Photo: Star Tribune
Last night, Husband and I watched the new HBO documentary about Nora Ephron called Everything Is Copy. Nora’s son Jacob Bernstein, a classmate of mine from Dalton, wrote and directed the film, which I found to be thoughtful and brilliant. As I was watching, there were a few scenes shot in her beloved Apthorp apartment and these scenes triggered a memory of me being there, just once I think, maybe in high school? I remember so vividly the high ceilings, the pristine white bookshelves, the endless rainbow of books.
The movie was interesting and powerful. Jacob interviewed many people who knew Nora well and who had worked with her over the years. Common sentiments emerged: that Nora was funny and smart and tough and could be wicked and ruthless at times, that despite two failed marriages, she still believed in romantic love and found it with her third husband Nick, that she adored her children, and that she was keen on having control over the stories, scripted and unscripted, in her life.
The title of the film was a line from Ephron’s mother, who said that everything (funny or not-so-funny) that happened to you could be turned around, made copy. “When you slip on a banana peel,” Nora Ephron would say, elucidating her mother’s philosophy, “people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.”
And so Ephron made a career out of using her life’s material to make art – her columns, her books, her movies. The interesting departure came at the end of her life when she learned she was sick. She chose to keep this a secret from most everyone in her life other than close family. Her illness, she seemed to believe, was not copy. This is what Jacob so compellingly asks and explores in the documentary. Ultimately, he concludes, “I think at the end of my mom’s life she believed that everything is not copy, that the things you want to keep are not copy, that the people you love are not copy, that what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away, the things that have been taken from you.”
There is so much to say about this film. There are questions I have. Why doesn’t Nora’s husband appear in the footage? Why doesn’t her other son Max? I suppose there are good reasons limning their absence, but I can’t help but feel curious. I also feel inspired. Inspired anew by a woman I’ve long admired, a force who’s no longer with us, a woman who forged a singular, dynamite career that was rooted in noticing telling details – about women and men and their interactions, about love, about life. Watching the movie last night made me want to go and read everything Nora’s written and to watch again her famous – and even less famous – films.
I’m even more inspired though by Jacob. Her son. I want to know what the experience of making this film was like. Did he learn new things about his mom after she was gone? Did he weather internal battles about whether to make this film in the first place? Did he ask himself whether this story, one told after her death, was in fact copy? Were there flashpoints of challenge and triumph and uncertainty? I imagine there were. I hope to have a chance to talk to him about this sometime.
And I’m left with a question, one that feels pressing to me and maybe to many of us writers: Is everything copy? I write fiction, but I also love, and have a hankering, to write true stories, stories about my life, and my family, and my struggles, but I feel profound hesitation at times, deep worries about the effects my writing could have on those I love most. Where do we draw the line between what is copy and what is not? Is there a line? Is it different for each of us?