‘Everything Is Copy’: Making Personal Experience the Material for Creative Expression

Nora Ephron, 1960s HBO

Nora Ephron, 1960s HBO

I recently watched a compelling documentary about the journalist, screenwriter and director Nora Ephron (‘Everything Is Copy’, HBO 2015). First and foremost Ephron was a writer. She wrote articles, essays, novels, scripts and plays. She wrote satirical columns and sentimental comedies. Most famously, she wrote ‘When Harry Met Sally’ (1989) and ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ (1993). 

In the documentary, Ephron’s luminous personality leaps out from the screen. She is sharp tongued, quick witted and strong willed. It’s clear that she had to be all these things to succeed in a creative environment that was blighted by sexism.

‘She knew what she wanted and she went and got it. Or went and did it, which is more to the point.’
Mike Nichols, Film Director

Ephron was raised in Beverly Hills by parents who were both screenwriters. In the documentary she recounts her mother’s advice to her four daughters, all of whom went on to become writers.

‘We all grew up with this thing that my mother said to us over and over, and over and over again, which is ‘Everything is copy.’ You’d come home with something that you thought was the tragedy of your life – someone hadn’t asked you to dance, or the hem had fallen out of your dress, or whatever you thought was the worst thing that could ever happen to a human being – and my mother would say ‘Everything is copy.’’

Ephron speculates that, in passing on this maxim, her mother may have been equipping her daughters with a survival technique for modern life.

‘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. So you become a hero rather than the victim of the joke.’

Ephron’s interpretation of ‘Everything is copy’ led her to share the details of her own private life, from the trivial to the intimate, with a broader public. She wrote about her family and friends, her former bosses and husbands; about her breasts and neck and love of pies; about her personal take on reading, ageing, happiness and feminism. And when her marriage to the celebrated Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein broke down, she fictionalised her experiences in the novel and film ‘Heartburn.’

‘Writers are cannibals…They are predators. And if you are friends with them and say something funny at dinner, or if anything good happens to you, you are in big trouble.’

So what can people working in commercial creativity today learn from Ephron’s dictum? Should we too subscribe to the view that ‘Everything is copy’?

Well, I do believe that articulating our experiences enables us properly to reflect on them; to organize them; to fix them in our memories. I would always encourage people to review the day, the week, the year. And, where heartache is concerned, when we can articulate the pain, we’re half-way to recovering from it.

I also think Ephron was right to see something particularly potent in childhood memories - recollections of a time when our identities were not fully formed; when our opinions were not fully fixed. The sentiments of our youth explain so much about our adult selves. As Graham Greene said, childhood provides ‘the bank balance of the writer.’

Moreover, like Ephron we should all be sensitive to the comedy of our own ordinary experiences, the tragedy of day-to-day events; we should see the richness of the run of the mill and the poetry of normal. We should be alert to the observed and overheard; to the foibles of ordinary folk and the language of everyday speech. These things are available to us in our own experience. We don’t need to conjure them up or resort to cliché.

Having said all this, I should sound a note of caution. With her first-person narrative and confessional candour, Ephron was a pioneer of the self-broadcasting social media age. Of course, she explored her emotions rather than just recorded them. As the word ‘copy’ implies, critical thought was applied. But there was a price to be paid for ‘over sharing.’ The documentary was directed by Ephron’s son, Jacob Bernstein. He suggests that, in pursuing her maxim, Ephron may have damaged her relationships and impacted on her long-term happiness. Writer beware.

Nora Ephron died from Leukemia in 2012. She was 71. For many months she hadn’t disclosed the nature of her illness to her family, friends and colleagues. Perhaps in her final chapter, she determined that, while everything is copy, some very personal things should remain unwritten.

One leaves the documentary with a broader admiration of Ephron: an independent spirit who was both self-effacing and self-confident; who was dynamic and determined; who encouraged others to take control of their lives.

‘Above all be the heroine of your life, not the victim.’
Nora Ephron (Commencement Address to Wellesley College Class of 1996)



No. 124