Navigation menu

Friday, September 16, 2016

Friday Speak Out!: Write It Funny

by Lois Paige Simenson

A while back someone told me my writing sometimes reminded her of Nora Ephron. I was shocked at hearing this, and while I took it as a tremendous compliment, I duck-paddled like a wild woman, realizing I didn’t know much about Ephron. I knew her work as a screenwriter and director from her hit movies, Silkwood, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and When Harry Met Sally, but other than that, not much else.

Like many baby boomers, I was a poster child for pop culture. We were the first TV-all-the-time generation, raised on Bugs Bunny, Roadrunner, the Addams Family and I Dream of Jeannie, sprinkled with Laugh-In and serious-movies-told-funny in the 70s, like Little Big Man.

So naturally, when Nora Ephron’s films hit our screens in the 80s and 90s I knew I would absorb scenes that quipped, “I’ll have what she’s having,” after Meg Ryan’s convincing portrayal of faking in the deli of When Harry Met Sally (I won’t say what she was faking, if you don’t know, rent the movie). How could a screenwriter write painful, personal stories about love and loss, with such honesty and unconventionality—and be funny doing it?

I set out to read all I could about Nora Ephron. What I didn’t know then, but I do now, is in addition to screenwriting, Ephron had an extensive career “…as a reporter, a profilist, a polemicist, a novelist, a playwright, an essayist, a memoirist and a blogger…” as stated in the Introduction by Robert Gottlieb of The Most of Nora Ephron. During my study of her work, I paused to watch Everything is Copy, an HBO documentary made by her son, Jacob Weinstein. I was then able to match the real-person verbal narratives with Nora’s written narrative.

I wasn’t sure what my takeaway would be. I wasn’t searching for anything specific. Just—searching, curious about her evolution as a writer and what her secret was to writing funny. I’m always curious to know what lies behind what people write.

What I found was, Ephron’s narrative style operated on the reality principle. Her own life found its way into much of what she wrote. Women identified with her because she wrote about personal things she encountered through life’s passages—and she wrote it honest and funny in her book on aging, I Feel Bad About My Neck: “You can shoot collagen and Botox and Restylane into your wrinkles and creases, but short of surgery, there’s not a damn thing you can do about a neck. A neck is a dead giveaway. Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck.”

A good example of writing funny was in Ephron’s novel, Heartburn, which later became a movie with Streep and Nicholson. She took the traumatic circumstance of her husband’s infidelity and fictionalized it in a funny way that had readers howling (except her ex-husband). She wove humorous insights into the story about the infidelities and social life in the political arenas of Washington D.C. in the late 70s, and her dad’s escapades in and out of the ‘loony bin.’

Several in the HBO documentary about Ephron said she wrote about events in her life so that she would be ‘in control’ and not the out-of-control victim. Nora herself stated, “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it's your laugh.” Her sister Delia nodded at this and said, “Yup, Nora was a control freak.”

“Everything is copy,” Ephron’s mother told her. Everything, that is, except Nora’s illness and death, which she kept private until the end. Those two things she could not control.

My takeaway from Nora Ephron’s writing is this: No matter how grim or traumatic my personal circumstance may be, once I work through it and distance myself, maybe I can write about it. And why not write it funny? It’s a way we control freaks can write our stories, whether we choose to write memoir or fiction. This approach may not work for everyone. But, writing funny is one way to write about the pain of loss or whatever else life throws at us.

I’d rather tell people I slipped on the banana peel, instead of listening to them laugh when I slip on it.

* * *
Lois Paige Simenson writes for newspapers and magazines. She is a playwright, and has a blog, The Alaska Philosophaster and web site. Her writing has appeared in The Anchorage Press, Alaska Magazine, 49 Writers and online at Erma Bombeck She’s working on her debut fiction novel, Otter Rock.
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


  1. Beautiful post, Lois! I like your takeaway and totally agree--writing funny helps us cope with traumatic experiences, and helps the reader, too. :)

  2. Lois--I like to make fun of myself before anyone else gets the chance.

    And I LOVE Nora Ephron.

  3. I think the distance thing is really important. I've had trouble writing about events as they happen, at least events for public consumption, but I do think that given some time, you can write more honestly about what happened and maybe even add a perspective, such as humor, that you couldn't add before. What a compliment that someone compared you to Nora! I think you should keep it up. :) Thanks for sharing with WOW.

  4. Angela, Sioux, Margo, so glad you enjoyed this piece. It was fun to write! I will share that, the woman who made this comment was a theatre director who was on a panel at a theatre conference. She evaluated a play I'd written. Turns out she was the director of Ephron's play, "Love, Loss, and What I Wore," and had been a good friend of Nora Ephron. One of the most wonderful experiences of my life to have a one-on-one discussion with her about my writing. It just doesn't get any better than that!

  5. Yup, making fun of yourself makes for a great story and gets people smiling, sometimes even laughing.

  6. Loved this Lois! It is so true. Learning to laugh at oneself is one of the hardest things to learn, I think. But, laugh and the world laughs with you. Thanks for the post. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

  7. It always helps, Theresa. My pleasure, Sheila!


We love to hear from readers! Please leave a comment. :)