Thursday, September 28, 2006

It Makes Great Copy

by Meryl Neiman

Wednesday night I went to hear Nora Ephron speak. Nora is a journalist, novelist, screenplay writer and director (it's annoying that someone's so talented -- but that's another post). She told great stories, including the inside scoop on how the famous orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally came about, but she focused her talk on the ephiphanies that have shaped her life as a writer.

Her first lesson was an early one, taught by a rather unsympathetic mother. When she or one of her sisters complained about a horrific life experience, her mom's response would be: "makes great copy." Everything was fodder for the pen.

Although I wouldn't recommend this parenting style, I do think the lesson is an uplifting one for writers. We are uniquely positioned to make lemonade out of every lemon thrown our way. We can take any life event and use it in our work. If the plot doesn't serve our purposes, we can also look to the emotion the event inspired.

No other profession can make this claim.

I have to say I felt empowered by this revelation. Life does make great copy. I just found out tonight that a parent at my school has a rare form of eye cancer and will be off to Philadelphia for several weeks for treatment unavailable in Pittsburgh. I don't know details about the cancer, but it's possible that it is an ocular melanoma. This woman's parent died of a melanoma. For that reason, she and her children wear silly looking hats and long sleeves and are never without protection from the sun. If she now faces a rare form of skin cancer, what could be more tragic. But the irony does make great copy.

Aren't we blessed as writers that we can fashion art out of pain?

10 comments:

Nancy said...

Oh, for pete's sake, I wanted to go to the Nora Ephron thing.--I need a personal assistant!

You're so right about taking inspiration from real life, Meryl. I find that I do it a lot writing mysteries. (Family & friends even phone to say, "I think you can use this....") But I hardly ever took even a small detail from life to use in any of the romance novels I wrote. Difference between fantasy and not, I guess.

Good post!

Tory Butterworth said...

>No other profession can make this claim.

I beg to differ: psychotherapists use the angst of life to learn about the experience from the inside or develop new methods for treatment. Researchers use it to get grants funded as well as write books and papers on the topic.

I DO want to hear about the orgasm scene!

Tory Butterworth said...

>No other profession can make this claim.

I beg to differ: psychotherapists use the angst of life to learn about the experience from the inside or develop new methods for treatment. Researchers use it to get grants funded as well as write books and papers on the topic.

I DO want to hear about the orgasm scene!

Tory Butterworth said...

Sorry! I double-clicked at the wrong time and entered my comment twice.

Joyce said...

Meryl,
You are so right. And it is a gift to be able to take the emotions of what you felt in real life and transfer them to the page. That is where writers differ from "normal" people. Where others try to push the pain away, writers absorb the feelings, hopefully to use them in the future.

Meryl Neiman said...

Ah, the orgasm scene. Well it began as a reaction to a conversation between Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner, the director. He was challenging Nora to tell him something about women that he didn't know. Her response -- women fake orgasms. His answer -- not with him they don't. He summoned the interns into the room. They stood there nervous. He asked them if women faked orgasm. They nodded.

As originally crafted the fake orgasm scene was just that, a fake orgasm. But during the read through, Meg Ryan suggested the scene be moved to a restaurant. Even better, she said, her character should "have" an orgasm. Billy Crystal chimed in that an elderly woman eating at another table should order "whatever she's having." Rob Reiner said he knew just the woman to play the role -- his mother! Voila. Movie history.

Which led to another of Nora's epiphanies. Don't cut yourself off from embracing the input of others. Creative endeavors can be enhanced by collaborative efforts.

Judith said...

I also think actors, actresses and all performing artists use their angst from real life as their "muse." Think about Salvadore Dali and Picasso. How would anyone know what happy is unless you had experienced sad?

As to your friend with the eye cancer (maybe). I have a girlfriend who had the same thing. Melanoma behind the eye. She's gone through a lot of surgery and has a fake eye, but she's alive and fine. It's a sad story that has turned into a happy (of sorts) one. Hmmmm .... it would make a good detail in my book.

Kristine said...

Great post, Meryl!

One of the wonderful things about writing is that we can not only work through our own emotions on the page but also help our readers do the same. That powerful connection between writers and readers is what the magic of books is all about.

Cathy said...

Through the pain and suffering I always said, "It gives you something to write about." I wonder how many pieces are more genuine because their author experienced the pain.

Great orgasm story.

Debra Lee said...

Great post, Meryl! Loved your explanation of the orgasm scene.

If it weren't for all the angst in my life, I'd never be able to write mysteries.