Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: Writing about other people?

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Writing about other people?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

I just finished reading a book about Nora Ephron. It was by “her best friend” and it made me grateful that most of  my closest friends are not writers.

Nora Ephron was, to me, one of those women like Wendy Wasserstein, whom we don’t know personally and yet feel we know. We feel they know us, too, and we are certain we and they would be meeting regularly for lunch or trading recipes or book recommendations or names of hairdressers…if only we had ever met.

Or maybe not. The Nora in this book isn’t really the girlfriend with the crepey neck or the not-so-much bosom buddy. She isn’t the relatably imperfect Meg Ryan characters in the movies that touched us—she was, instead, the frighteningly accomplished director creating the films anddon’tyouforgetit. She was the uber-connected person who always knew how to do or where to buy everything, cook like a four-star chef, and charm everyone in sight. She was also apparently overbearing,  intimidating, and not inclined to let kindness get in the way of making a witty or brutally honest comment. I felt relieved to have never had her personally in my life. Just reading about her left me in despair at the puniness of my life and in need of major validation. She would not have been my girlfriend: she would not have noticed my existence.

And no reason she would have. And no reason to admire her enormous and pleasure-giving achievements any less.

But all these more human qualities laid out in print by the “best friend” gave me pause. The book did not really offer a glimpse into the friendship. I had no insight into the comfort they may have offered each other in the wake of dissolved marriages or advice they may have shared on nurturing children or careers. The whole fact of the friendship was, as they say in writing workshops, told not shown. But shown, though I am guessing unconsciously, was the writer’s small nastiness and glee at exposing Nora’s flaws.

And while I was reading this, I also happened to read a magazine essay so shocking in its ugliness that it was, like an unfolding accident, impossible to tear my eyes from. The author was “celebrating” her mother’s 75th birthday by presenting her with the harsh evidence of a traumatic family event both had stayed silent about for decades. In the course of the essay, small ungenerous details, clearly added in hostility, made the reader feel sympathy for the mother instead of for the author, as was very obviously intended.

We writers are always writing about other people for a variety of reasons. They are our own reasons and it might be useful for us to remember that what the reader takes in often says a bit about us, too.


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