storytelling, women

My dad was rich and we were poor.

He abandoned us — and then he went and bought a mercedes and a big sailboat —

My mother and my sister and I didn’t have enough — my mother worked hard, all the time. She was always stressed, miserable. She hated her job as a secretary. She was always working and yet we didn’t have enough — the lights were always getting cut off, or the phone, or the credit cards were maxed —

There was never enough. We were always catching up.

And then there was our father mocking us, the way we lived — making little digs at our poverty —

We would go spend the weekend with him on his yacht — and he was so stingy at heart, he wouldn’t feed us. Or when I would complain that I was hungry, he would make comments about how I was too fat and needed to lose weight — I was just like my mother —

My father suffered from poverty of the heart — he starved and starved his children —

He was aloof and had a distant model girlfriend (then wife) and cared more about money than he did about us — he made that clear. He would go on and on about how much he resented paying our mother — when it was obvious to anyone observing that we were struggling to get by and he was living like a millionaire. His parents (our grandparents) didn’t want to have anything to do with us because they saw us as leeches taking their son’s money.

I grew up as working-class poor with my mother and my sister, and the message was clear — men have money, get money, deserve money. Women don’t.

Now I work in the arts — in publishing and in Hollywood, where I see that pattern repeat itself — men get and women don’t. I wonder if I see it because it’s in my head and I’m destined to see it everywhere, or because the world I grew up in is the world we live in. I’m making a generalization, and I believe there are a lot of exceptions. I believe I’m going to be an exception, and I’m on my way. But I do think it’s taken me longer, and it’s been harder, than if I had been a man.

But maybe it would have been different if I hadn’t grown up in poverty, if I hadn’t grown up with the message that I deserved to barely get by, that I deserved the least, the minimum.

I think we find our level, our comfort zone, and mine has been poverty —

I’ve been poor all this time, when I went to an Ivy League school and I’m such a great writer and I’m sharp and bright and warm and I’ve got so much going for me —

I think my poverty starts in my heart —

I starved to a point beyond which I can’t recover from.

Until I was 11, my sister and I visited our father every other weekend. Then he vanished. We got a call three months later from him — he was sailing his boat around the world. I couldn’t speak, I was crying so hard. Until that call, I didn’t even know if he was alive. I didn’t tell any of my friends what had happened, I was so ashamed.

He stopped paying our mother, so if we were struggling before, now we were fucked. Money became terrifying, at the age of 11.

Now my father is very rich. Sloughing us off was very good for his bottom line. He owns airplanes and boats and a Ferrari and a gaudy Versace mansion on the water in South Florida. He fucks his 29-year-old maid/fiancee and still pays her to clean the house.

He tries to talk about the amount of money we’re going to inherit, and I’m like — fuck you. From the bottom of my heart, fuck you.

This entire process of trying to make it as a writer, first as a novelist then as a T.V. writer — has been nothing but difficult — and every time I thought it couldn’t get more difficult it did —

Putting aside the fact that he could have helped me the entire time and never ever did — he hurt me in this. He criticized me the entire way through for trying it, criticized me for how long it was taking to make it, when I was working soul-sucking day jobs —

And I have this sense that how he hurt me the most was by raising me trapped in the dark cold box of poverty. By molding my head within those limits, he set an upper-limit for the most I could ever make or have — so that I would never stray too far, never feel independent, never get powerful.

My mother was a secretary and my father was rich. And when I was struggling to finish my first novel, I wound up having to get a job as a receptionist to support myself while I finished it. That was painful, because the reason I went to Princeton was so I would never wind up like my mother. It was just going to be for six months until I sold the book — and then the book never sold, and I would up staying there for two long, painful years. With my father criticizing and deriding my choices the entire time.

Now I want to let go of poverty — tell myself it’s okay for me to make money, that it’s not siding with my father against my mother, it’s not turning my back on women. It’s good for me to make money, because then I can help other people like me (or unlike me). The way I grew up has no bearing on the way I want to live now, and I want to feel safe and comfortable and secure, and most of all, powerful now. Making money now isn’t turning my back on working people — instead, it’s empowering me so I can give working people a voice.

I’m working on it. I’ll keep you posted.

Bushcast Episode 3: Julie Learns How To Survive In Prison

bushcast, storytelling


In this episode of the Bushcast, I recount the time (a few weeks ago) I spent 26 hours at the ER at LAC/USC hospital.

It was amazing how quickly I switched over to prison mentality. It was almost immediate. Helped by a cop threatening to send me to jail on my way there.

It was also amazing how long it took me to tell this story — I cut the video down from 30 minutes to 15. Yeah. I know. I still cut some funny stuff, including me doing a Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s style impression of the Chinese man who processed my paperwork.

So sorry it’s taken me so long to put up the next episode — I actually recorded this a while ago, and it’s just taken me a while to edit it. I’ve been busy, which is good, but it just means I’m not quite as on top of everything as I’d like to be.

Thanks for watching guys. And — I want you to know you mean a lot to me. Whenever I hear from y’all, I’m really bolstered and touched. X Julie

Teach Empathy

screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

I have a day job: I teach empathy.

I write action scripts and I write comedy and I write novels and I do all this shit but the reality is — my job is to teach empathy.

Story’s job is to allow us to feel the feelings of others. Our job is to craft the story so that we see through another’s eyes, so that, given enough context and circumstances and choices, we understand how it feels to be another human being. Stories teach empathy.

Your job is to teach empathy.

Even in the darkest, most life-denying piece — you set up a world that helps your audience feel despair. So that when they leave the theater and encounter a person who lives in despair, they see themselves in that person. They’ve had that person’s experience, in the world of your darkest, most life-denying piece. You’ve given them a touchstone of recognition, added to their emotional lexicon. You’ve taught empathy.

Every kind of story teaches us empathy — comedy, drama, light, dark. What matters is we feel what someone else feels. Every kind of story has an emotional heart, a character whose feelings we make our own.

Failures of empathy underlie most of the problems we face as human beings. Sharing stories with one another — teaching each other empathy — can set us straight.

What kind of asshole am I? I sit around lecturing people they don’t have enough empathy.

Fucking Is A Feeling

drama, storytelling

Fucking is a feeling.

You don’t think “I should fuck that person.”

You have a feeling. An urge. You want to fuck.

This feeling carries us through a story. We buy emotionally. On page one, in the first few minutes of the movie — we buy in. We get turned on. We want to fuck.

Doesn’t matter what kind of story. It’s the feeling. That sense of drawing forward. Because we’ve seen something in there that’s mysterious, or vulnerable, or heroic — something small starting down the road to getting big. We get turned on. We want to fuck.

Give us something we want to fuck. We’ll go.

You Should Change Your Audience

drama, pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

When my Iraq pilot ends, I want the audience to be different.

They’ll be different because they shifted. Because the characters shift. The audience identifies with the characters, forms a bond with them that pulls them up and down through the piece, changes them as the character changes.

Stories help us feel what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes. They give us the gift of empathy, the gift of identifying from a different direction. A woman walks away identifying as a man.

You help your characters shift by making the powers that oppose them overwhelming. The more acute the opposition, the more we’ll feel the urgency of the situation, and the more vital and primal the bond we’ll form. That person struggles. I struggle. I understand how that person feels. A man walks away identifying as a woman.

In my pilot, male soldiers discover they have to work with women during active combat, and they feel dragged down, challenged, threatened, unsafe. The female soldiers feel unprepared, untrained, unwelcome, unsupported.

Most of them experience a shift. If the piece works, the audience identifies with them at the start and shifts along with them.

By the end, the characters circle near the feeling –

We are all women. And we are all men.

If the story works, my audience will feel that too.

Find A Way To Make It Acute

drama, features, pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Last year I wrote a pilot about modern day pirates that was set in Haiti. I chose Haiti because it’s one of the poorest countries on Earth — both left behind and close to home. I felt it was real life Sci Fi. The sense of place was an important part of the piece. Now Haiti has been destroyed a thousand times more — before it was a silent catastrophe in our midst, now it will be a devastatingly loud one. While I was writing, I felt frustrated because all I wanted to do was talk about it. And no one wanted to hear it.

Now I’m writing a pilot about Iraq, and everything’s that wrong over there feels overwhelming to me. Horrifying suicide rates among active duty soldiers and veterans. Sickeningly high sexual assault rates for female soldiers, by fellow soldiers — as high as 30%. Unnecessary civilian deaths. Unnecessary soldier deaths. Outrageously corrupt war profiteering. No one over there seems to know what we’re doing over there. This is all going on — and no one cares. No one wants to hear about it, no one wants to listen. No one gives a fuck. We are members of a democratic society who have orchestrated this, and by not rising up and expressing our outrage and ending this, we are responsible. A tragedy occurs in our midst, and we are responsible.

No one cares because the Iraq story is not acute. Like the Haiti story, it was just happening. It was horrific and terrible and outrageous, but there was no moment that was more horrific and terrible and outrageous than the next. There was no acute focus to the story, no lens to help us understand how to feel about it.

With Haiti, those people had always been crushingly poor and betrayed by corrupt leaders, right? How is one day different from the next? Many people have difficulty feeling empathy for people they don’t relate to — or they don’t find a way to relate to people whose plights aren’t right in front of them. Suddenly there’s a horrible earthquake — something that any of us might experience any day — it taps into our fears about our own safety — we could lose our homes just like they did, we could be wandering the streets just like them — then as we wallow in the disaster porn because it stirs up all those feelings so many of us yearn to feel every day but don’t have access to — empathy, understanding, fear, grief — feelings that get buried by everyday life’s efficiency and competency and need to look emotionally stable — disaster porn allows us to access all those feelings — and once accessed, we get it. Wait a minute, they were fucked before this horrible earthquake. They’ve been fucked for a very long time. I just wasn’t thinking about it. It took this acute story, the flurry of excitement, the urgency and concentration of focus centered on the need to find people, find shelter, find medical aid, find water, the sheer drama of it all — that’s what it took for us to care.

If there were a terrible earthquake in Iraq, would people care about the war?

The other big story this week has been the Leno/Conan/NBC war, with virtually everyone I know declaring for “Team Conan.” Both Team Leno and Team Conan are teams that do not hire any women writers. How is it possible that with all this media coverage, no one discusses that fact? If Conan O’Brien released a carefully worded statement declaring his intention to never hire women writers, there would be a public outcry. No one would join “Team Conan” then. However, by not declaring his intention but instead just doing it, no one calls him out on it, no one gives a fuck. It’s the Haiti, Iraq problem: the story is outrageous but not acute. People shrug it off as just the way it is. There’s no urgency, no face on the story — no highly qualified woman who should have gotten a job on the show and was told “we don’t hire women” walking out of the studio with a brave face. No disaster porn to allow people to access their empathy.

The lesson here is this: if you have an important story you want to spread, find a way to make it acute. Give it a face and a focus and make it urgent. Shape it into disaster porn.

You Don’t Have To Explain

drama, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

The more you explain, the weaker your position.

I was watching this show that had a character with a damaged, gravelly voice. But they didn’t explain it at first, and I thought it was great. It was subtle, textured storytelling. Because it opened up this little mystery within the show that could have lead in many different directions — but the point is it was sticky. It was another little surface to grab our attention, to make us think and wonder and fill in our own explanations. It was a little hook that didn’t matter that much at all, but it did, because it added up to the whole. Immediately I was like “huh, this battle-hardened commander guy has a ruined voice. Is that typical? Was he gassed in Vietnam? Do years of being exposed to the toxins of war do that to your voice? Is that supposed to symbolize the character?” A tiny moment lead me down a long path.

Then later, one of the voice-guy’s soldiers: “What happened to your voice?” “Throat cancer.” “Were you a smoker?” “Nope. Just lucky I guess.”

Clunk. They solved the mystery for us, instead of leaving it for us to do. They explained too much. They acted as journalists, rather than storytellers.

Here are ten different ways they could have handled that information better (not to be used in combination):

1. Never explain the character’s voice. This is the boldest choice, and one that probably wouldn’t fly with the network. But it’s most interesting because it allows us to fill in the gaps. When no explanation is given, the possibilities we come up with are far more dramatic than reality.

2. The character drops frequent references to throat cancer in a conscious manner. When this guy says something like “those insurgents are gonna feel like they just had chemo rammed down their throats” we’ll get it.

3. The character makes reference to throat cancer in an unconscious manner. Voice-guy would be talking about the situation and say something like “they’re like parasites that invade the organism. You don’t even know they’re there. You’ve always got to be on patrol.” We catch a reaction shot on the men to see if this registers on any of them — see them glancing at his throat, and wondering what happened to him.

4. Voice-guy speaks in a manner that really strains his voice. Juxtapose with other characters wondering if you can get throat cancer from the toxic chemicals associated with war. Never explicitly link the two, because that’s dull.

5. Voice-guy’s wife seems very concerned about his health. We don’t know why, or don’t find out why until she reveals it bit by bit.

6. Voice-guy takes medicine compulsively — or someone has to remind him to.

7. Voice-guy seems hyper-aware of certain elements in the environment that non-cancer survivors wouldn’t be aware of. Like, ducking below clouds of toxic smoke.

8. Take the other tack as the one above — voice-guy seems to have a death wish. He’s a Marine and he resents any reminders of his mortality. He rushes head-on into the fray, cancer be damned. Little reminders of his illness crop up, however, like his damaged voice and other physical reminders — getting winded, being unable to stand long periods — that tell us SOMETHING IS WRONG without having to say “I have cancer.” We get it.

9. Voice-guy lectures his men about not smoking and looking after their health. He even mentions that he never smoked, but that’s not the only thing you have to worry about.

10. Voice-guy envies a guy his age/rank who is in perfect health. We see that there is no reason for him to have a damaged voice. We see him feel the loss of his perfect health. We see him lose the attention and respect of his troops as he feels unable to speak to them. We intuit that he has a disease.

These may be too oblique, depending on the piece. But there are many ways the information could have been delivered that would have held our attention and kept us guessing. Telling us outright helps us change the channel.

Vulnerability Delivery Machine

novels, pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

You don’t want to know what I think. You want to know that I never stop worrying about my career, my future. I never feel safe.

You want to know that relationships leave me feeling unsettled, like I never know when the other shoe will drop. And that I keep editing this piece about relationships. That’s how uncertain I feel about my place in the world.

You want to know that I’m afraid I spend too much time alone. But that I feel like I can’t afford to spend any less time writing, if I have any hope of getting my career off the ground.

You want to hear about how I’ve been so focused, so determined, so intense this year, that I’m afraid a hardness is setting in. And how that doesn’t feel like who I am — how I’m soft and vulnerable by nature, or I used to be. Before my entire life became devoted to finding safety, securing my future. Finding writing jobs.

Maybe you want to know that I both love sex and fear it. I don’t want to feel that way. Maybe you don’t want to know.

Maybe you want to know that I feel adrift in the world. Distant and disconnected. I feel increasingly distant from my parents — both concerned about them and unable to help them. I’ve felt distant from my sister for many years.

Maybe you don’t want to know that this blog scares me — though it’s good for my inner life, my writing life, because here I force myself to get big and bold and confrontational and honest — it makes me feel naked in public, like I’m doing emotional porn — and it makes me feel connected to people in a way I don’t trust. When I share these carefully edited, raw glimpses inside me, it’s easy for people to think they like me. But I don’t show all the stuff you wouldn’t like. That’s the next step.

Story functions to deliver vulnerability: when it operates efficiently, we feel what you feel. Problems rise when you’re afraid to let us feel what you feel. Because of pride, shame, fear of exposure, ego, or because you don’t really know what you feel. You throw wrenches in the cogs or you drain the oil or you cover the whole machinery with a tarp because you don’t really want to get vulnerable. You resist the function of story, the very reason you set the machine to running.

Would you run up to a person and say “I have something really important to tell you — listen to this –” and then turn your back, cross your arms and scowl? Maybe you would, that tells a certain kind of story. But it doesn’t tell much. And that’s what you do when you tell a story that doesn’t deliver vulnerability. You shut off the audience, deny them access to you. You may still speak, but they can’t hear you.

Most protagonists are common folks, down on their luck, in the middle of crisis — we encounter them when they’ve lost a child, lost a job, hate their job, hate their spouse, can’t find love, hate their parents, don’t have parents, don’t have a country — and then something really bad happens to them, the action of the story. They’re low to start because they’re vulnerable, so we can access them. In stories, characters’ external circumstances reflect their internal circumstances. This is true of life as well. If you want to show that a character feels distant and disconnected, have her write a blog post like this one. Well, maybe not — the act of writing is difficult to dramatize. Perhaps have her attempt to teach these things to a mentoring student who has contempt and doesn’t listen and then have her emerge to find her car has been stolen. And she doesn’t know who to call.

If you did one thing today that felt like a risk, where you felt exposed, where you left yourself open to criticism in public, you left a placeholder in your heart that keeps that spot open when you sit down to tell stories. You drive wedges in there day after day to keep your heart open. Let your story machine function as it should: remove the wrenches and tarps, replace the oil. The story that pops out will run fast, function on max capacity.

Find The Mystery

drama, features, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

We watch for the mystery. All stories have a mystery. Sometimes we don’t notice because the mystery sucks.

  • Love stories — The mystery is who is going to love who in the end, and why? There should be genuine doubt about who is going to wind up together, and why, and how. If there isn’t, you’re writing porn. We should care about this mystery — this is the pleasure of love stories. See Jane Austen.
  • Dramas — The mystery here lies in who the characters really are versus who they say they are and who they think they are — see Mad Men — or in us making discoveries about the character’s world at the same time she does. The protagonist is in trouble — how is she going to get herself out of it?
  • Crime/Thrillers/Action/Sci Fi — These have mystery built in, or they should. How are we going to solve this big fucking problem? What’s really going on here? Good to have competing mysteries — say, the overarching mystery of the situation and the mysteries of characters’ identities and the mysteries of love stories. As for the overarching mystery, see my joke’s on them post — the joke is always on the main characters, and the mystery here is figuring out how to get them out from under the punchline.

Our mission as detectives is to solve the mystery — by finding out what happens next. If the story doesn’t compel us on this journey, doesn’t send us racing to the finish, we need to shave clutter and bulk up clues and foreshadow and raise the stakes so that nothing matters more than solving this big, interesting mess.

Third Thought Is Best Thought

comedy writing, jokes, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

This is what fancy pants comedy writers talk about in the writers rooms of famous shows: First Thought, Second Thought, Third Thought.

First thought is what everyone thinks of. It’s the joke that 20 people post on Twitter or Facebook. It’s “any relation? Ha ha” when they hear your name is Bush. It’s the first joke that springs to mind — what a lot of people might think is funny. Problem is, comedy relies on surprise. Once you’ve spent any time laughing at jokes, first thought jokes are no longer funny. Because they’re not surprising. They pop into everyone’s heads immediately because we’ve all heard them before. The first thought joke for the picture above would be — “I said medium rare.”

Second thought is what only a few people think of. You take the first thought and build on it — make it more outrageous, more extreme, more prosaic, more defined. Or go in a new direction. If first thought was kind of hacky (meaning obvious, direct, familiar, easy), change course for second thought and take a new angle on the subject. Go literary, go personal, go dirty, go big instead of small (or vice versa), go against the grain of the subject. Second thought is what only a few people think of, because they’re creative and original enough to see things abstracted at that next level. Second thought joke for the picture above would be — “It comes with its own special sauce.”

Third thought is what only you think of. Third thought is what happens when you take second thought and build on it even further, creating a whole new animal. Or you blow past first and second thought altogether and find a completely original, fresh take on the subject that only you, with your unique set of experiences and emotional make-up, could have seen. There’s a reason why so few people make it to third thought: it’s difficult to discipline yourself to always search for the fresher take, to hold out for the joke that only you could have thought of. And you’re not going to make it on every joke. But trying for third thought every time is what will shift your comedy writing to the next level. Third thought joke for the picture above would be — “Aunt Dot’s gonna put her money where her mouth is.”

For most good comics, third thought is automatic. They immediately see and discard all the first thought jokes, they may consider a few second thought jokes, then they land on the third thought joke that’s really them. That’s how they become known for having a unique voice — because everything they say is something just they would say.

Storytelling is comedy writing that isn’t necessarily trying to be funny. Using the tricks of comedy writing — like first thought, second thought, third thought — will sharpen your stories.