coined the perfect phrase to describe our collective jumping of the gun.

Maybe something like “premature articulation” -- only better. Maybe how women can fake anything – even death.

Reading Ephron in her 1970s collections "Crazy Salad" and "Scribble Scribble" spun my head around, like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." She made me pay attention to women – especially to women writers – in a new way.

Until then my literary world was male. Maler than male. Maler than Hemingway. Even Maler than Mailer.

From the sixth grade through high school and college I attended all-male parochial schools. I grew up with a macho dad, a macho mom, and two brothers. None of my teachers – none, make that zero – were women. I studied no literature written by women, not even Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson.

While the feminist movement grabbed my attention, especially from 1972 when my daughter Alison was born, it was too easy to dismiss the early feminist authors as man-hating and humorless. Then came Nora Ephron. Then came "Crazy Salad," with its allusion to a poem from William Butler Yeats:  “It’s certain that fine women eat/ A crazy salad with their meat.”

These were pieces on gender politics and American culture written originally for Esquire, what we thought of as a “men’s” magazine. Here was a literary girlfriend willing to talk a little dirty.

By the titles of her essays alone, I knew I was dealing with something new in the hands of a daring author: A Few Words About Breasts, Fantasies, On Never Having Been a Prom Queen, The Girls in the Office, Reunion, Vaginal Politics, and on and on.

Seeing the world through Ephron's eyes meant realizing that the world was spinning faster and faster. You could either pay attention and see things anew, or get lost in a cycle of dizziness and myopia.

We say that great journalism is about afflicting the comfortable, blah, blah, yada, yada, but I think it’s more about speaking the unspeakable, models for which I found in Ephron’s early work (if not in her films).

Here is a passage from “A Few Words About Breasts”:

"Do you want to marry my son?" the woman asked me. "Yes," I said. "Fine," she said. "Now here’s what you do. Always make sure you’re on top of him so you won’t seem so small.”

I know exactly what I must have been thinking when I read this. “Holy shit! Who is this woman? And how can she get away with shooting so straight?”

For Ephron, no area of politics, gender, and culture seemed off limits.  She wrote in one famous piece:

I will try to keep this from becoming gamy, but it is going to be hard. This is an article about the feminine-hygiene spray, and how it was developed and sold. I will try to keep it witty and charming, but inevitably something is going to sneak in to remind you what this product is really about. This product is really about vaginal odor. There are a lot of advertisements on television for the product that are so subtle on this point that some people – maybe not you, but some people – might not even know what the product does. There are a lot of men who manufacture the product who are so reluctant to talk straight about it that you can spend hours with them and not hear one anatomical phrase.  They speak of "the problem." They speak of "the area where the problem exists." They speak of "the need to solve the problem." Every so often, a hard-core word slides into the conversation. Vagina, maybe. Or something from someone particularly candid or scientific, a vulva or two. But mostly, the discussion of this product from industry spokesmen is vague, elusive, euphemistic.

Here's where I think she broke ground.

She helped develop a feminist discourse that was persuasive because it was honestly self-critical. In 1972, she wrote:

Knowing what your uterus looks like can't hurt, I suppose, and knowing more about your body can only help, but it seems a shame that so much more energy is being directed into this sort of contemplation and so little into changing the political structure. There is a tendency throughout the movement to overindulge in confession, to elevate The Rap to a religious end in itself, to reach a point where self-knowledge dissolves into high-grade narcissism. I know that the pendulum often has to swing a few degrees in the wrong direction before righting itself, but it does get wearing sometimes waiting for the center to catch hold.

She used humor as the lubricant to get men -- and women -- to confront uncomfortable truths. While her work was almost always funny, it was never let's-sit-back-and-enjoy funny, but more look-what-we've-done-to-ourselves-now funny. Here she is in 1973 after a viewing of "Deep Throat" and an interview with its start Linda Lovelace:

I have seen a lot of stag films in my life -- well, that's not true; I've seen about five or six -- and although most of them were raunchy, a few were also sweet and innocent and actually erotic. Deep Throat, on the other hand, is one of the most unpleasant, disturbing films I have ever seen -- it is not just anti-female but anti-sexual as well. I walked into the World Theatre feeling thoroughly unshockable ... and I came out of the theatre a quivering fanatic.

Ephron helped make the personal political -- and the political personal -- without ever exposing her life just for the shock of exposure. She didn't mind if you sneaked a peek at her breasts, but that wasn't the point of her writing. The significant pronoun was never me -- it was us.

Finally, I want to thank Ephron for opening a door for me to the work of great women writers. Dickinson and Austen are now cornerstones. But add M.F.K. Fisher, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Camille Paglia, Laura Hillenbrand, Anna Quindlen, J.K. Rowling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Anne Hull, Sylvia Plath, and countless others.

Join me for a live chat Thursday at 3 p.m. ET about how to write with humor.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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