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  • Writer's pictureMatilda Butler

What You Can Learn from Nora Ephron's Journalism Teacher

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

Inspiration from Nora Ephron

I've long admired Nora Ephron. What's not the like! Her screenwriting talents were impressive. My favorite movies based on her scripts are: When Harry Met Sally, You've Got Mail, and Sleepless in Seattle. I watch these about once a year -- a tradition started on Valentine's Day in 2017 when my partner and I decided to devote the entire day to romantic movies. And what could be more perfect than those three! Since we don't binge-watch programs, this devotion to a day of Nora Ephron was memorable.

Although we no longer take in all three movies in a single day, we do go back to them when a dose of romance is appreciated and/or when we notice the movies are suddenly available on a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon. And I'm writing about this today because we've seen all three in the past few weeks.

But that puts the focus on romance. It wasn't until later when I read about her early writing experiences that I found inspiration from her life for my own life.

Let me share...

...this story with you. Perhaps it will give you a new perspective, a new insight into your circumstances, a new inspiration to carry with you as you move forward in your life.

I learned about Nora Ephron's early writing experiences from Chip and Dan Heath's 2007 book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The authors interviewed Ephron and she recalled for them the first day of her high school journalism class when the teacher gave the students their first assignment. They were to write the first sentence of a newspaper story -- the sentence called the lead (AKA lede) -- that all-important beginning. The teacher wrote the necessary facts on the blackboard:

"Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund 'Pat' Brown."

The students furiously began to write the first lead in what many hoped would be a successful career in journalism. Chip and Dan Health say that Ephron and all her fellow students began to pound away on their manual typewriters (yes, long before computers) reordering and condensing the facts into a single sentence: "Governor Pat Brown, Margaret Mead, and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the Beverly Hills High School faculty Thursday in Sacramento...blah, blah, blah."

Nora Ephron continued her story saying that the teacher picked up all the pieces of paper and scanned them before tossing them aside. He looked at the students and said,

"The lead to the story is 'There will be no school next Thursday.'"

"I immediately saw how the teacher had moved us away from just the 'factual story' to the 'readers of the story.' In other words, what in the story mattered to the reader." Ephron went on, "It was a breathtaking moment. In that instant I realized that journalism was not just about regurgitating the facts but about figuring out the point. It wasn't enough to know the who, what, when, and where; you had to understand what it meant. And why it mattered."

The Takeaway Isn't What You Think

No. I'm not suggesting that you lead the kind of life others want for you. You do not need to pursue paths from the perspective of others. You don't need to run decisions past other people to see what they think.

Instead, the takeaway is:

• Consider your life from an outside perspective. Figure out the point of what you have been doing. Move away from the specifics, the particulars that may be keeping you down. It is so easy to get bound up in what you did yesterday. What needs to be accomplished today. Instead reflect on the meaning of your life.

Imagine you are a reader of your life. What do you -- that reader of your life -- see that the day-to-day you may be missing. Most people are so caught up in the details that they miss the overall picture -- the essential message of life.

If someone said, "Tell me about your life. I have five minutes." What would you say? It would be great if you could respond with a message about what you've done, where you are headed, and how you intend to get there.

In the meantime, until you get that question, take time TODAY to start figuring out your answer. It probably doesn't start with when and where you were born or the problems you encountered yesterday. Your answer isn't about your parents or your siblings. Your answer just might be what has inspired you and brought you to this point as well what inspiration you have to move forward.

Be the Reader of Your Own Life.

Then Write Its Next Chapter!


Missed Our Previous Blogs? Check these out!

Rosie the Riveter's Riveting Story -- Find out the connection to Jackie Kennedy's fashion designer and Rosalind Palmer Walter (major funder of public television).

Wendy the Welder (Rosie the Riveter's Co-Worker)

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