In September, I asked Jean Hannah Edelstein if she’d like to contribute to My Favourite Book, and she was right in the middle of moving to Berlin. I have great timing sometimes. So I waited a few more weeks till she had time, and I think I can safely say it was worth the wait. There really isn’t a better way to introduce Jean other than saying that she’s a very smart woman. A fellow writer, Jean has written journalism for various websites, magazines and media outlets, as well as working as the digital editor at Conde Nast and writing a book called Himglish and Femalese: Why women don’t get why men don’t get them. I really admire Jean, and one of the things that amazed me when I read her post about her favourite book is how it fits so well with the way I’m developing my own writing at the moment. There’s something comforting about another writer echoing your own doubts about writing, and also something very reassuring about this post. Perhaps like Jean, all us writers out there should listen to Nora Ephron’s (real or imagined) advice more often. Thanks Jean!
Heartburn is about an awful thing that happened to Nora Ephron: when she was pregnant with her second child, she discovered that her husband was having an affair with ‘an unbelievably tall person’. It’s a short, sharp book, less than 200 pages; funny and snappy and flip. But Heartburn is also a substantial book: it’s about what happened to Ephron, but it’s also about what it means to be a writer and to own a narrative. Which is why it is my favourite book.
Heartburn isn’t a memoir; it’s a novel, a ‘thinly veiled’ one, Ephron explains in its introduction. Inspired by real events, written with fiction’s elastic permission. Heartburn is hilarious, but it’s also a long, low howl of pain; one that provoked the ire of several of the people who are thinly veiled within it. On her ex-husband’s reaction, Ephron writes:
Everyone always asks, Was he mad at you for writing the book? And I have to say, Yes, yes he was. He still is. It is one of the most fascinating things to me about the whole episode: he cheated on me, and then got to behave as if he was the one who had been wronged because I wrote about it! (ix)
Later, just before the end of the novel, she writes:
Vera said, ‘Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?’
So I told her why:
Because if I control 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. (178)
Heartburn made me realise how much my own writing is influenced, or affected, by my concern about how other people, will react to it. Not anonymous readers, but people who I know, or have known, who will appear in my writing in real or thinly veiled form. It made me recall all the times that people have said to me, ‘don’t write about this’, or ‘don’t write about me’. It made me realise that I’ll never be the kind of writer that I want to be until I stop thinking that anyone else has a stake in shaping my narratives. Heartburn made me realise that I’ll never be the writer I want to be until I believe and insist (to myself, to other people) that my stories are mine.
I read Heartburn for the first time about six months ago, and ever since then friends have been remarking on how my writing seems different. That’s thanks to Nora Ephron: when those disapproving ghosts hover, I ask myself, What would Nora do? And I know she would say, ‘I think they’re full of shit.’
Image credit: Nora Ephron in Sleepless in Seattle.