Monthly Archives: May 2014

Write Better Content

Yesterday, I attended WordCamp Israel, 2014, a day of learning and discussions for WordPress users. As a long time WordPress blogger, and a former Hollywood script analyst, I thought it would be interesting to talk about something less technical than widgets, coding, or meta tags but to really delve into why story is so important and how an appreciation of it can make your content better, no matter why you are blogging:

I started off with a sad but very illuminating story. About four years ago, my best friend lay in her bed, dying. It was breast cancer. I had just returned from Israel. Julie – she said weakly – tell me about your trip. I thought it was horrible to talk about a vacation while someone was dying!

Please, Lynn said. She was not able to even open her eyes.

I told her about the Red Sea and how warm it was. I told her you could see the hills of the Saudi Kingdom from there. I described the hot, greasy schwarma and the tender, crumbling falafel.

I felt like Sherhezade – I had to keep talking.

I described Petra and the silence in the desert. And the way the old city in Jerusalem smells a little like smoke and oil and flowers.

One tear rolled down Lynn’s cheek. It’s so ancient, she said. That was the last thing she ever said to me and that was the moment in my life when I realized how important – how truly important story telling is.

Because it transports us. Even on our death beds.

Stories only happen to those who can tell them.

~ Paul Auster

Here is a truth: Good stories – good writing – good content – is immersive, compelling and entertaining. Every time. 

You already know this. Because this recognition and ability is hard-wired within you. Believe it. But many of us do not ourselves consume enough good content online (we skim, more on that later) or we assume that it’s easy to write good content and we may not try all that hard.  quote

I learned valuable lessons about mediocrity in my ten years in Hollywood – in an environment of extremely high stakes, where NO NOT GOOD ENOUGH is a daily mantra, I learned that NO is an invitation to better and that mediocrity will never, ever make you stand out from the crowd.

I learned that asking more and MORE of your story, of your idea or concept was a way to sharpen your skills:

 NO. Not good enough. What else happens? Why is this unique?

In Hollywood this might seem like a jaded attitude but really it’s just a reaction to too much material and too little time. And so often, unfortunately, what we think is unique and interesting – just isn’t. It’s a rough environment.

Writing online is a different environment and yet asks the same of a writer – why is this different – because today we are inundated with content and information masquerading as content.

There is an ocean of information online and its easy to get lost in the crowd. How is your blog better? 

Whether you blog for personal reasons or to sell a product or service, your content is just one more piece of information floating around.  Usually when we think of improving readership, we think of SEO, hashtags, sharing on multiple social media outlets efficiently. And this is true. It is important.

But content is king.

Here’s the thing: you don’t need to have a doctorate in English (or any other) Literature to get some fundamental truths of story. You just have to know how important good content is.

Remember – story telling is innate within us. The ancients knew how to tell stories and there’s never really been any improvement on the basic construct, whether in writing or in the oral tradition: odyssey




Or – as I say – Beginning, middle, BLOODY POINT ALREADY!

We are accustomed to digesting stories in three acts – the set up, the complication and the resolution.

Today I went to the store. They were out of tahini. I found the tahini.

In and of itself – this three-part story is not entertaining. Stories have many moving parts. By changing one element we have a much more interesting story – one that begs for our attention:

Today I went to the store. They were out of bullets. I found the bullets.

Now you have my attention. You have aroused my curiosity. The fun thing about story telling is that it has so many moving parts. What point of view should you be writing in? First person? Third? What is the main point of your story? Where is this happening, what makes this unique? You have a world at your fingertips. Practice your “blogging voice” or persona until you get it right.

Imagine yourself at a dinner party. Hey everybody! You say. Hey! You’ll never believe what happened! And you get all eyes on you and you get this immediate reaction to your story. And by dint of the fact that you started telling a story, we know you want to entertain us.  Yes, some people are better story tellers than others but it’s both because they do it a lot and because they enjoy the feeling of entertaining others. There is a high and an immediate feedback.

However, when you blog, you write into the ether. You are greeted by silence. Which for many, is a relief. Many writers are shy. But – how do you know if your blog was successful? By the number of comments and shares? Yes, in part. By the number of followers and those who discuss the article? Definitely.  But there are some caveats. What makes readers share, comment on or otherwise interact with your blog?

There are a few things you should take into consideration. Chief among them is the fact that definitely attention spans are shorter. The internet has given everybody in the world a voice and there is a huge amount of content online. Ergo, writing not just good but great content is more important than ever.

Most people skim content. In the New York Times there is a great article by Karl Greenfeld, about Faking Cultural Literacy – which points to our modern tendency to glean as much information as possible as quickly and easily as possible. Further, we live in an age of “listicles” – Top ten ways to lose weight before summer! Top three things you need to know about sex!

So where does good story telling fit into the modern reading habits and attention span of those who would build our readership? How can bloggers adapt? 


In other words:

Get my attention

Tell me the authentic truth

Make it matter in my life

Here are a few ways you can study up on better content writing:

Keep a diary of what content you read and why.

What do you notice about why you clicked on or read what you read? What grabbed you? Was it relevant to you in your life? Was it written with honesty and authenticity? Was it provocative and interesting – in either the title, the piece itself or ideally both? Did what you read leave you with something you didn’t know? Did it make you want to take action – even if that just means following the RSS feed?

Learn about great content by reading it. 

Curate your Facebook Feed. Follow those publications and writers that consistently write what grabs you. Read great content and study what makes it great.

Establish a clear vision for your blog.

Why do you blog? Whether for pleasure or for business you should be able to define and describe your blog in what amounts to a tagline: Great activities for eco-hikers! Or whatever that description needs to be. When you are clear about your blog, your blog will be clearer. What, exactly, can I expect from your blog in general? And how is it different from other content?

The worst sin you can commit as a writer is to be dull and obvious. Avoid this at all costs. Don’t give me anther stupid listicle of the top three ways I can polish my cutlery. And if you do write for a cutlery business, or a medical supplier? You can still try to find a way in to that blog post that is authentic, truthful, entertaining and relevant. You can find a way.


Beginning. Middle. Blood Point Already.

Get my attention

Give me some truths; make me laugh or think or disagree with you.

Leave me with something that means something in MY life.

Now go out and blog and do it well! If you need some private lessons to improve your writing, please drop me a line. I am glad to help. If you fancy a social situation and live in Israel, come join the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon and get those creative juices flowing.


We Are Born Story Tellers

The tradition of oral story telling goes so far back in human history that nobody can really find the first examples of it. It was probably something to do with a hunt that was made epic and entertaining. There were stories of angry gods and far away places and battles. Story telling was both entertainment and information gathering. They were how we related to the world.

And yet today we get nervous if we have to pitch something or take a meeting. We don’t know what to talk about on a first date. We find ourselves choked off and silent. But the urge to spin a tale, to hold your listener rapt is one that is written in our very DNA.

You tell stories every single day. What’d you do today? What did that person say? How was your vacation? So why should your meeting be any different? Tell me a story – the story of your script – the story of your new product – the story of your life. whitman

I am a huge fan of The Moth. If you aren’t familiar with the Moth and it’s many, many subsequent offshoots, the Moth brings back the idea of oral storytelling vis a vis “story slams”. Speakers – many famous and gifted professional story tellers – along with ordinary people, take the stage to tell us a story.

Perhaps we are nervous when its our turn to tell a story because we are simply out of practice. Perhaps we listen to or watch other people’s stories so much that our own become atrophied. Why not get back in touch with the art of story telling by attending events in your area or starting  a story telling group?

The ability to tell a great story will not only make you the belle of many a cocktail party but also much more effective in meetings and social interactions in general. Remember, story tellers don’t only talk AT their audience – they engage them. cocktail

You don’t have to take the stage to be a good story teller – again – you tell stories every single day. Have you ever been at a gathering when someone starts to say they’ll tell you a story – and your blood kind of runs cold and your eyes search the room for a way out? Why is this? Because this person is not a good story teller. Their stories wander, are completely self-referential and are not engaging. They are long-winded and too full of details. This person just likes to hear him or herself talk.

I am sure you also have people you know who are excellent story tellers. People who get going and you are grinning because you are so entertained, because they give just the right amount of details, without too much, because they use sound effects and mimicry, because they really put you right there in the situation. Because their stories have a point. We all have stories – we’ve done so much in our lives. But part of being a good story teller is knowing when that story is best used. Yes, yes, you’ve been to Borneo, but would that story really fit into this situation? What is relevant about the story? In what way is it entertaining?  story

Telling yourself stories is something we do everyday too. We just don’t think of it that way. We narrate our lives every day – sometimes positively, often times negatively. This always happens. That never happens. So-and-so thinks this or did that. You would be amazed at how your life can change if you change the stories you tell yourself.


StorySlam Live in London is an amazing organization that you can get involved with if you are in the UK.  The Story Slam in Tel Aviv is great, if sporadic fun with great stories. The LA Story Telling Festival is an active community of story tellers.


The Lost Art of the Film Critic

Who can forget acerbic film critic – the queen of the movie reviews – Pauline Kael?

What – you’ve never heard of her? And you like movies? Okay well, we’re changing that as of today. Read up, kids, on both her personal and professional life.

The critical task is necessarily comparative, and younger people do not truly know what is new. ~Pauline Kaelkael

Most of us came to know another famous film critic, Roger Ebert, for his down home take on movies. In his earlier career, Ebert never struck me as silver-tongued the way Kael was, or particularly high-brow, but over time, as his fame grew, he got very comfortable being plainly truthful and some of his reviews were sidesplittingly funny:

In the upstairs bedroom, old Ann dies very slowly, remembering the events of the long-ago wedding night and the next morning…She is attended by a nurse with an Irish accent (Eileen Atkins), who sometimes prompts her: “Remember a happy time!” Dissolve to Ann’s memory of a happy time. It is so mundane that if it qualifies as a high point in her life, it compares with Paris Hilton remembering a good stick of gum. ~Roger Ebert on Dangerous Minds

ebertLeonard Maltin is not a film critic that ever moved me. His reviews are straight forward, he takes no chances, and his writing is not stellar. He’s workman like.

My all time favorite film critic is the incredibly intelligent and sometimes quite cutting Anthony Lane, who reviews film for the New Yorker.  His reviews are entertaining whether you have any actual desire to see the film. He’s a good read for the sake of a good read. Here’s Lane on the latest iteration of Godzilla:

Wrinkled and crinkled, huge in Japan, heroically reluctant to give up, and forever touring the world on a mission to make us scream, Godzilla is the Mick Jagger of giant amphibians. ~ Anthony Lane

Click here to read the whole review. In fact, I am a big fan of Lane’s book, Nobody’s Perfect, a collection of his reviews.

Here’s Lane on the book The Bridges of Madison County:

“I got my copy at the airport, behind a guy who was buying Playboy’s Book of Lingerie, and I think he had the better deal. He certainly looked happy with his purchase, whereas I had to ask for a paper bag.” ~Anthony Lane

Lest you think that movie reviews are simply collections of exceptionally witty retorts, they also provide, as the Kael quote above alludes to, context for the movies you see. critic

Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, both helpful aggregate sites to be sure, are also emblematic of the times we live in. Quick – just tell me – three stars or five? Should I go or not? But that’s really it. No context and certainly no writing artistry can be found on these sites. But that’s okay, they serve a purpose.

If you love reading a review for the sheer pleasure of enjoying the wit, the context and the perspective a bonafide film critic includes, including the history and trajectory of particular film trends, here is a link to a short stack I found on Slate, of books on the topic. I was pleased to see I’d read most of them.

From Hollywood to Israel, it’s a Funny Ol’ World

If I had a nickel for every time somebody asks me why on earth I moved to Israel from Los Angeles, I’d be very rich by now.  And I realized something odd – I write all the time, I have written much about living in Israel, but I have never really told the story of just what got me here and what keeps me here. Sometimes, a bit flippantly (and cryptically) I say that “death brought me to Israel”. Ever the story teller, I like to see a whetted appetite. And – it’s true. Death did bring me to this part of the world. But nothing is quite as simple as that, is it? hollywood

I had been living in LA for about 7 years or so, and I was really energized by it and had thrown myself into my life and my business there. I was experiencing a rapid climb in becoming known around town and in the screenwriting world, as this “guru” and I had an office on a studio lot. I hobnobbed with a lot of well known writers and was really flying high. I didn’t know it, but even then, there were things coming at me that would turn my world upside down.

A really talented and good friend of mine had taken a six month animation job at a company in Jerusalem and she invited me many times to come visit while she was there. Though I am Jewish, I had ZERO interest in going. All I could picture in my mind was a hot, dangerous, rocky place. Why the HELL would I go there?! I had nary a Zionist bone in my body and I like to think my bus will not explode. Call me crazy. She’d be home soon enough, we’d visit then. Besides, I was busy. So busy.

Then one day, Blake Snyder, of Save the Cat died. He just got up one morning and died. He was about 57, I think. I had just seen him about two months prior. I won’t pretend we were friends, but we’d spent some time together and he had mentored me, for which I will always be grateful. His death was very shocking to me in its suddenness. Blake just – died one day. It really scared me, the fragility of life. If it could happen to Blake, it could happen to anyone. I had just seen him. He looked fine.

I contacted my friend in Jerusalem and said okay I’m coming. I’m just coming. It’s the last place I want to go but I was just so shaken up, I decided it was stupid to miss an opportunity like this. So I went to Israel for about two weeks, including a few days in Egypt. Like most things that completely change your life, I didn’t recognize that something enormous had just happened. jeru

Egypt was chaotic and amazing but Israel – wow – the minute I arrived, I felt something deep within me, a very deep connection. I spent most of my time in Jerusalem  – the holy city. I’m not in the least bit religious but there is something in the air in Jerusalem that is inexplicable. A faint scent of oil and incense and flowers. The Jerusalem stone is dun colored and warm. Laundry flutters from windows and the streets are both crowded and quiet. I went back to Los Angeles, and I cried all the way home. I couldn’t figure out why. I thought it was a really bad case of jet lag. But I just couldn’t get Israel – and the way I felt when I was there – out of my mind.

I returned to my hyper-busy, life being the “script guru” in Hollywood, staying up too late and drinking too much and thinking myself all that, far beyond what I or what was going on around me really was. I was losing perspective inside of a bell jar of my own making.

Then a few things began to happen at once – I had no idea how they would gather to become the perfect storm, I really didn’t see the changes coming.

My friend Lynn began to die of breast cancer. She was fifty-three. Lynn had been ill for a long time but she began to decline sharply and it was clear she had only months to live. I visited and knitted at her side and brought her treats to make her feel better but she was dying and there was no use denying it. At the same time, my brother was experiencing a serious depression and struggling very much in his life. My family and I cycled in and out of helplessness, frustration and growing alarm.

At the time, one of my best, closest friends was the writer of a very famous comedy film that you know and love. And he had a drug problem and I knew it and it was no secret – he spoke of it openly, but I was so enamored of his fame and his wit that I naively figured it would be okay, that it didn’t matter, and we began seriously discussing starting a production company together. This idea was going to change my life forever and it was all quite heady. Then I went to England and taught and lapped up all of that recognition and came home having hired a new business consultant that I’d only just met there in London. He was tall, dark, handsome, smart as hell and I was sure he was what I needed to take my business to the next level. Things were happening really fast.

My brother was getting worse and worse and Lynn was confined to her bed. But I was moving at the speed of light and was traveling, teaching and feeling myself quite important. I went back to Israel to spend about 3 weeks in Jerusalem in a rented flat, to work on my screenwriting book. It was a welcome respite, so much more quiet than Hollywood and I shopped and cooked and hung out my laundry and felt a world apart from the hurly burly my life had become. I would go to the King David hotel and sip expensive coffee and write my book and look out on the Old City in awe. When the plane left the tarmac of Ben Gurion and headed toward Europe, I felt a great loss, a sadness that I could not fathom or understand. I wanted to stay in Israel more than I didn’t want to return to LA. I felt I was headed in the opposite direction of home.

I had returned to LA for about a week when I went to see Lynn. She had moved from her home in Santa Monica to a hotel by the beach so she could look at the sea while she died. She was only semi-conscious when I got there. So frail. She instructed me to sit precisely as I always did and to knit. She wanted me to knit because I always did when we visited. I was shaky and tearful – I had never been in such close proximity to death – I could feel its presence in the room – but I picked up my yarn and needles and sort of pretended for her sake. What I held in my hands was a ball of knots. Every few minutes I excused myself, went into the other room and sobbed for a couple of minutes, blew my nose and came back. I didn’t want her to see that.

Tell me about Israel, Lynn said, in her barely audible voice. She couldn’t even open her eyes. It seemed a terrible thing to me, to talk about a vacation while my friend lay dying. I protested that no, this time should be about her. But she was firm. She wanted to hear about my trip. She knew I’d gone to the Red Sea and she began to weakly, slowly, fill in the gaps – was it warm, she said? What did it feel like? `It took me a moment to realize how important this was to Lynn, this story, she wanted to be transported away from her death bed. So I told her all about it, in great detail. I told her about the Red Sea and how you can see the hills of the Saudi Kingdom from there. I told her about the creamy hummus with golden olive oil. I told her of the call of the muezzin over Arab villages. I felt like Sheherezade.

Lynn listened in near silence, she was barely able to speak.  Then, one tear slowly slid down her cheek and she whispered – it’s so ancient, so ancient. Those were the last words she said to me. Three days later, she died.

The man I’d hired as a business consultant, the one living in London, began to act more and more strangely. He missed Skype meetings, he texted me sometimes unintelligibly, he said that someone had broken into his home and he was looking over hours of CCTV footage to find the culprit.  He didn’t make sense. I got scared.

I talked it over with my lawyer and she said do you have an actual contract with this guy? Anything on paper? This is a frightening situation, Julie. So I took a deep breath, called him and cheerfully said, hey let’s get our agreement on paper, okay? What he said next still sends chills down my spine; he went from a growl to a scream: who have you been TALKING TO?! And he hung up. Now I was scared. This guy had every password, every bit of information about my company, he had the keys to the kingdom. And something was seriously wrong with him. What was I going to do?!

My brother continued his downward slide. According to my parents, he had lost a lot of weight. When I spoke to him which was several times a week, he went in circles and was agitated and anxious. Over the months I had sent him books, and affirmations and tapes and anything – anything to help him out of his slide. I called doctors and hospitals in his area, with his insurance information and looked for programs where he could stay for a few weeks and get better. He was going on and off medications like a merry go round, totally unsupervised. He was in danger. I found a hospital that was about an hour’s drive away but he couldn’t drive because of his condition and it was outpatient, he’d have to go four times a week – back and forth. It wouldn’t work.

I never really had the time to mourn for Lynn. But she was gone. One day, while in the shower, I felt Lynn – I felt her presence right over my head, and she said SMILE, Julie. SMILE, I am okay. grief

But the crazy guy in England has totally gone off the rails. He calls me late at night and threatens me. He asks me to send several thousand dollars immediately, or he will “ruin” me. He sends me emails detailing how he will “crawl through blood and broken glass” to get me. I am really scared. He calls the famous writer I was about to work with and tells him that I am telling everybody he has a drug problem. It’s not true –  of course I had not said anything to anybody – except to this increasingly frightening person, and only then lightly, that I had concerns. But my friend, probably scared that I was in fact telling everyone in Hollywood what they already knew, called me up, ended our friendship and canceled our business deal. The lost opportunity was not the worst of it. It was the lost friendship. That still hurts.

It was during this time that I thought more and more of Israel. Compared to hell I was going through – a death I didn’t even have time to mourn, a business partner who was spiraling into madness, my brother’s alarming slide into depression – all I could think was that I wanted to be in that warm country and just be quiet. I wanted to go away. But I couldn’t. I had to deal with what was in front of me.

On May 13th, 2010, at about 5:20pm my mother called me. She was hysterical. The sheriff had just been there – Pete had shot himself. No, I said. Put dad on the phone, thinking my mother had gone insane. My father confirmed it. I must have screamed or something – all I remember is slamming my hands down on my desk and saying - NO. One of my rings, that I had bought in Israel, is still bent where it made impact.

I think I was wailing or something, because people came running up the hall there on the lot – What? What? What? I had to be driven home, unable to stand.

It was true. Three days later, I was at my brother’s funeral. I hadn’t been able to help him. Nobody had. Why didn’t he call me that day? Why hadn’t I called him? It was too late. He was 48 years old. He shot himself in front of a bathroom mirror covered with post-its with affirmations.

My life changed forever.

None of this slowed down the crazy guy in England. My lawyer staunchly said no, we do not send money before we have a contract, we do not yield to blackmail and threats! So the guy went crazy. He sent out emails to all my clients saying I had cheated them and put my cell phone number in the email. He began to call other colleagues and telling them all sorts of stuff – he just made it up. And the sad part – the part that ultimately made me leave Hollywood – people were perfectly willing to believe a perfect stranger with an English accent, who said vague things, rather than ask me what was going on. The fact that he’d made the calls was enough for most people. There was no fact checking, there were no questions asked. People began to disassociate themselves from me. My book editor took her payment of several thousand dollars and then quit not having done her job. The guy had called her too. I don’t know what he said to her, she never told me. My assistant received an email from him. She quit too.  I’ll never forget, a very famous producer of a very famous movie called me up and told me we’d not associate with one another again because a “private detective from England” had called him with some serious allegations – Gary, I said, listen – this is a crazy guy who is threatening me! He’s nuts! But no, Gary was done. No questions asked. Nobody wants the stink of a scandal – even a completely fabricated one – anywhere near them. My business began to collapse.

My friend had died, three weeks later my brother had committed suicide, and my business was collapsing under my feet because of a crazy person in England who happened to have a nice accent. My legal fees were enormous. I carried on, best I could, which wasn’t very well – and a few months later, I took my brother’s ashes to Israel. jaffa

On a stormy day over the Mediterranean, I hired a drunk skipper (the only one willing to go out in the storm) to take me a kilometer or so off of Jaffa so I could scatter his ashes. My brother had never traveled in his life. Now you’ve traveled, you son of a bitch! – was all I could think of saying as I scattered his ashes into the same sea the Phoenicians, Romans, Ottomans and Egyptians had sailed. When the boat chugged back to the pier, a bride and groom where braving the rising wind to take photos.

My life in LA was in tatters and nobody was interested in the aftermath, of how the FBI had opened a case file on the guy in England and barred him from entering the US because of his threats. Nobody was interested in the few people in England who came out of the woodwork and told me of similar behavior of his in the past. Turns out this very genteel, intelligent man was in fact a sociopath with a long history of freak outs and business ruining. But that was not of interest to anybody. So I mopped up the mess and tried to carry on, but I wasn’t able to.

I just wanted to go to Israel and heal. That was all I wanted to do. I knew it was a tough place and a dangerous place. I knew I couldn’t speak Hebrew at all, I knew these things would be tough. But I also knew, at least for awhile, I couldn’t go anywhere. My parents were hurting too much. My family was torn asunder. So I stuck it out for a couple more years, as my business evaporated and grief overtook me. I visited my parents at every opportunity and we’d sit in lawn chairs on the patio and listen to the wind in the trees.  empty

Finally I said, I’ve got to go. I have to go on living. So I sold everything I own – I mean – everything, my car, my furniture, I sold everything and came to Israel with three suitcases and a citizenship. I had little money on me, I didn’t speak the language and it was HOT. Hot, hot hot. Tel Aviv in the summer is something to reckon with. I got a little studio flat on a busy central street and just dived in. I was scared to go outside because people might speak to me and I couldn’t speak back.  I didn’t know how much a shekel was worth compared to a dollar, I had no idea where the sea was from my flat. I was totally lost.

Over time, I began to meet people, and took the state required language lessons and began to fit in a tiny bit. Not really though. Tel Aviv is a very urban, dense, chaotic city compared to Los Angeles. And my grief over all of it – my brother, Lynn, my business and reputation – it all weighed on me like a stone. You can’t outrun these feelings, I learned. But I had to cope. There I was. I had to learn the language, I had to hang out my laundry just like everybody else, I had to figure out the busses which was no mean feat for a life long car owner and one who didn’t know how to ask “where is bus number five” to save her life.

I began to make a life here. And oddly, improbably, the heat, the underlying tension, the intensity of Israel distracted me from the pain I had run from. One day I met an American girl with a dog on a leash and a floppy sunhat. Darcy had been living in Israel for a couple of years already. We became best friends. She was the polar opposite of everything I’d gone through – she heard my story, it was good enough for her, and she took me into her family and that was that. I think she is the best friend I have ever had in my life.

There is a saying about Israelis, that they will run you over with their car, back up and take you to the hospital. It’s true. Once an Israeli is your friend, once you have earned that? That’s it. Whereas, in my experience in Los Angeles, with a few exceptions to be sure, everyone is your friend – until that is no longer advantageous to them. Then – chick chack, as we’d say in Israel – you’re done. Don’t get me wrong; there are still a select few friends I have in LA who were there for me, who I cherish and always will. They believed in me, they tried to support me when I couldn’t stand on my own. But they couldn’t do much to help. This was my experience alone and that was never more plain to anybody than to me.

Nora, Theresa, Margaux, my darling Keith, Steve, Angela, Andrea Bari, Christine, David and Raven Sarnoff – these are amazing humans. And here and now, my beloved Darcy, the amazing Dahlia Lithwick, Lee Zahavi Jessup, Asaf and Yuval, Adi and Gil – so many Israelis who who never, ever pity me, but rather welcome me and make me know I am home now.

But during that terrible time, most of the other people I thought were friends –  were gone with the wind the minute I began to suffer to so much that I seemed contagious to them.  They just didn’t know what to do. I can’t really blame them.

The anniversary of my brother’s death comes and goes. I cry about it sometimes, wrenchingly. But here I am living on the razor’s edge, and Israelis don’t have time for crying. These are tough people and you have to be tough to earn their respect. This is not an easy place to live. Every single day is a struggle. The economy in Israel is good but is focused in one or two areas only. Start up being one of them. Outside of that, the middle class in Israel is several rungs lower than the middle class in the US, disappearing as it is. Here, outright poverty is much more common than in the US. For a country with the Iron Dome and Start Up Nation, the bureaucracy is something from a third world country. Israel is a strange place. A tiny, feisty, chaotic country, wedged between the sea and the desert, surrounded by enemies.  Israelis are like a big, quarreling family. Oh the arguments – sometimes I just….And there are millions of people living on the other side of a wall and they are angry. It is an untenable situation. But here we are. What will happen? I don’t know.

From the moment I first came here, I felt connected to this place. There is something I am here to do – something that matters. To show people that you can in fact traverse hell and come out alive? To give voice to writers who otherwise don’t have one? Does that sound self-important, to think that the universe is guiding you in something? Or deluded? I don’t know.  All I know is that I am here.

I started the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon and that makes me proud, and I’m slowly getting my writing program for Palestinian women off the ground (although, faced with a mountain of bureaucratic and security issues, this really will take some time) and I live with very little now.  No car, no fancy office, no weekly housekeeper, no spacious, 1920s LA apartment. It’s just me now. And Pete is still gone and Lynn is still gone and all I have is what I have.

But what I have could be worth something – I have the ability to get people to tell stories, and to tell them well. I am a teacher, I get people to talk. And that strikes me as something that is valuable in this place, where there are so many stories.  I miss my parents, they are grieving and aging back in the US. But I can’t do them any good there. I can’t help them no matter what I do, nothing will heal that gaping hole. So I have to think that I can help somebody else, somehow, someway.

I went back to LA about nine months after I moved to Israel. It seemed such a strange place to me. Sprawling and glittering and somehow, empty for me. I visited with friends still hell bent on breaking in to the entertainment business, with varying levels of success, and while I love and miss them, I could no longer connect with their ambitions. There had just been in Israel, a relatively minor conflict – Hamas had fired 1,500 missiles into Israel, it was the Operation Pillar of Defense. It was the first time in my life that I had heard the wail of sirens and had to run to a shelter and wait for the explosions. It was terrifying. This was not on TV. This was happening. It is an experience that one cannot fully explain or fathom until one has been in it, counting the seconds between the sirens and the explosions. You just keep thinking – this is real, this is happening right now – and your blood turns to ice in your veins and your heart pounds. For days later, the wail of a motorcycle at just the rich pitch makes you panic – is that the siren? Should I run? The Americans send warships to the Mediterranean and tell Americans they can leave if they wish. The Embassy sends out a dire warning. Your family begs you to come home. But, you realize, in what is surely the most extraordinary moment of you life – you are home. And one month later, I am in Los Angeles, having very expensive sushi, sitting with friends and speaking of this experience in ways that were utterly inadequate to describe it.

Oh my god – crazy! My friends say. And you feel yourself being that person – that insufferable person, thinking things like the traffic on the 405? Really? These are your worries?! But these were your worries too, in the Before Times. You are no better now, you just have a different set of worries. How can you live in such a dangerous place, people wanted to know, as we ordered another round of sake. The 405, random shootings, shifting friendships and ambitions, the fragility of life. Pick your poison. But I didn’t say that.

A well known colleague came to Israel from Los Angeles to speak at an event. Of course we met for coffee. You can take the girl out of LA but you can’t take the networker out of the girl. Her teeth were so white was the first thing I noticed. She was enthusiastic about Israel, having never been here before. She was bubbly and spoke, as Americans tend to do, much more loudly than anyone around. I felt slightly embarrassed for her and I didn’t know why. Hadn’t I been just like her? With bleached teeth and a bubbly attitude? I felt jealous as she mentioned this person and that event. That used to be my life. I looked down at my dusty sandals and distinctly unpedicured feet and then at her perfectly manicured hands, feet and outfit. What had I done?

My colleague was ebullient about how FUN Israel is and how GREAT it is and suddenly I heard myself reminding her that Gaza is about 60 kilometers away from where we were sitting. And that it’s not so fun there.wall

Suddenly, I felt somehow superior to this woman. Had she NO idea where she really was? But I couldn’t forget that not so long ago, before the death and the hurt and the pain, I had been just like her. Ambitious, single-minded and living in Los Angeles, the only town you can die of encouragement.

Hollywood is good and exciting and wonderful – but it’s only one way a writer might find satisfaction and reward in their writing. Just one way and one that in no way, shape or form can be attained through any consultant anywhere. The friends that I do have who have “made it” have done it by sheer perseverance. Years of focus and discipline and talent. You can’t really package that into a book or a talk. My colleague looked at her smart phone, made a frowny face of regret, then brightly announced that she had an important networking event at her Hilton and had to go. They have the BEST hummus there, she said. Unbelievable. I love Israel. We got the check and I was never so relieved in my life.

From the frying pan to the fire, I sometimes say. From Hollywood to Israel. I live in a place that has asked a lot of me and I have proven that I can do it. I can learn a language, I can live with the tensions and compartmentalize that like everybody else here does, I can go toe-to-toe with any Israeli (probably my proudest accomplishment) and I can heal from grief, wherever I am. I like the Mediterranean lifestyle here, I like the heat and the groups of old men who sit and sip tea in the heat of the day, in the shade, I like that nobody here gives a good god damn about Hollywood, I love the bath water warm Mediterranean Sea, I love that Israelis put a huge amount of stock in loyalty and good food. There’s no time here for pretense. You either walk the walk or you aren’t here. So different from Los Angeles – not better – just different. Why a person would go from pain and loss TO a place as intense as Israel is totally counter-intuitive, right? I should have moved to a farm in Nebraska. Having endured more than I thought I could possibly endure – I set myself up to go through even more challenges. There has to be a reason. People often tell me I am “brave” – but I am not brave. I am coping. I just cope in odd ways. Like moving to the Middle East.

I learned that you cannot outrun grief, that you cannot expect people to feel sorry for you in a cutthroat business, as glamorous as it seems, and I have learned that I don’t really care about the tinsel hamster wheel that Hollywood is. It isn’t for me. I only care now about truth – real truth. Truth via stories. And any writer anywhere who wants to express, that is a person after the truth. I happen to be good at sussing it out and at teaching how to write and most importantly, how to get writers to feel good about the story they are telling – about their very impulse to do it – and when you get a writer feeling GOOD, then they begin to tell the truth through their writing. And if they want to get famous doing that, okay, if they want to work in Hollywood doing that okay, but underlying all of that is only one true thing: to tell our stories, to write them down – is to curate the human experience as we see it.

My experience – and it continues – has given me a deep well of empathy, a toughness, an intellectual honesty that I had been lacking before. And I think that honesty, of having lived and suffered and still not suffered a fraction as much as so many others, gives me a certain obligation to help others tell their stories, whether via a novel, a blog or a feature film script. I feel obligated to repay the universe for the lessons I have learned about love and loss, about humility, starting over, authenticity and truth. If I could paint, I would paint this story, if I could weave, I would weave this story. But I am a writer, so that is what I do. JulieGrayBW

You want to write about loss? I have experienced loss. You want to write about joy? I have experienced joy. You want to write about failure – oh, have I failed.  You want to be brave – I’m right there with you, trying to be  brave too.


My book, I am Not Myself: A Year Grieving Suicide, is available as an ebook on Amazon.

Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, is available on Lulu.

If you need help dealing with the pain, loss and transition around grief, please seek the help that you need. You can’t do this alone.


The Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon: Antagonists

The Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon is a weekly writing group that has been getting together for over a year now. Each week we meet, discuss a writing related topic designed simply to get us writing. We often laugh very, very hard, causing mild alarm in the cafe, as we share our work after we’ve written. Probably because of my deeply embedded need to laugh, the prompts usually generate comedy. But not always.

At the end of the session, after we’ve laughed til we’ve cried and maybe just cried because we’ve cried and paid for our coffee and left the cafe with hugs and promises to meet next week, I send the writers written notes from the discussion. It’s not all fun and games, there is a serious element as well. I mean – okay a little. Somewhat. We like to laugh, what can I say? Why should writing or discussing writing be so deadly serious all the time?

And by the way, if you are reading this blog and you are in high tech, if you are an entrepreneur and creative, taking some creative writing classes can really awaken a side of yourself that you draw upon, every day. Trust me on this.

I thought I’d share last week’s discussion as it pertains to screenwriters every bit as much if not more than prose writers!

Writing the Antagonist Discussion Notes

We’ve talked a lot about main characters and how your character should have some kind of arc – toward realization or change – even if it’s just slight change.

In The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Tolstoy, veritably the whole story is told from the bed of a dying man, as he nears inevitable death and howls against its clutches. In the very end – he comes to a realization and he finds peace. It is one of my favorite short novels and you should definitely be familiar with it.

But antagonists don’t generally change. They are consumed by their very badness, their need to get what they want at ALL costs.

Think of villains we are all familiar with – the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, The evil queen in Snow White, any bad guy in any action movie – they get punished in the end. Every time. wicked

But what makes an antagonist particularly memorable? Not necessarily the method of their madness, or their m.o., but the details about them and more than that – their unfettered, logical believe in what they are doing.

The villains I just mentioned – wicked witches and the like – are by design two dimensional characters that are more symbolic than anything else. Of course they don’t change.

I was lucky enough to see Wicked, the brilliant backstory of The Wicked Witch of the West, in which we find out just what drove her over the edge. But that was not part of Baum’s original vision and it needn’t have been.

In Chronicle, an AMAZING sci-fi film that I cannot recommend enough, we actually watch a good guy turn into a bad guy and we see the causality between his experience, his new found powers and his rage.

As we’ve discussed before, every character has some kind of back story and it really depends on what you are writing, how much you need to point to it or bring it out.

If you are writing an action film called, say, Die Hard, and your bad guy wants MONEY and POWER – the medium doesn’t really call for asking WHY Hans Gruber (played brilliantly by Alan Rickman) needs power. Why? Because this is a Hollywood action film – focus on the word ACTION and we find that really, the focus in on how the hero overcomes the bad guy – period. hansgruber

In 3:10 to Yuma, the bad guy, Ben Wade, played by Russell Crowe, is a different shade of bad guy. He is intelligent, and we get the sense, through his actions later in the script, that he has a touch of cowboy/noble ethics at the end of the day. The laws of the wild west include earning RESPECT and Ben Wade gets that and winds up making a decision that surprises us.

Sometimes bad guys are just thoroughly psychotic and bad – which is fun and can serve a purpose. Cruella DeVille comes to mind. Who cares WHY this psycho wants a fur coat made of Dalmation puppy skins?

But then other antagonists come out of various books and movies like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Truly one of cinemas most memorable villains and why? Because he was refined, intelligent, almost charming. He plays the main character, Clarice’s foil – he isn’t the bad guy we are really after, no, that’s complete psycho Buffalo Bill – but Lecter serves a fascinating purpose, as both mentor, shapeshifter and villain in the film.

In one small moment, when Lecter is in his jail cell, speaking again to Clarice, taunting here, we see just briefly – you’d have to pause the film – that he is reading a German Vogue.

An antagonist is a necessary component of your story, no? Your main character has to have some embodiment of their challenges, someone who is thwarting their desires.

Every character has a backstory – even if it isn’t explicit. And so does your antagonist. The question is whether to make the back story explicit or implicit.

The genre you are writing and the medium as well, supply the answers to this question. What gets the highest entertainment value but also keeps the story focused on the main character and his or her arc?

An antagonist can be a fun opportunity to show off your writing chops – why have a boring old psychopath when you could have Annie Wilkes, from Misery?

Who can forget this moment? 

Notice that Annie has no problem hobbling and imprisoning her captive, James Caan, but she doesn’t curse.

The antagonist is a significantly important character in any story. You can emphasize or de-emphasize according to the genre and the medium. hannibal

Today we are going to emphasize the antagonist – the character with some kind of injurious backstory (explicit or implicit) with a definite ax to grind – something that your main character is in the way of.

Don’t forget – the antagonist has a point of view too. To them – THEY are the main character and your main character is THEIR antagonist.  They are the hero of their story – they may be thwarted or they may not. Either way, they definitely have some logic, some villain code that they go by – a belief system in what they are doing and how they are doing it.

This means, as you write, that you’ll need to write a heroic character, a nice guy – who is in the moral right – but who stands in the way of the antagonist/main character you are writing.  Have fun with it!

If you’d like to try some of the writing prompts for that evening’s session,

If you live in the Tel Aviv area (or beyond) and would like to join us, please join up our Facebook group and sign up for the next class. You’ll be in very good company. 

Generation Hand Down

As a story teller and a writer, as an American living abroad, I’ve been so interested lately in reading about genetic memory – the idea that collective memories are handed down through the generations. We know that this is true on some levels – the human aversion to sour or bitter tastes that we got from our distant ancestors out to avoid eating something poisonous. The human fear of the dark. These types of genetic memories make sense. Oh and the granddaddy, the fight or flight hormonal flood of cortisol which more than lingers today and causes all sorts of undue stress.

But can other memories be passed down too? Genetic memories that are deeper and more ephemeral? A collective memory of suffering or of discovery, pride or survival? I think we are still a long way from figuring that one out from a scientific standpoint.storyteller

Collective memories are narratives that are passed down from generation to generation quite consciously, so not on a genetic or molecular level, but through story telling, traditions and customs. Read much more about that on this fascinating and detailed link. 

Recently I had an experience that to me felt like a strange mixture of genetic and collective memory. This is just anecdotal, obviously, but it really makes me wonder.

I was listening to Jerry Alfred and the Medicine Beats, a member of the Selkirk First Nation, in the Yukon Territory of Canada. When Jerry was born, he was named “keeper of the songs”, something he took very seriously as a generational obligation. When I think about that for a minute – “keeper of the songs” – it overwhelms me. It is important to curate our stories as humans. That’s what writers are really doing, it’s not just self-expression, it’s being a Keeper of Stories. Perhaps there was somebody in your ancestry that was a story teller, a keeper of the songs.estishon

So I’m listening to this song (which you can listen to here) and I just – the hairs on my neck stood up. I have always loved traditional, tribal music of any kind from any continent – yeah, I’m a drum circle kind of girl.

I grew up in the 70s when there was a wave of interest and guilt and identification with the Native American tribes that were victimized in the US.  For a long time, I had an allergic reaction to people who proudly proclaimed they are this or that percentage Native American. What do they know about that experience, really? What do I know of it? Nothing.

[Watch Incident at Ogala, narrated by Robert Redford, for more information about Leonard Peltier and the short-lived American Indian Movement of the 60s and 70s; and who can forget Sacheen Littlefeather at the Academy Awards? And of course I cannot resist linking to one of my all time favorite indie films, Smoke Signals, written by the great Sherman Alexie.]

What WAS it about music that gets right down into my bones? Was I a Native American in another life? I’d love to believe in reincarnation but I just can’t quite go there.

Then I remembered – how could I forget? My third great grandmother was a Cherokee Indian. Perhaps it was her very DNA I was feeling? Perhaps it is that connection?

Her name was Rebecca Savage (a surname of indignity given to many Native Americans) and she married my Irish third great grandfather, John O’Ragan, in Kentucky, in 1868, after he’d come home from fighting in the American Civil War.

I don’t know what her Cherokee name was – Rebecca is obviously a Christian name given to her at some point. I don’t really know anything about her except that she was a “full blood” member of the Cherokee nation and that when she married my third great grandfather, she was dressed in full Cherokee wedding regalia. I learned this from a distant relative in Kentucky, who was in his 90s when I met him. Oh yes, he said, through several missing teeth – she was a full blood Indian and she wore feathers at her wedding. 

How did “Rebecca” feel about this wedding? Why did she marry a mick in Kentucky? What did her family think? What was it like for her to then live on a tobacco farm and live a typical Kentucky life in the 19th century? What stories did she die with?

I will never know. But sometimes, just a little bit, I feel her within me. And I wonder.



Housekeeping Weekend

Many of us in Israel take Shabbat off as a day to reset and rest. But do you ever take a day to reset, rest and do some online housekeeping? house

This article from Slate about how to clean up your Facebook feed is a quick read and it’s a fantastic idea.

If you use social media for work as well as personal uses, it makes sense to have a look at your “friends” and lists and do some tidying up. Your feed will be more informational and entertaining, you can post and share more easily and in a more targeted way and you’ll feel awesome because you did something you’ve wanted to do a million times but just didn’t take the time. Sit down for an hour, maybe two, and sort out your social media. social

Making the time to keep your online life in order is a key ingredient to being more efficient and less stressed as you work. There’s nothing good or cool about being a chaotic, stressed out mess. Get your sleep. Take a walk. Keep your life organized.

You’ll thank me later :)

Your Meeting Isn’t About YOU

“If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.”

~ John Steinbeck

This great American author was talking about literature in this quote but really, this quote applies to just about all conversation. We pay special attention when what we are hearing concerns US in some way, right? bored

Have you ever endured having someone talk AT you rather than WITH you?

It’s exhausting. I hold that two of the most terrifying words in the world are:

…and THEN…

Oh no, you think to yourself… there’s more… does this person not get that they lost my attention?

Your pitch meeting is not all about YOU. It is about the person listening too, isn’t it? It’s about getting them as excited as you are about your story – be it a new horror script you’ve written or a new smart phone application you’ve invented. This is ultimately a sales meeting, no?

A pitch – or any meeting, really – is not a one-way street.

Your pitch is really a conversation between you and someone else. Yes, a conversation in which you are giving information but you are indeed speaking to another human being, so act like it. No taking a big breath and just speed talking your way through your presentation. Slow down.

There are two important things to think about:

Learn to speak in a way that never allows the listener to wander out of the conversation and keep pretending to hear anyway.

Learn how to recognize when you’ve lost someone’s attention and how to bring the person BACK to the present moment.

The best way to really illustrate this point, I think, is to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who is listening to a pitch or presentation that isn’t executed all that well. How does it feel to be bombarded with information, to be talked AT and not to? Of course you tune out a little bit. And think about this: if you are taking a meeting with someone pitching or presenting, this is probably something you do a lot. So it can get old.

There is a paradox if you are a listener in these situations. First, you get jaded, you hear “great” stories and ideas and pitches all the time. But usually they aren’t that great.

But – here comes the paradox – you also don’t want to be the person who said “no” to something that turned out to be great, now do you? That’s a straight path to losing your job. So you’re torn. You want to love this idea but you get meeting fatigue. And most people pitching do a pretty terrible job, whether their idea is great or not.

But you, the person pitching – this is a big chance, right?! It’s huge! It could launch your company, make your innovation come to life, start a writing career! So your job is to not only pitch what you’re pitching well – but to do so in a way that is memorable and engaging for the listener.listening



Don’t Wait for Inspiration, Strike Up a Conversation

We were all sitting patiently in the bank with our numbers when Isaac shuffled in.

Isaac is, I would soon find out, 84 years old. He looks good, although his eyes are a bit rheumy.

Quite cheerfully, if slightly inaudibly, he asked where he could find the numbers. He was standing right in front of the machine, which he acknowledged with a laugh. Using his cane, he sat down next to me to wait patiently. We sat and we sat.

We are growing old together, in this bank, he said with a chuckle, in perfect English.

Isaac, as it turns out, speaks five languages: Yiddish, Hebrew, English, Arabic and French. He was born in Cairo in 1930 and came to Israel in 1950. cairo

1950, I said – wow, you must have seen a lot! In typical Israeli fashion, Isaac smiled mysteriously, tossed his chin up and shrugged.

We sat in companionable silence, but it was not lost on me that I was sitting next to the last of a generation of Israelis, who have lived through every major war, who were here before Israel was a nation.  I was sitting next to history.

What was it like growing up in Cairo in the 1930s and 40s I wondered? Isaac had lived through Mussolini’s invasion, British rule and Rommel’s attack.

What’s your number, Isaac asked, moments later, adjusting his cap.

878, I said, glumly.

I have 879, Isaac said, and laughed. We went back to our friendly silence, side by side in Bank Leumi, as the digital read out remained more or less stationary.

What had Isaac seen and experienced in his lifetime? Where was his wife? I was afraid to ask; I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

A few minutes later, we traded numbers in line.  I figured I’ve got a bit more time to grow old than Isaac does. As he left, Isaac tipped his cap, smiled, and said something in Yiddish. I think I understand what he said.

It’s amazing, the stories all around us, I thought, as I watched Isaac shuffle away, slowly. You just have to ask.

Tony Robbins on the Defining Factor in Your Success

This Ted talk is fantastic and I guarantee you will feel 200% more inspired after you watch it. Performance, change, and the way emotions impact your business life. Decision is the ultimate power. The defining factor is resourcefulness, something Israelis know a little something about.

דיבורים טד זה פנטסטי ואני מבטיח לך להרגיש 200% יותר השראה אחרי שאתה צופה בו. רגשות ביצועים, שינוי, ואת הדרך שישפיעו על החיים של העסק שלך. החלטה היא הכוח האולטימטיבי.הגורם המגדיר הוא תושייה, ישראלים משהו יודעים משהו קטן עליו.