Nora Ephron (1941–2012) was the celebrated writer/director of classic films like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, she was the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of When Harry Met Sally, and she was the hilarious essay writer of I Feel Bad About My Neck and other amazing collections.
Here are six wonderful quotes she left us that will help you in your writing life!
1. Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.
This quote comes from one of Nora Ephron’s many essays that have delighted me for years on end. I actually have two of her audiobooks and still play them in my car to this day. Even though she died in 2012, listening to Ephron’s voice in my vehicle makes her feel like she’s still alive in a way. Still available to inspire me and make me laugh. Ephron is one of my all time favorites.
And I particularly love this quote she shared about reading. Because I feel the same way, don’t you? That reading is everything. Well maybe not everything, but boy is it relaxing to just sit for an hour and read. Especially when it’s for pleasure. Lately I’ve been taking a bath late at night and taking two or three books with me. How had I never really done this before this past month?
Sitting in a warm bath while reading a great book is something almost otherworldly. It’s divine. And reading this quote by Ephron reminds me once again that when life gets hectic, one of the best remedies is to sit and read. To forget my own writing. To forget reading like a writer at all times. To just read for pleasure’s sake. Just read to relax and have fun.
2. I don’t care who you are. When you sit down to write the first page of your screenplay, in your head, you’re also writing your Oscar acceptance speech.
When I sit down to write a new screenplay or a new novel, I’m sort of the opposite — I just hope and pray I don’t screw it up. I’m not thinking about awards this latest writing project might give me. I’m basically hoping I just survive to see the end of the first draft… and maybe, if I’m lucky, that first draft will be halfway decent!
But sure, there is always a little voice in my head when I start something new that says, all that hard work you’ve done for the past decade has led to this moment. That voice tells me, this is the one, this is going to make you lots of money, this is going to be published and become a hit and be adored by millions of reads the whole world over.
None of that ever happens, of course. And I wouldn’t really ever expect it to. But it’s fun to dream about, isn’t it? You’re spending six months or a year or two years (or sometimes longer!) to work on this one creative writing project. You’re putting your heart and soul into the thing. You’re putting hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours into creating something new.
So yes, go ahead and dream a little that this latest manuscript might win you some awards, might win you recognition. There’s no harm in it!
3. I go through periods where I work a great deal at all hours of the day whenever I am around a typewriter, and then I go through spells where I don’t do anything. I just sort of have lunch — all day. I never have been able to stick to a schedule. I work when there is something due or when I am really excited about a piece.
I had never heard this quote from Ephron before, and I love it — even though I disagree with her writing schedule. From what I’ve read from her, Ephron seems like the kind of artist who would work like this. Who wouldn’t stick to a schedule necessarily and just write when she’s inspired or excited by a project, or when there’s a pressing deadline. She did work in journalism for much of her young life, after all.
However, I’ve suggested since day one that one of the best things you can do for your writing career is to create a schedule for yourself, and stick to it. When I’m writing the first draft of a new novel, I write 2,000+ words a day until it’s done. When I’m revising a novel, I’ll usually work on one chapter every day until that’s done. When I write a screenplay, I’ll try to write 5 pages a day every day until I complete it.
I think if you’re talented and super disciplined, you can sort of get away without having a proper schedule. If the writing bug is within you, you’ll probably write most days of the week anyway, like I do.
But if you’re someone who hasn’t written a whole lot and who wants to write more, if you’re someone who tends to procrastinate often and never finish anything, then you should absolutely stick to a schedule at all times.
4. I try to write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are.
Something Ephron is really known for is writing tremendous parts for women in her screenplays. Consider the lead female roles in Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Julie & Julia. She creates women who are complicated and interesting and flawed and courageous and memorable. She’s written some of the best women roles certainly in romantic comedies in the last thirty years.
And something you should always be thinking about no matter what kind of material you write — short fiction, novels, screenplays, plays — is to create memorable roles for both men and women. I’ve written twenty novels to date. Many of those novels feature male protagonists, and only a few of them feature female protagonists, but in every new novel I take on I try to create three-dimensional female characters that feel in every way as important to the narrative as the male characters.
You can’t just write guy after guy if you’re a guy. You have to include more female characters in your fiction. You have to include more diversity in your fiction. Don’t just write characters similar to yourself. Take chances and evolve and create a character in your next creative piece that’s unlike anyone you’ve written before. Make her interesting, make her an integral part of your narrative. Always make the women in your storytelling as complicated and interesting as real women actually are.
5. I just want to go on making movies, and some of them will be completely meaningless, except, of course, to me.
Something every artist needs to do if they are serious about writing is to just keep going always. Whether or not your last five projects failed. Whether or not your last project was a monumental success. Nora Ephron had highs and lows in her career definitely. She was nominated for three Academy Awards and had a handful of major success in her long career, but she also had huge flops, too — Lucky Numbers, anyone?
She could have stopped after a couple of those flops, but she kept going anyway, and the final film she made before her untimely death is one of my favorites — 2009’s Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child. Even after a flop here and there, Ephron kept going because each new project held meaning for her, even if it held no meaning for anyone else.
You want to think about this in the same way with your own writing. Even if you haven’t published anything yet. Even if you’re just getting started. You have to keep in mind that some, possibly many, of the writing projects you take on won’t actually go anywhere, might end up in a drawer in a year’s time. So that’s why I always tell writers to work on projects they’re passionate about. Don’t write something because you think it will make you money. Write something that has some kind of meaning to you.
If the project has meaning, then you won’t have any failures, not really. And when that meaning is there, often readers will see it, and want to read more from you.
6. All I do when I write scripts is think about food: ‘Have I worked long enough to justify a walk to the kitchen?’
Finally, I couldn’t leave a piece discussing Nora Ephron without bringing food into the conversation! Ephron of course was one of the ultimate foodies. You would know that if you watch her movies closely (and if you watch any five minutes of Julie & Julia), but you would especially know it if you read her essays. She doesn’t just love a great meal. She would literally think about food all throughout the day. Ponder what she might eat next. Dream about what her next dish might be, and get excited for it.
Although I do think you should maintain a flow in your writing schedule, and that it’s not in your best interest to get up every twenty minutes to peruse the fridge or the pantry, I do believe in giving yourself celebratory snack breaks when you reach a new word count or milestone in your latest project.
The snack break I like to take is when I hit another 1,000 words in my latest first draft. I will sit down at 9am or 10am or whenever and decide I’m going to write 2,000 words of my latest project today. I won’t get up all the time, but I will get up once, when I hit 1,000 words, the halfway point— and take a 5-minute break to treat myself to a yummy snack. I feel like 1,000 words on the page is justification for a break.
And then, once you hit 2,000 words and have reached your goal for the day, then you can go nuts in the kitchen! Make a lavish lunch if you want. You should of course be completely focused on the story you’re telling and not on the food you want to eat next, but if you’re a foodie like Nora Ephron, then go ahead and treat yourself!