Five Words I Learned From Nora Ephron
Updated: Feb 14
We are the shape of our experiences. All of them, real, lived, forming our pathways of memory, creating the plotline of our lives. But we are also every favorite movie, book, piece of art, and song on repeat that lives rent free in the corners of our minds, connecting us to the world and others in it.
In that way, Nora Ephron is as responsible for the person I am today, and the stories I tell, as my parents are for raising me.
It's not revolutionary for me, an elder millennial woman, to give Nora this kind of credit. Not because her movies were the most contemporary to my life—When Harry Met Sally, the first of the Ephron rom-com trifecta came out when I was still a teensy blond spright more interested in playing detective and talking to her imaginary friend than falling in love.
Her movies weren't as pithy and bubbly as the later iterations of rom-coms that acted more as star vehicles than director/screenwriter showcases. Movies that prolifically populated my adolescence, creating a narrative framework for me to work from.
She didn't make all my favorite movies, even though she definitely made a few. She wasn't telling stories that showed me the roadmap to my identity in all it's complicated, nuanced shades.
No, what Nora Ephron did was teach me what kind of stories I want to tell. Without her words rattling around in my head forever, I wouldn't be writing rom-coms today.
In her commencement speech to the 1996 graduating class of Wellesley College, she said "You are not going to be you, fixed and immutable you, forever." She goes on to talk about a game she played while waiting tables, in which you have to write the five words that describe you on a piece of paper. She used it as a way to illustrate how much we change and how often we don't even realize it's happening until we take stock. How even though the five words you might write are 100% true right now—the truest of any five words you could ever imagine—the next time you sit down to do the exercise—say in ten years, six months, or tomorrow—those five words will have changed. Maybe in subtle shifts, maybe still the old ones resonate, but you won't likely write exactly the same five words twice.
At the beginning of my writing journey, I would never have called myself a romance author. Not because I didn't love, respect and admire romance, or gobble it up every chance I got. Along with horror, romance was my absolute favorite. But I had convinced myself that writing love stories simply wasn't me. My list of words would have probably included YA, fantasy, dystopian, action-driven and creatures. This list would have totally made sense. Everyone would have nodded, oh yes, that's absolutely the kind of writer you are.
No one would have been more deceived than me.
Nora Ephron is credited with creating the framework for the modern rom-com, but in a lot ways she didn't set out to do that. She famously said she wrote When Harry Met Sally for money, to save her floundering career. She needed to write it at that moment in time, and what she created would change the landscape of romantic storytelling in film. Pretty lucky? I don't think so. I think she simply found the recipe of words that, when all combined, alchemized into her authentic voice.
What Nora Ephron understood about herself and the nature of storytelling as a profession, and what I finally learned after a long journey fighting to live truthfully, isn't that different.
I joke, often, that I'm a deeply morbid person eternally in search of a happily ever after. This joke so true that it's now a facet of my identity, but for years I didn't see how that affected my writing. When I did finally shake off the skin of what I thought I was good at writing, and who I was pretending to be in my life, I was a bit terrified of what I found underneath. Deeply uncertain if I could own it. If I could tell love stories without, like, heaps of murder, action and magical creatures.
If I could tell the love stories that truly mattered to me.
The truth is: I was always striving for that, right from the very first manuscript, I just didn't know it yet. The more I wrote, the more I realized why I was doing it. The stories that had shaped me, more than any others, had been the rom-coms of my youth. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks at the top of the Empire State Building, Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman kissing at the end of a Metro train with a "Just Married" sign dancing in the wind, Heath Ledger singing "You're Just To Good To Be True" on the loudspeakers to a blushing Julia Stiles.
And others, on and on.
I didn't set out to write rom-coms, but that is where I found my voice. My list now would include words like romantic, atmospheric, commercial, effervescent...
Putting a word on the list that would have once terrified me, well, that is the other great lesson. The other piece of the puzzle that makes that list of five words uniquely mine. Just like every movie I love, every book I adore, every song I play on repeat; just like all the experiences I've had, and all the choices I've made.
My book THE LOVERS is pitched as a Nora Ephron-style queer rom-com. Not because Nora Ephron was an icon of queer media, or because I'm trying to say I'm "the next her, watch out world!"
THE LOVERS is pitched that way because Nora Ephron told love stories and wrote complicated women. She wrote rom-coms that feel timeless. What I love about her movies, is what I hope you love about my books.
The thing I want my readers to carry with them is this: Love stories matter. They are the answer to the morbid reality of existence, the joy in a sea of sadness, and they are, in all their forms, the only story we all deeply want to be true.