Monday, September 03, 2012

Remembering Nora Ephron

I was deeply saddened, not long ago, to hear about the recent passing (at the far-too-early age of 70) of one of my favorite writers of all time, Nora Ephron.

Nora Ephron
I had a personal connection with Ephron (which I'll get to in a minute), a tiny "brush with greatness," as some like to call it, and for many years after making contact with her, I had imaginary conversations (quite a few of them, if you must know) with Ephron, the way she herself admits to having had countless imaginary conversations with New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne.

Our conversations were great, of course. The stuff of legends. We'd talk about our writing adventures. The banality of American life. The inexplicable appearance of pomegranate extract in hand creams.

I suppose I could, in theory, go on having imaginary conversations with Nora. But unfortunately they'd be of the kind you have with a headstone in a cemetery. And I can't stand to think of her that way.

Most people alive today are not of Ephron's generation, so most do not know of the scores (hundreds?) of savagely witty, fiendishly funny, always entertaining essays and articles she did for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and (especially) Esquire. Today's audiences mostly remember Nora Ephron as the screenwriter behind When Harry Met Sally. Some may remember her role in cowriting You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, and Silkwood.

But to me, Nora Ephron's best work (by far) was as a journalist and essayist. That's why I strongly recommend that you drop what you're doing right now (I'll wait) and go order a copy of I Feel Bad about My Neck, or Wallflower at the Orgy, or Crazy Salad, or one of her other books. I personally guarantee you will not regret the decision to buy one (or all) of these books. As Nora herself would say, they're far cheaper than psychoanalysis, and (in the end) more uplifting.

My personal connection with Ephron was small. Let's be clear on that. It was the kind of connection that, if it were a number, would round off to zero. But in my mind, it's bigger than big.

I need to explain.

Back in the 1970s, when I was starting out as a writer, I got all these lofty ideas (from reading Writers Digest, mostly) that if only I could sell articles to magazines like Playboy, Esquire, and Good Housekeeping, I could quit graduate school and never have to worry about pipetting Salmonella cultures by mouth again. I imagined it was possible to become famous as a freelance writer and throw down the shackles of "working a regular job," never to pick them up again.

What an ass I was.

I sent queries to every newsstand magazine under the sun. And got rejections by the Kubota dump-truck load. Every rejection note I got was some type of pre-printed slip with a message that began either with "Dear Sir or Madam," or no salutation at all. All of them were form-letters, in other words. Or form-slips, I should say.

But then there were the rejection letters I got from Esquire magazine.

The rejections from Esquire were hand-typed (on an actual typewriter) personalized notes from someone named Nora Ephron.

I've kept a couple of these hand-signed rejection letters, and let me tell you, they're some of the most precious items I have in my box of Precious Items.

In one case, I had queried Esquire on an article I wanted to do on a particular medical subject. Nora wrote back saying to send the finished article to her, she wanted to see it. She apologized for the fact that I would have to submit it "on spec," meaning that not only could its eventual acceptance not be guaranteed, but there would be no "kill fee" in the event of rejection.

I sent the manuscript for the article. Nora wrote me back, saying that the bad news was that a previous writer had done a piece on a similar subject less than a year earlier, and therefore the article couldn't be accepted. However. The "good news" was that she loved the piece and was taking the liberty of submitting it (for me) to someone she knew at The New York Times.

I was elated (needless to say) with her reply. In fact, I had never been so comforted by a rejection letter in my life. It gave me hope. It gave me encouragement at a time in my writing career when I most needed it.

Nora's rejection letter kept me going (odd as it may sound) to the point where I did eventually sell some articles to some (minor) newsstand magazines. Eventually, I got a job as Associate Editor of The Mother Earth News. Not long after, I was the one sending rejection letters to would-be writers. Always hand-typed. Always personalized. Always kind and generous.

I've had a pretty good run (over the last 35+ years) as a writer, editor, publisher, and all-around "word guy." And I do think I owe more than a small bit of gratitude to Nora Ephron. Way more.

That's one reason (but certainly not the only one) that I am so sad to see Nora leave us.

She was a force for good, in my life (and in many others, I'm quite sure).

R.I.P., Nora. We miss you. A lot.