Tag Archives: nora ephron

MFA, NYC-Style

New York is a city where you can learn 1,000 new things every day. It’s a place where you can get a grad education without ever sitting behind a desk. Every venue is a classroom. The public library, parks, bookstores, theaters, restaurants, squares, streets, hotel lobbies, bars, subway cars. With the amount of information I’ve consumed, I should have my MFA by now.

One of my favorite classrooms in this city is the Barnes & Noble in Union Square. Last week, I attended back-to-back (and free!) talks with Nora Ephron (Tuesday night) and Stephen Sondheim (Wednesday night). These weren’t traditional readings, rather, they were master classes from two of the most creative minds that reside in this fair city.

Nora was at B&N to pimp her new book, “I Remember Nothing” (my Read pick from Monday). She got up to the podium and said the thing most everyone wishes a writer would say: “I’m not going to read from my book tonight. Instead, I’m going to tell you about two of my most defining moments as a writer.”

Yes, Nora. YES.

She talked about how she grew up wanting to be a journalist, and how in high school, she joined the staff of the school paper. The teacher wrote the essential rules of reporting on the blackboard:







and told them the following: On Thursday, during school hours, the faculty and staff of Beverly Hills High School will board a bus and take a trip to an educational conference in West Hollywood to see Speaker X talk about arts in education.

From there, Nora said they had to retype the information he gave them. The students clacked away on their typewriters. The teacher collected their papers, looked through them all and said they missed out on the most important part of the story: On Thursday, there will be no classes at Beverly Hills High School as all faculty and staff will board a bus and take a trip to an educational conference …

Flip the script. Find the angle. Tell the audience what they want to hear, or didn’t know they wanted to hear. Nora said journalism was like fitting together a puzzle. When you get it right, everything snaps into place. This simple exercise changed the way she looked at writing.

Ephron’s next lightbulb moment occurred when she was writing the script for the movie, Silkwood. She was working closely with the film’s director, Mike Nichols, who told her screenwriting was all about narrative. He offered up this story as an illustration:

There was a man and a woman who lived on an island peninsula. They were married. The man invited his mother to visit with them on the peninsula. Shortly after her arrival, he was called away on business. Since he was out of town, his wife used this opportunity to take the ferry to the mainland to visit her lover. They made love all day. She ran to catch the last ferry back to the island peninsula. She had just missed it. She begged the ferry captain to take her back, so her mother-in-law wouldn’t be suspicious. He said he would only do it for six times the amount of a ferry ticket. She didn’t have the money. He turned her away. She started to walk home to the island peninsula. On the way back, she was raped and killed. The question is: Whose fault was her rape/murder? The rapist/murderer? The ferry captain? The Woman? her husband? Her mother-in-law? Her lover?

Within seconds of hearing this question posed, I had constructed an internal narrative wherein the mother-in-law was at fault. The story I came up with was a long one, but it only took me five seconds to decide who was at fault … the exact amount of time Nora let the audience think about the question before she revealed that there wasn’t an answer; Mike Nichols told her it was all about whose story you chose to tell. Narrative is about perspectives. Who sees what and how they see it.

Nora’s stories were deceptively simple. Like some of her best movies, they revealed layers of intricacies beneath the surface of a standard boy-meets-girl plot line. Little rabbit holes of genius. After the storytelling, Nora signed books. I’m not big on the signed books, but I had a first edition of her book Scribble Scribble: Notes on the Media (still surprisingly relevant today) and I really wanted to get it signed. As she signed the book, she told me I could get a copy of it for three dollars on eBay. I replied: Well, now it will be worth four.

My second night at Barnes & Noble University was a conversation between Stephen Sondheim (Monday’s Listen pick) and journalist/author Anna Quindlen. Their 20+ year friendship allowed for some fun stories and insidery info. Sondheim told a story about being asked to pay a visit to Cole Porter to “cheer him up” by playing a song from a new musical (Gypsy) he was writing. Stephen choose this song, because he said he pulled a traditional “Cole Porter” move on the lyrics.

In Stephen’s words: If Cole Porter couldn’t rhyme a word, he would pull a word from another language. When we played ‘Together, Wherever We Go’ for him and got to the line: ‘No fits, no fights, no feuds, and no egos … amigos.’ He audibly gasped because he didn’t expect the ‘amigos.’ We Cole Porter-ed Cole Porter. It was a great moment.

He talked about how he doesn’t speak ill of the living, but has no problem talking about the dead because, “they can’t talk back.” Sondheim also claimed he’s not concerned with achieving immortality through his work, unlike some of his peers. This gave me pause. I think it’s an easy comment to make when you know you’ve already achieved that state. I wonder if it would still be true had he only created one or two musicals of middling success.

Sondheim spoke critically of his work and that of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. When it comes writing lyrics, accuracy is very important to him. He cited Hammerstein’s line in the song, Cock-Eyed Optimist, as one he finds most baffling: “When is the sky ever a ‘bright canary yellow?” His stories and observations were fascinating. He charmed the audience with his candor and good sense of humor.

The greatest joy I got out of being in the audience for both Sondheim and Ephron was seeing how much they both still love what they do. And, even better, how much they enjoy sharing it with others. Truly one of the best lessons a teacher can impart on their students.

P.S. Stephen Sondheim shared so many great stories that I’ve already forgotten, but if you want to read more, here’s a great write-up on the event.

Monday’s Watch, Listen, Read


This is one of my favorite movies, written by the fabulous Nora Ephron (more about her in today’s Read pick). This particular clip was chosen as a tribute to my middle/high school friend, who got married this past weekend. I will never forget the moment she told me, over brunch at French Roast, that she wanted to marry her (now) husband (and by the way, did I know what was taking him so damn long to ask her?) She said, “When I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, I wanted it to happen right away.” It was a a beautiful statement. It was also a very cinematic line. It immediately brought to mind “When Harry Met Sally.” If you haven’t already seen this movie (shameful!), you are missing out on a brilliant classic.

Congratulations to my friends, S&S. The rest of your life (together) starts now. xo





Sondheim music is something that is infused in the blood of nearly every American. One year, I worked on two books that heavily relied on Sondheim lyrics for either the book title or lyric reprints within the novel. I was surrounded by Sondheim. The man is a genius, and, as I learned the other evening when I saw him speak live, he’s also very charismatic, funny, charming, and sensitive (though anyone could guess that from his lyrics). This song also happens to be the title of his new book, a collection of lyrics with attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, and anecdotes.*


I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron

If I could, I would read everything Nora Ephron has written, including her mental list of the best pies in New York, because it’s bound to be filled with witty observations and asides. I Remember Nothing is a smaller slice of Ephron pie. You’re not quite getting the full flavor of her flakey, buttery words and the same bursts of juicy opinions that she generously served up in I Feel Bad About My Neck. Nonetheless, I Remember Nothing is still satisfying to the palate. The only downside is it leaves you wanting more, but aren’t all delicious treats like that?*

*More on Nora and Steve later in the week. Please standby…

An Open Letter From One of Your 51 Percent

After reading Manohla Dargis’ piece in the New York Times and her subsequent interview with Jezebel.com, I felt the need to write the following open letter to the heads of all the feature film studios in the United States.

Dear Sirs (+ the one madam co-chair):

I would like to introduce myself. My name is Ashley, I am one of your customers. One of your 51 percent, to be exact. Ironically, I’m also on the cusp of two age brackets that seem to allude you. Being 28 years old, I’m just edging past your “Twilight” audience and will soon hit your 35+ when-its-a-hit-it-must-be-a-fluke audience. Not only am I one of your customers, but I also happen to be one of you, albeit a very low-level one of you. I feel this puts me in a unique situation, I know your audience because I am your audience; AND, because I’m somewhat of an insider, I’ve struck upon a solution to your problem. A solution that will make you even more money than you’re making now. I’m talking Twilight, The Dark Night, and Mamma Mia kind of money. Believe-it-or-not, it’s not as hard as you think and it’s actually something you know how to do already: make movies. But not just any movies; movies that 51 percent of your audience can relate to and which feature the work of those members of our 51 percent who make their careers in feature film.

Don’t get me wrong, I know you get cross-over audiences. I’m just as likely to see a romantic comedy as I am the next Bourne movie, but I’m even more likely to see a Bourne movie directed by Kathryn Bigelow. I’d probably even go back for seconds if you decided to expand Julia Stiles’ character or give Joan Allen’s more of a back story. Like Bourne, I want to know what taunts them, what makes them tick and what makes them want to find Jason Bourne (because, let’s face it, it’s beyond just their professional duty at this point).

I like stories with style and substance, but I also like action, chase scenes and even my fair share of violence. My favorite movie is “The Silence of the Lambs.” “SOTL” is a great example of how to make a movie that grabs 100 percent of your adult audience: follow the hero’s journey. In this case, the hero just happens to be a 5′ tall heroine and her unlikely leading man is a serial killing cannibal. There’s blood, guts, gore and most importantly, STORY. Both men and women alike invest in these characters because we learn what makes them tick. But women have an extra investment in this particular story (this is the reason why we go back to see it again, recommend it to our friends, buy it, download it, etc.) we see ourselves up on the screen, a lone woman among men in an elevator. Every woman has experienced that moment, just as every woman’s secret desire (like Agent Starling’s) is to save the world.

I also like my romantic comedies to be smart. Yes, I do like to see pretty things and pretty people on a screen, but I’m not an idiot either. I’d trade in a beautiful set and a character’s designer wardrobe for a really good story. Make more movies like “When Harry Met Sally.” Those characters had a story and they had great conversations about things we all discuss at dinner parties or over the phone with friends. Many elements of the script came from actual conversations between Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron. And guess what? That movie appealed to men as well. Why? Two reasons: 1) They saw themselves in Billy Crystal: he is the every man and he got the girl; 2) Insight into women. Yes, we sometimes fake orgasms. Now you know.

The “Buddy Movie” (now recoined as the “Bromance” or “A Judd Apatow”) We, the 51 percent of your audience, have only one of these movies to stick a flag in and call our own: “Thelma and Louise.”  This movie was made in 1991. Oh, wait, there was another female buddy movie! In 2002, producer Cathy Konrad put out a hilarious flick (penned by Nancy Pimental) called “The Sweetest Thing.” I was in college. I saw it two times on opening weekend with seven other female friends. It still remains the closest we’ll ever get to “The Hangover” for women. Speaking of which, if  “The Hangover” was pitched with an entirely female cast, it would never have gotten made. Though I have no doubt there would have been an audience for it — made up of both genders.

The drama (aka “The Oscar movie” or “The Meryl Streep”). In their current state, these movies have a slightly better shot at appealing to me and my fellow 51 percenters because they feature more screen time for women (usually women who can no longer wrinkle their foreheads, but that’s a different letter for another day). The funny thing about these movies is that they’re rarely directed and/or written by women. Though I love men who can write wonderful parts for women (hello, Michael Cunningham), they are not women, and, as such, they will always leave the character with an unexplored territory. It’s one thing for a woman to be mysterious, but another thing to leave 51 percent of us knowing there is so much more to the story that needs to be told. “The Hours” has a great scene which touches upon this, when Clarissa Vaughn talks to her daughter about a moment in her youth:

“I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then.”

Contained within those lines are two potential movies for two generations of women, “the sense of possibility” movie, reaching audiences from their late teens – 30s, and “the moment looking back” movie, for the 40/50/60 female audience. I want to know what that woman sees as both a 20-something and then as a 50-something woman. Romantic comedies offer shades of these moments as well, though they are even fewer and farther between.

I believe women go to rom coms and dramas because they crave any glimmer of seeing their lives reflected back at them, no matter how fleeting of a moment it may be. We women store up a mosaic of these moments and play them back in our minds when we need them. A “greatest hits” if you will. They are our touchstone, our reminder that we are seen, we are remembered; we do serve a purpose. But wouldn’t it be even better if we didn’t need a highlights reel? If the marquee at our local theaters advertised movies where we saw ourselves and our husbands/boyfriends/friends/girlfriends/teens depicted by someone like us who knows the way we think, the way we see, who gives us not “women’s movies” but movies from our perspective? And, maybe even a woman who gives us male viewpoints just as dramatically or funny as the Michael Manns or Judd Apatows of the world, but from a fresh perspective.

I am one of your 51 percent. And, I am also your colleague. I want to see a reflection of myself on a screen just as much as I want to see my name in the credits. I am a part of both sides of this letter. And, I will keep moving forward both from my seat and on a set, until my voice is heard. Because when it finally is, there will be 51 percent of the world’s population behind it. I hope you start listening.

-Ashley Van Buren