Everything is copy, especially now

Or, Nora Ephron’s lasting lesson

When life just keeps happening, it can be helpful to think forward to how you’ll look back. That was how Nora Ephron got through the disintegration of her marriage, and here’s how she explained it in her 1983 novel Heartburn:

Vera said: ‘Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?’
So I told her why:
Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.

As coping strategies go, storytelling is not a bad option. It is, as Ephron pinpoints, all about the illusion of control — something in short supply when your life is in disarray, perhaps because your husband is sleeping with the British ambassador’s wife or because a global pandemic has you under house arrest. 

Nora Ephron inherited this philosophy from Phoebe Ephron, her screenwriting mother who taught her that “everything is copy.” As she told Ariel Levy in The New Yorker, it wasn’t necessarily the most comforting thing to hear from a parent:

“It was so ‘Someday this will be a funny story,’ so ‘I’m not interested. I’m having a drink and smoking a cigarette, and what else is new?’ 

That approach empowered Ephron to make brilliant use of adolescent angst, like the training bra travails she made legend in “A Few Words About Breasts.”

When it scaled up to real tragedy — like her father administering a fatal dose of sleeping pills to her mother, hospitalized with cirrhosis at the age of 57 —  everything was still copy. “Take notes,” her dying mother advised.

“I think we all filed it under Will I Ever Be Able to Use This in Anything?” Ephron said later, and indeed it’s in her 2006 collection I Feel Bad About My Neck

The thing about “Everything is Copy” is that it works, at a cost. You can handle anything so long as you remove yourself from the situation. It’s a bit reminiscent of cult survivor Kimmy Schmidt’s survival strategy in Tina Fey’s Netflix series: “You can stand anything for 10 seconds. Then you just start on a new 10 seconds.” It’s a way to survive, but perhaps not to thrive.

Kathryn Borel drew Ephron out on this point beautifully in her 2012 Believer interview:

BLVR: You’ve written about hard moments in your life that might have caused another person to hide in bed, or camp out in their therapist’s office. How highly do you value that capacity for morphing pain into story?

NE: I think that skill is a good, healthy thing 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. [Pause] Sometimes I think, Well, we are all really good at it because we’re just wildly shallow people. Thank god we learned to do this, because we have no—

BLVR: Soul?

NE: Yes. You said that.

BLVR: Oh god. I finished your sentence all wrong.

NE: No, it’s good! The point is that’s who we all are.

So sure, if you’re always thinking of a future story, you probably aren’t living in the moment. You’re distancing yourself from the difficult stuff. But you’re not disowning it; you’re just pushing it forward to a time when you can turn it into something better. 


Quick quips; lightning

Everything became copy, some of that copy was condensed into epigrams, and many of Nora Ephron’s epigrams are timeless.

“If pregnancy were a book, they would cut the last two chapters.”

“It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.

“I don’t think any day is worth living without thinking about what you’re going to eat next at all times.”

“I am continually fascinated at the difficulty intelligent people have in distinguishing what is controversial from what is merely offensive.”

“Verbal ability is a highly overrated thing in a guy, and it’s our pathetic need for it that gets us into so much trouble.”

The above chunk of copy comprises the 38th issue of Get Wit Quick, your weekly catalogue of overrated verbal ability. If you’re looking for more distractions, this takedown of Ephron that slowly turns into a love letter is quite wonderful. The last two chapters of Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting are in newsletter form. Be sure to wash your hands after you tap the ♥️below.