Letters to Dead Authors: Molly McCaffrey to Nora Ephron

April 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

“I also didn’t know back then how difficult it is to write the way you did. To write like you’re whispering into the reader’s ear rather than like you’re screaming into it. You made it look so easy I didn’t understand what an accomplishment that really was.”

Dear Nora,

I want to apologize. I want to apologize for not appreciating you enough when I was young.

Sure, I loved When Harry Met Sally as much as everyone else in America did, but, when it came out, I don’t think I understood the significance of what you were doing. At the age of nineteen, I just thought, Wow, I loved that movie. And, of course, I thought the same thing any young person thinks when they see or read something that makes them feel they’ve gotten a glimpse of what real grown-up love looks like. I thought, I want to grow up. I want to fall in love. I want a relationship like that. What I didn’t think about after I saw When Harry Met Sally or any of your other early movies—because I didn’t know—was the fact that you were one of only a handful of women writing and making movies for major Hollywood studios and that you were doing so in an industry that was and still is totally dominated by men. I know that now (in truth, I’ve known it for several years), but I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate your accomplishments sooner.

molly in college

Molly McCaffrey at 19, not yet appreciating Ephron

I did know I liked your female characters. I liked Sally. I liked Annie and Becky. I rooted for Rachel. I admired the hell out of Karen Silkwood. And I always loved Julia. I also knew I could relate to these women. But I wasn’t smart enough back then—remember I was still a teenager when I was first introduced to your work—to recognize how rare it was to find a female lead in a movie whom I liked or to whom I could relate. I thought there would be plenty of them. But, boy, was I wrong. Now I know how wrong I was. Now I know how hard it is to encounter a strong, independent female lead in a film, and I want to thank you for giving me so many over the years.

I also didn’t know back then how difficult it is to write the way you did. To write like you’re whispering into the reader’s ear rather than like you’re screaming into it. To write about things as simultaneously mundane and vital as finding the right apartment or raising your kids. You made it look so easy that I didn’t understand what an accomplishment that really was. And after seven years of studying writing in graduate school—seven years, Nora!—I finally learned that the way you wrote isn’t something we should take for granted. Not only does writing like that not come easy, it also takes courage to have the kind of authorial voice that doesn’t say, Hey, look at me, I’m smarter than everyone else! Or Hey, look at me! What I’m writing about is so big and important! No, you wrote in a regular way about regular things, and I’m sorry, too, that I didn’t give you enough credit for that when I was younger.

Nora_451_062512-3

Nora Ephron

I certainly didn’t know how hard it was to get people to pay attention to stories about women because I grew up during the height of the women’s movement with a mother who dragged me to every feminist play or talk she could find. So, when I was young, it felt like those stories were everywhere. And I thought they always would be. But then I grew up and learned that not every woman wanted to be called a feminist, and I understood how lucky I was to have women like you (and my mother) in my life.

I guess what I’m saying is I didn’t know how difficult it would be just to be myself. And that’s why I so appreciate having a role model who has shown me how to do just that. Because you were always yourself, Nora—as a writer, as a spouse, as a mother, as a person. Sometimes when I worry about my career (which is really most of the time), I think about women like you who stayed true to themselves and still made it, and, for a few short minutes, I feel better about my future.

Molly fall 2015

Molly McCaffrey today

But I know all of that now—and have known it for some time, definitely since we lost you at far too young an age—and that’s why I feel compelled to write to you today. Yes, to apologize for not realizing it sooner. But also to thank you.

Thank you, Nora Ephron, for being one of the first women to write about strong, independent women who reminded me of myself. Thank you for being a woman who was willing to brave the Hollywood studio system. Thank you for being courageous enough to write in a way that speaks directly to your audience. Thank you for being a wonderful role model for both writers and women.

Thank you.

Molly McCaffrey

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[This is the second post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

You Belong to Us front cover smallMolly McCaffrey is the author of You Belong to Us (memoir) and How to Survive Graduate School & Other Disasters (stories) and the founder of I Will Not Diet, a blog devoted to healthy living and body acceptance. She is also the co-editor of Commutability: Stories about the Journey from Here to There and the forthcoming Stuck in the Middle: Writing that Holds You in Suspense. She lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with her husband, David Bell. [Click here to learn more about How Molly McCaffrey Became a Writer.]

Nora Ephron was one of the most accomplished screenwriters of her time. She wrote and directed sixteen movies, including Silkwood (1983), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and Julie & Julia, all of which were nominated for Academy Awards. She also wrote two plays and eight books, both fiction and nonfiction. Ephron began her career as a White House intern during JFK’s presidency and then worked as a journalist for the New York Post. She continued to write for various news organizations, including Esquire, Cosmo, The New York Times, and The Huffington Post, until her 2012 death at the age of 71 from complications related to leukemia. She was married three times, and her second marriage to Carl Bernstein was the basis for her novel Heartburn, which was adapted to a film starring Meryl Strep and Jack Nicholson. Her third marriage to screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi was the one that lasted, prompting her to write, “Secret to life, marry an Italian” for Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. Ephron was also the mother of two children, one of whom made a documentary about his mother’s life called Everything is Copy, which is now showing on HBO.

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