I offer you my all new interview with writer Julie Gray as part of the Inspirational Sharings Series. Thanks to her unique experience and point of view, Julie offers great food for thought about topics ranging from pre-conceived ideas about other cultures to how our surroundings affect who we are and become, and what might be blocking us to «take the leap» towards our dream. She even has a few tips for writers. A blogger on the Huffington Post, Julie is a story consultant who works with screenwriters and novelists. Her blog, Just Effing Entertain Me is one of the most widely read screenwriting blogs worldwide. Julie lives in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she is hard at work writing her memoir, Eat Pray Kvetch. I have been following her story for the last few years while keeping contact with her. She is one of those inspiring people that you are so glad exists. Her writing is compeling, witty and funny. This pure delight of a woman underwent a «seismic» transformation that we can learn a lot from and get inspired by. And who knows, maybe your own transformation is just around the corner!
Caroline C Stolzy-Julie, can you tell me about the connections between living in an unfamiliar country or place and inner growth?
Julie Gray-When you live abroad you experience a complete reboot. You have to download a whole new operating system. Okay enough computer metaphors – but it’s so apt! Everything is different – especially in the Middle East, where I live. The sights, sounds and tastes are different. Every sense is lit up with newness, constantly. The values, the culture, the habits, the routines, the body language – literally everything is different. You become much more aware of your previously held, deeply ingrained beliefs and habits about the way things “should be”. You become very aware of your “otherness” when you look different from 90% of the other people walking down the street, when you cannot speak their language on the level of proficiency of your own, when you get lost and confused and do the wrong thing in the wrong place really often. And through these daily challenges, you experience true humility and vulnerability. The paradox is that over time, the feeling of otherness begins to shift into an awareness of our oneness as well.
Israelis can seem so different from Americans – and they are, they really are. But their essence is the same as yours and mine. We truly are all one, even if our window dressing looks so different. We all want love, peace, joy and a good dinner at the end of the day. We are really not so different at all. Living abroad teaches you both how deeply you have been immersed in and affected by the cultural programming of where you are from and how underneath that, humans are pretty much humans. It gives you the opportunity to change your programming on the exterior – and then by dint of that, in your interior as well.
Caroline-What makes embracing a big new change like living in Israel easier for some but difficult for others?
Julie-Well, people tell me all the time that I am so courageous for having left the US to live in the Middle East. I usually counter – courageous? Or foolish? Perhaps a bit of both. I don’t think of myself as “brave” at all, just deeply, unquenchably curious. It wasn’t easy and continues to be a challenge, acclimating to my new life, but I suppose it would be much, much harder to move abroad if one were not willing to be vulnerable. I think that’s what you really have to embrace – vulnerability and uncertainty.
You also have to have a willingness to let go of your very established ideas about who you are and be more fluid with that. Living in another country is, on the one hand, an amazing way to reinvent yourself. On the other hand, there is a lot of letting go and that’s hard. I went from an adept, independent, articulate woman to a bumbling newbie overnight. But I soon found that a big smile and an open heart translate in any language and that helps build a baby social network – which is what you need so you don’t feel – and are not functionally – alone.
Caroline-How important does that time living in Israel seem to you now?
Julie-That’s TBA, since I still live here, but I actually think – look – at my age, I have lived through different personal epochs that really were turning points. This is one of them. Probably the most significant one because I really have been the phoenix – burned to the ground quite thoroughly and I am in the process of rising back up from the ashes. The suicide of my brother in 2010 combined with utter, total disillusionment with my life in LA really left me feeling totally empty. I have often felt that I have a calling, a mission, something important to do in this life but I wasn’t clear on what it was. But something drew me to Israel. I visited for the first time several years ago and I remember crying all the way home on the plane. I just loved it here. The minute my feet hit the ground I felt home. I still cannot explain it. I feel that in some ineffable way, Israel pulled me back home and that this is the doorway through which that calling is beginning to manifest.
Julie-I had been thinking about it for a couple of years before I moved here. After my first visit and the long flight home in which I was filled with a sort of grief that I could not articulate, I kept coming back to visit as often as I could. Eventually, I realized, why visit when I can take the plunge and live here? Something about this place grabbed my heart and my soul immediately and I thought, gee, how can I ignore that? That has to mean something, there has to be a reason. I think that having lost so much in a short period of time left me wide open to wholesale change. There is something amazing about having nothing left to lose. It creates an opening.
Caroline-Virginia Woolf said—“Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword”—writing about a woman’s choice between convention and tradition versus “a far more interesting” yet “perilous” life. What are your thoughts about this?
Julie-Wow, that’s a great quote. I often think of her “room of one’s own” quote as well. I could write a BOOK about what I think of that quote. Oh wait – I am. Well, I am writing a book about all of it – about leaving Hollywood, disillusioned and grieving, and heading to the Middle East to rediscover and reinvent myself. Definitely that decision has had repercussions. Definitely it has affected some of my relationships back in the US. My kids miss me – they are both in college in the US – but what could I do, sit in LA and wait for them to visit twice a year? Or follow my heart and my spirit and whatever was calling me? It was a tough decision to make, as a mom. Should I stay put and be available to them, or should I do what I felt so called to do and model for them that our connection is more than a physical one and that to follow one’s heart IS the highest calling? I definitely live a more perilous life and have for some time now. I got divorced after 16 years of a very financially comfortable stay-at-home marriage and moved to Hollywood where I created a career for myself from scratch and swam among the sharks. I went to Burning Man, I went to Ecuador, Egypt and to the West Bank and I pushed myself to the limits in almost every way I could. I get emails from people every single day thanking me for being an inspiration but all it takes is one email from my mom which is even vaguely disapproving or disappointed and I crumble. She misses me. My choice does not make sense to her. And the weight of that is sometimes very heavy. The path less taken is sometimes a very lonely one. But I don’t know how else to be, you know? This is me.
Caroline-You seem to write huge amounts of material. What is your relationship to writing?
Julie-I do write a lot. Between the Huffington Post, my own Just Effing blog, the book about the loss of my brother and my upcoming book not to even mention the copious email correspondence with my friends and family, I write all day every day, pretty much. My relationship to my writing is this: I couldn’t live without it. It is how I think. It is how I process things. I live so much in my writing that even as I am living, as I am experiencing something, I think about how I’m going to write it later. It is truly my lifeline; I would be silenced without my writing, in a really significant way. I just have so much to say and I say it best when I write it down. So my writing ritual is this – I write when the spirit moves me to write and that’s pretty much constantly. I actually have to practice the discipline of NOT writing. I have clients and work to do, so I have to make a place for that too.
«These are two of my favorite writing haunts.» J.G.
Caroline-Did writing come easily for you? And what’s your advice concerning writer’s block or developing the skill for newbies?
Julie-For me, it comes very easily, but then I have not been writing fiction. I write about my reality. So for me, it is a faucet and the writing just pours out. For fiction, I think it is quite a different kettle of fish. It would be for me, anyway. I work with screenwriters and novelists, as a story editor, cheerleader, taskmaster and teacher. So I get to work with people who are addicted to writing as much as I am but who write something a bit different. I find that writers are often disorganized and write in an undisciplined way – but I can’t really criticize that because I get it, on a personal level. I never try to discourage a writer who writes copiously – only to get them to stand back from their writing and make sure that what they have written is in fact entertaining and valuable to somebody outside of themselves, and ideally, a lot of somebodies. That is a skill that has to be cultivated though.
Writers who aren’t a bit obsessed with their writing are hard to find, honestly. If a writer feels blocked, to me this is an indication that they are not totally in love with what they are writing. It doesn’t happen to me. I mean, often I think of something I want to say and five minutes later I realize that my inspiration will not yield anything of any particular value. But I have no problem chucking it out the window and waiting for the next inspiration to come.
Julie-I think I meant the way I view “stuff” now. America is significantly more materialistic than Israel is and in LA, your surface appearance and your possessions offer a great deal of status. I came back and saw absolutely everything with new eyes and felt so deeply changed within and yet nobody seemed to… well it’s really like the emperor’s new clothes. I came back and I saw the emperor is buck-naked. Did that make sense? It was a bit of a Twilight Zone feeling. I kept thinking – do you guys not realize that you live in the lap of luxury?! Do you realize that you have appliances and a car and an iPad and more and more and more than you will ever need and yet you are complaining about so many things? Sometimes I think that the reason so many Americans are medicated for depression, anxiety and ADHD is that they are surrounded by too much – too many choices, too much TV, too much stuff. But you can’t really say that to people and even if you did, not having had your experience, it’s hard for them to relate to you. So you have to sort of have these observations within yourself and are not able express them so there is this reverse culture shock which can feel a bit isolating.
Caroline-How did your impressions of L.A. change in the light of the time spent in Israel?
Julie-In Israel, having, say for example, a car is not the absolute given that it is in LA. Trust me, Israel is a “first world” country and is quite modern, but things just aren’t as convenient here. Life is not built around making life easier and faster and less messy. I am really not sure why that is, to be honest, but I can tell you it’s true. Israelis put the emphases on other things: family, food, tradition. Those are the hallmarks of a good life here. I mean, obviously Israel is a very troubled place – perhaps the most conflict torn place on the planet – yeah, I think that would be fair to say. So for Israelis, that they will be alive tomorrow is not a given. This country has been through hell for the entirety of its existence. Car bombs and suicide bombs on busses and in cafes, missiles, international condemnation – it’s just a big, tragic mess. So resultantly and not surprisingly, there’s a sort of an existential joy here, a living on the razor’s edge joie de vivre that you do not see in the US, where life is, by comparison, a cake walk. And yet I see more personal happiness in Israel, less boredom, neuroses and angst.
Caroline-You say you used to « skate along the surface». How has your stay so far in Israel helped you go deeper than before and connect deeper with people?
Julie-Well it’s really an extension of the emphasis on the measure of quality of life here. In Israel face time is the most valued way to connect with one another. Don’t get me wrong – people do text, etc. but being in person is seen as much more important. I had good friends in LA – close friends – that I rarely actually saw. Here, I have friends who say, why are you texting me? Why don’t we get together? Israelis are amazing. They are really, really passionate about life and about arguing and debating. They are very openly affectionate and very comfortable with personal conflict too. Here, arguments can get very heated – uncomfortably so if you are not used to it – but it also dies back down almost immediately. Passive aggression is not a thing that Israelis do. They really live OUTLOUD. There is also a very strong sense of community, both all over the country and in cities and in neighborhoods. People really connect with each other. Perhaps one reason is that the majority of Israelis share something very much in common – their Jewish faith and ancestry. They also share the same collective experience in terms of their nationality and the difficult history of Israel. There is much more ethnic diversity in Israel than people outside of it realize and yet there are also vivid, overarching commonalities.
Israel is a very young country in this modern era. Americans used to have more commonalities than we do now. Now America is so big and has such incredible diversity – which is what makes it honestly one of the most unique and fascinating countries in the world – and yet because of our physical and experiential vastness, we can feel very out of touch with one another. We are a car culture, a convenience culture and increasingly, an online culture. I mean, if you go to more rural parts of America you do still find connectedness and community. Israel is just way smaller – I mean, you cannot imagine. Everybody knows everybody.
Also, Israelis have a very different relationship with time. They do not rush from thing to thing that way we do in America. That has been an adjustment for me. The bureaucracy here is monumental. If you get two errands done in the day, you have achieved great success. I am blown away by the amount of time Israelis devote to shopping for fresh food, in preparing it and in enjoying family meals. I really used to rush around but here, it’s not only not possible, it’s just not done. Obviously I can’t speak for every Israeli and obviously there are exceptions, but as a culture, Israelis are very Mediterranean. Some of that might be because of the heat. You just cannot rush around when it is over 100F outside. You have to slow down. But again, overall, there is just a different set of values and of emphasis on those values.
I think that Americans, thanks to the media, see Israel as this war torn region where there are hot, smoking car bomb skeletons everywhere and guns pointed in all directions and ultra-orthodox religious people throwing stones at one another. I mean, there are realities here that can be quite bracing, if you are not used to the sight of automatic weapons up close and personal, as one example, or if you encounter the tension and grimness of a checkpoint (which you wouldn’t unless you were trying to pass through or around the West Bank) and of course, the sheer number of soldiers walking around. But what people don’t get is that mostly when you see soldiers walking around they have the day off. It’s not like we’re all living at gunpoint. But there is a lot more security – way more. It is routine to have your bag searched as you enter a mall, or the bank or the post office. You get used to it. Which is another interesting thing: what one can get used to. What one can come to call normal.
When the massacre happened in Newtown, Israelis were appalled – they see America as a very violent place. Which I find fascinating because on the one hand, they are right; America is a gun culture and a culture of violence, especially in movies and video games. But on the other hand, there is a conflict here which is grindingly relentless and which has taken many lives over time. There were two big suicide bombings probably a block away from where I live in one direction, and two other big attacks about a ten-minute walk away. This was in the 1990s, during the 2nd Intifada. I have heard Israelis say, well, at least here, if somebody wants to kill me, I know exactly why. The randomness of violence in America does not compute for Israelis and yet they have normalized the fact that they live in a war zone.
That said, there is way more normalcy in Israel than is ever shown in the media. I guess it’s just not sensational enough. There are parks, malls, schools and restaurants just like anywhere else. Israel is very modern. But that’s what is unique about it – it is a modern country with ancient artifacts, archeological digs, religious fervor and a distinctly Middle Eastern way of life in which sitting in the shade with some hot mint tea and playing a game of chess is not an uncommon sight.
Also, Israel is not one big, hot, rocky desert. I think that’s mostly what people think but in actuality the country is sort of divided laterally, from north to south with the west side of the country bearing a strong resemblance to Southern California and on the east side is the desert. That is what most people picture. But that’s just one part of Israel. It happens to be my favorite part, because I find the vast, sweeping, monochromatic silence absolutely magic. I would like to find a way to live out in that desert.
Caroline-In your view, why do people consider that life offers less possibilities for them than it really does?
Julie-Because we get scared. And we begin to believe the discouragement we hear, that we should not be “foolish” or embrace our impulses. And because we are told over and over, by various means, that our jobs are really to be pleasing to others. To be a good wife, mother, father, son, citizen, employee – that to follow your heart is being selfish. So we come to believe that and we give over our dreams so that we may be more acceptable and therefore approved of. It is a terrible thing, to see your life as sort of prescribed for you, like a mandate of some kind, and to quell your passion, curiosity and enthusiasm rather than act on it. I think that is the greatest tragedy, really, to be or do less than you had dreamed of so as not to disappoint others. I mean, this is your ticket, this is your ride!
I also think that we get very, very comfortable in our lives and very few people willingly step out of that to experience uncertainty and the unknown. I mean, that’s terrifying, right? I always had the sense that life is terribly short – a dream, really. And we have this one life and this relatively small blue marble of a planet that we are on – why wouldn’t you want to roam and taste and see and experience as much of it as you can? Even if you are not a globetrotter, even if you like to stay more rooted, why not go big and, you know, go for that dream job or write that book or run for student body president? Your only limitation is your capacity to not only imagine new heights for yourself but to step out on the ledge and go for it. One of my favorite quotes is by Anaïs Nin: «And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.» When not only seeing but living your possibilities is an imperative for your soul, you just do it, don’t you? There is no other choice. For me there wasn’t.
For more details about Julie, visit her website.
Her book, «I am Not Myself: A Year Grieving Suicide» is available on Amazon and her new book «Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas», will be available on Amazon in November.»