My Favourite Book: Jean Hannah Edelstein

Monday, 3 December 2012

Nora Ephron

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.


Jane Flanagan said...

Love this! I haven't read the book but relate to the doubts about relating writing to real-world people. I think it's why my writing tends to be so personal - I'm not nervous about giving myself away. But when I start to expand to others I feel real fear.

In a similar vein, I love this piece by Colm Tóibín, which I've linked to ad nauseum on my own blog, but here it is again anyway...

Thank you for this post!

Kelly said...

Okay. Kismet, synchronicity, or chance, this is the 3rd or so recent mention of "Heartburn" that has crossed my path. I obviously must get my hands on a copy.

I have started to work on my memoir again in earnest, and so recognize that sense fear and guilt due to certain readers all too well.

hungryandfrozen said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this guest post. "I control the version"..."it doesn't hurt as much"..."I can get on with it". What amazing words, most definitely words to keep in mind. I'll be looking out for this book to read it now!

Sally said...

Love Nora Ephron's work but have never read her books, now I'm very excited to do so. Even when just writing personal journals I relate so much to "Because if I control the story, I control the version. / Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much. / Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it."

Rambling Tart said...

I love this SO much, and the timing is perfect. I'm not as brave as Nora, you and Jean yet, but I'm getting there!! :-)

Hila said...

Jane: I know exactly how you feel Jane. Sometimes I read back what I've written on posts here, and wonder if it comes across as self-indulgent, simply because it's all about me. I'm also afraid of crossing that line between private and public, and allowing aspects of my life and the people I know to creep into my writing. But realistically, this is stifling for writers. And I'm starting to move beyond it in my writing. I read that article by Colm Tóibín when you first linked it, and I thought it was wonderful.

Kelly: This always happens - when something's on your mind, you suddenly see it everywhere!

Laura: Agreed, I think this post is great advice.

Sally: I relate too, I think many writers do.

Krista: The timing is perfect for me too.

Siubhan said...

This is fantastic. I love the line 'I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me' - that's something I can definitely relate to.

It's also great advice, and kind of reminds me of a KCRW Bookworm podcast I listened to a few weeks ago - it was an interview with Sheila Heti about writing about real events and the people close to her, and their mutual acceptance that even if they didn't like their portrayals, the work was more important than any offence.

Fantastically interesting post - I really must get round to picking up a copy of Heartburn soon.

Hila said...

Siubhan: I agree, I found this so interesting too. I think the idea of the work being more important than any offence is an important one for writers - it frees us up. But it's hard to do!