Here’s a story I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.
A woman goes to see a psychic. The psychic tells the woman that she has a friend who is in a lot of pain. The woman nods. The psychic tells the woman that she must tell this friend something: the friend must write a book about the pain, and the pain will go away, and she will make a lot of money. The woman leaves the psychic, and calls her friend.
The friend is Nora Ephron; and the book is Heartburn.
The reason we know about this psychic story is because Jesse Kornbluth wrote about it for New York Magazine, on the day that Heartburn was published.
One more fact: Nora Ephron never spoke to Jesse Kornbluth again.
This seems reasonable, because the piece is a hatchet job; and the point of the hatchet is the pain–book–money triangle proposed by the psychic.
As in: if a woman turns her pain into money, is it art?
As in: the art of the novel means it’s not a novel if it happened, and we all know that the things in Heartburn happened, so it’s not a novel. So it’s not art.
If you are unfamiliar with the rough plot of Heartburn, it goes like this: Rachel Samstat, a famous writer, is married to Mark Feldman, a famous journalist. They have one child. She is pregnant with their second, and he is having an affair with the long-necked, long-nosed wife of the British ambassador, Thelma Rice.
If you want to, and Kornbluth does, you can bring receipts for this. You can notice that Ephron uses the same descriptions for herself as for Rachel Samstat, often word for word; you can unpick her thin system of pseudonyms; you can cross-reference characters. There is kind of a cachet in doing it, for Ephron fans. It’s sort of like: if you know enough to know that Ephron’s first husband had cats, not hamsters, you know Ephron well enough to call her Nora, and if she wasn’t dead, the two of you would be friends. You have read the introductions, and the essays, and the memoirs. You have read the story behind the story. You know her.
You have climbed from the public façade into the private apartments; or, at least, into the illusion of private apartments. You are in the IKEA store version of a home, and you make yourself cozy.
Here is Delia Ephron on Nora Ephron’s death: As busloads of strangers tell me what she meant to them, I sympathize with Caroline Kennedy: losing her daddy has nothing to do with millions of Americans losing a president.
The day we told people that my fiancé died—his name was John, and he was twenty-eight—we sat in the hot little kitchen of my friend’s flat above the street market reading the nice things people had said. A lot of people had said nice things; John had known a lot of people, and also he was a journalist, and funny, which meant a lot of people were sad about his death whom he had never known.I wrote about what it was like to be not-widowed in your twenties. Then I wrote about what it was like to fall in love again. “You write like an open wound,” said my friend, and I said: thank you.
“It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person,” read my friend, and then he put his phone face down on the sofa and took a big drag on one of John’s cigarettes. “It fucking could,” he said, after a minute. “It happens to nicer people every day.”
By it we meant death, and also everything else that had happened to John. We went down the stack of condolence cards, picking out all the people John had liked (small pile), and all the people John had loved (even smaller pile), and all the people John had been rude about (big pile), and all the people none of us had ever heard of (biggest pile). The person being mourned in almost all of them seemed almost unrecognizable to us, which was strange, because these were people who only knew him through his work. He was incredibly funny about dying, and he wrote very funny things about dying very young. Also, like me, he wrote about himself. We had both written about him dying for money; we had tried to make art out of something terrible, we had tried to, as it were, go full Ephron. Everything, after all, is copy.
This was why it was strange: it made clear the enormous gulf between the art and the life. And, I suppose, the death.
And yet both of us had tried very, very hard to be truthful. It had really mattered to us both.
After John died, I began working on two separate writing projects. One of them was a memoir; and one of them was a novel. The memoir is published this month, and the novel will probably never be published.
The novel will never be published for several reasons, but mostly (and this is only funny in context) because it is too personal.
This is funny because the memoir, the one published this month, is about the most personal thing that has ever happened to me: John’s death, and what went on because of it. Like all my writing, it verges on the oversharing. I have written about—in no particular order of importance—my own suicide attempts, other people’s suicide attempts, why I cut off my birth father, what I regret about cutting off my birth father, what I don’t regret about cutting off my birth father, self-harm, self-help, my home, my garden, my pets, my relationships, and the slow and painful death-by-degrees of my partner of seven years. Then I wrote about what it was like to be not-widowed in your twenties. Then I wrote about what it was like to fall in love again. “You write like an open wound,” said my friend, and I said: thank you.
The novel, however, was about sisters. And I have sisters. I have three sisters (making us a classic four girls, like the Ephrons or the Marches), and I had written a book about four sisters.
This was my first mistake. My second mistake was to have the eldest sister narrate the novel. (I am the eldest.) My third mistake was to think it would matter that the four of them were not notably like the four of us. I had been consoling myself with the idea that the fictional sisters were married to different people—an Italian billionaire, for instance—or worked different jobs—a performance artist—or lived in New York; and this idea had sustained me cheerfully through several years of writing about the implausible things that happened to them. Nothing that happened to the fictional sisters ever happened to us. Everything was made up. Also, they were made up characters. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental, as the disclaimers at the front of novels sometimes say.
And yet, when I read back through several years’ work, I thought: nope.
I had crossed a line, and I had not even known the line was there. Where the line is, is subjective, writes Delia Ephron, in that essay about her sister’s death. Perhaps to you I have already crossed it or I will cross it, but to me I have not and will not.
So there was a line; and the line was fiction. The fact it was fiction made it irresistible (I felt) to try and figure out what I really felt, and about which sister; whereas in memoir I just said what I thought, or what I wanted you to think I thought, and that was that. In fiction I felt afraid of what I might let slip without even knowing I had been holding onto it; and I felt afraid of what would happen if I wrote about it. I felt afraid that, in fiction, I was losing something; and even stealing something.
A nice thing John used to do for me, before he died—and this is something I have never written about before, a thing that has always been private but now becomes relevant to make public—is that he used to draw cartoons for me, especially if he was going to be out when I was in. I would come home and find the cartoon on the kitchen table, or pinned up with the spices, or on my pillow. I should have kept them, and did not, so the only evidence that they happened is here in this essay. Perhaps that, actually, is the reason I have written it: he was alive, he was not notably nice, and he drew cartoons just to make me laugh.
The cartoons were an ongoing series with only two characters. The cartoons were of two famous British novelists, sisters, both awarded Damehoods for their contributions to literature: Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt. The sisters were—both in the cartoon, and in real life—trapped in a famous feud about art.
Drabble, on Byatt: She was so upset when she found that I had written, many decades ago, about a particular tea set that our family possessed because she had wanted to use it herself. She felt I had appropriated something which was not mine. Writers are territorial and they resent intruders.
Byatt, inscribing her own “novel about sisters” to Drabble: with love/ I owe you an apology.
And then, of course, there is Delia Ephron’s wedding vows turning up in the mouth of Sleepless In Seattle’s Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks), and attributed—by the real Tom Hanks, and at Nora’s funeral—to Nora. It was like coming home, but not to any home I’d ever known.
“That’s mine,” Delia says, to her husband; or says she says, in her own essay about Nora, Losing Nora. The essay collection is titled Sister Mother Husband Dog (Etc.). Sister first.
I wondered whether I would let my sister write about John’s death, as it happened to her. I wondered whether I would let my sister write about my own death, and then I thought that I couldn’t stop her. I wondered whether I was writing about things—am writing about things, even now—that stop my sisters writing about them. I wondered whether I was, metaphorically or not, writing about the tea set.
This is a memoir, which means it’s fiction, I wrote at the start of my new book. I wanted to be very clear. It had taken me three and a half years to write the book, and I had given everyone pseudonyms. I had taken out several passages that seemed to my publishers to be unwise, and many more that seemed to my friends to be unwise: too wound-y. And yet I was still afraid. I remain afraid, actually, that I will have got some detail of John’s life and death wrong.
I am afraid even using his name in this essay is going to somehow ruin my life: that someone is going to try and tell me I didn’t do it right. People do, sometimes. He was a different person for them; he was a different person to me. He was generous and mean and drew me cartoons about literary feuds, but he was not like that for everyone, and people like to tell me that. They like to tell me how he belonged to them, the way they tell Delia about Nora. And in some ways, of course, I am asking for it.
“I can understand why Nora wouldn’t want something written about her,” an unnamed friend told Jesse Kornbluh for his piece. “What I find amazing is that she could write 179 pages about herself, and then not want to be written about.”
What I, personally, find amazing is that anyone could say this—a friend!—and not see the problem with it. The problem is, as always, who is doing the writing. Who gets to speak? Who gets to tell the story? Who gets the tea-set, and what does it cost to give it away?
In the legal agreement for Ephron’s divorce, she agreed to keep her name off anything further to do with Heartburn. She agreed to not write about her divorce again; or her family. She agreed to take her name off any putative TV show, and give Bernstein the right to veto the film script.
“Paramount views [the script] as total fiction,” a source told the Washington Post, as the lawyers made it clear that it was not, and could not be: if it was total fiction, why was it the sticking point in the divorce? Why was Ephron making it clear, in the separation agreement, that “the father in…’Heartburn’ will be portrayed at all times as a caring, loving and conscientious father”? The line was blurry; the line was there; and yet—somehow, despite the press, despite the “friends” so keen to express their own emotions—Ephron was still in charge.The problem is, as always, who is doing the writing. Who gets to speak? Who gets to tell the story? Who gets the tea-set, and what does it cost to give it away?
The thing is, I suppose, that all fiction is autobiographical; all memoir is fiction, of a sort. Write what you know is trite, but like so many trite sayings, is only trite because it’s been said so often. You can only write what you know. You can only write what you thought, and what you saw, and what you remember; and where pain is concerned memory can be strange and fickle, bright in some places and hazy in others.
Memory is always strange. The unreliable narrator is every narrator; and everyone is a narrator at some time or other. The truth is that we can’t help telling what happened to us, however we package it up: a gossip, a bitch, a book. An article, a hatchet job, an interview, a novel, a memoir. The boundaries between these things are porous and artificial; they exist loosely and thinly around the living, moving bodies of the stories. We want to get closer to the thing behind the boundary—the real thing, the real person—so we push the boundary.
The great contradiction at the heart of it all is that the thing that brings us together—words, and the ordering of them—is the thing that keeps us apart. Writing is the art of connection but it’s also the art of distance: I write, you read. We hold a mirror up to life, and are surprised when objects in the mirror may be smaller than they appear.
All writing is an attempt to make distance from something that is too close for comfort; I want to take it out of my life, and put it into yours. I want to control the uncontrollable: if pain is a loss of control, then writing is the supreme act of taking it back. Writing is an attempt to keep it together.
IKEA showhomes have a purpose, and the purpose is that everything in them has a price, and a place.
A bit after John died, and all his things had been taken away—among them our bed, and our saucepans, and our pictures—I found myself in IKEA. I had to make a house, and I was going to do it with the money from writing a book about everything that hurt. I was still crying pretty much all the time. I sat on the bed in one of the little showrooms, and looked through the show window out into the IKEA corridor. It was like coming home, but not to any home I’d ever known, I thought. And then I bought the bed, and also the chest of drawers that went with it, and I went home to write. I knew then that I was going to write about it. It was the only thing I could do.
This essay, I suppose, has taken me four years to write. I started it on that day in IKEA, when I could not stop crying. Some of it happened like this. Some of it didn’t. There are questions raised in here that I’ve skimmed over: why did John’s death mean I no longer had a bed? Why was “the day we told people John died” distinct from the day he really died? This is a memoir, which means it’s a kind of fiction.
Listen: I am trying not to write about the tea set. I am trying not to cross the line, and I am trying in this essay to tell you that it is all true, as I understand truth. It is all real, as I understand reality.
The point is this: the psychic was right.
Perhaps not about the money, not for me. (Although I live in hope.)
But she was right about the writing.