Thank-me note

From this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…

So, it’s going to be my birthday tomorrow.

My life had a 180 degree turn when I decided to study in the US. I knew it was a long shot for a working-class kid to do screenwriting in her second language in the pricy Tinseltown.  And sure enough, when I did living my dream, cynicism bit me hard in the ass. My last years as a twenty-something and as a thirty-something freshman, I’m burning on anxiety and uncertainty.  The knot in my stomach hasn’t loosened since I set my foot in the US. I always set my eyes on the prize. And it has always worked until I decided I’m actually an artist… 

None of my grand plans came true. I can’t remember the last time I had a big win. I’m talking about a shouting-on-top-of-the-roof-esque big win. No, I haven’t got anything like that in a long while.

Let me stop myself right here right now. I’m done bitching and moan tonight, because I want to jump off the bed tomorrow to give myself a proper birthday welcome.

When was the last time that I feel I’m unique and worthy of love? I simply donno, but I feel strongly that I have a reason to be here.  The universe has big plans for me. I still believe that. (If I didn’t, I’d already got myself a day job after I came back home.) So, enough of disservices I’ve done to myself.  

Tonight, I just want to say:

Thank you for bringing me on this incredible journey.

Three years isn’t enough to be great at what you set out to do. But you’re trying the best you can, even if sometimes it involves binge-eating and binge-watching TVs and movies especially when you’re stressed or depressed.

But girl, you’re so brave. You know that? You defy the gravity, the reality, and the inertia of Hollywood as a non-White, non-male, non-Trust-Fund, and non-US-citizen person under Trump’s new immigration regulations.

You shake you head and tell me you ain’t there yet. Your there ain’t my there. Just think about colored female writer’s odds in Hollywood. And who’s the Asian-Female equivalent of Aaron Sorkin? You don’t know. Me neither. Despite the odds and not because of it, you say you want to change the status quo. And you just ran with it. That was just dumb luck to get into UCLA, you say.  Maybe. Maybe not. 

Look, I admire your resistance, your resourcefulness, your persistence, your badass attitude and your kickass aptitude.

Girl, you’re going places. I’m tellin’ you. And If you won’t start believing in yourself, why should the rest of the world?

But what if it’s just a delusion. I hear you ask.

Just look at you, look at what you’ve accomplished so far!
You’ve written four quality shorts, one feature rewrite and one feature treatment (which got dropped but it ain’t your fault!) in a span of three months. And you’re keeping working on new materials, and sniffing new opportunities non-stop.

Day after day, you are closer to become the person you set out to be, the writer you dream of being even though you still sleep in, and stay up. What’s the hurry?  What’s the worry?  Your body and your mind need time to adjust and evolve.

If I physically can, I will give you a hug.

I’m just so proud of you.  I love you. Unconditionally. Not just because you’re brilliant, but you’re a loving person who has immense empathy for the people you care about. Those who don’t know you enough might label you as a shameless taker. But you give. That’s the truth.

I should tell you more often how much I love you not just for the sake of your birthday. Because I want to. 

Listen, you’re a most beautiful, intelligent, considerate, fun-loving old soul in a young sexy body.

And maybe it’s worth it for a word of caution here. You’re in for the long haul. Don’t worry about those shiny objects whose sole purpose is to drag you off the course. Make it count. Don’t wait till it’s in the past to be your hindsight. God doesn’t give us the ability to see hindsight, because what’s more fun than surprise?

Just remember, if you build it, they’ll come

And here is my vow to you: From this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.

 

Yours truth,
YZ

The Tao of Faking It

A friend and I met in a coffee shop where she also had another meeting with a girl who aspires to go to the Chinese art school next year. 

I brought my laptop so I kept myself busy while my friend summersaulted to her other meeting a few feet away. (Before you say anything, my friend is a career mum with two kids and she’s recovering from a bad cold. So cut her some slacks.) I inadvertently overheard things my friend said to the girl who was sandwiched by her tiger mum and possibly lion aunt.

Here are some of my observations:

  • The trio had suitcases with them.  
  • They were here during the Chinese New Year.
  • They’re originally from Tsingtao (think Tsingtao Beer). 
  • They have some impressive Shanghai connections to find my friend to be the girl’s coach for a few secessions. 
  • The family is quite well-off to pull off this kind of stunt, and to support the girl to pursue her dream in fine arts. 
  • The girl has years of rigorous training in whatever art she’s doing. 

Albeit all these vantage points, the girl seems to have trouble in speaking for herself. “If the examiner can’t feel your confidence, you’re in danger.” My friend warned the girl, who then tried a few times. But in vain. 

I don’t blame her.

In traditional Chinese culture, speaking up is something to be frowned upon. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” is our version of the tragedy of Icarus. It’s how we teach kids to play safe, keep in the comfy zone, and to stay out of trouble. And it works beautifully for the first 17 years of the kid’s life. It’s become her truth. Now all of a sudden, because she needs to get into some school and the system requires her to speak up, you think hiring a coach would rewire her within a week of intense and immersive training? “Listen umm, kid, forger all that you’ve learned in school. Now, I want you to speak up, say it out loud. Now, go!” If I were the kid, I’d be like “The King’s Speech” and a hundred times over. “Hell, nooo.”

Coaching may get you some edge over other less eloquent candidates in college interviews, but it can only get you this far. What about life after college? Hire a life coach to teach you how to lead an adult life? Yeah, good luck with that – that is, if your parents are loaded.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

What’s your endgame

In a brilliant episode of Barry, the equally fun and dark HBO show, Detective Moss asked Barry, “So what’s your endgame?” Barry, hitman-by-night-and-wannabe-actor-by-day replied, “Well, I guess I want to be a stage actor. Do plays and stuff.”

So what’s your endgame?

My ego repeated the question.

I would like to be an unstarved artist.

My self answered.

At my stage in the game, the next question becomes this:

Which bit comes first?
The artist bit? Or the unstarving bit?

I know there’re folks keeping the day job so that they can create art at night. I have tried that before and I know I can’t do that again.

So here I am, a starving artist. Saying it out loud hung my ego, my vanity, my pride dry.

Here is the truth: knowing my endgame makes the choice, the truth easier to spill, makes the other voices far less effective. And it certainly makes me more productive.

And here is the inconvenient truth: When we choose the artist route, there are certain standards we have to bend. In most cases, it means to lower the income bar to make way for the artistic bar.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. If you haven’t seen A Thousand Clown (1965), it’s worth checking. It’s about an uncompromising artist’s way taking on the world.

Motion v. Emotion

Screenwrting is physical, it’s writing with our whole body and heart.

When I was still at UCLA, I wrote to get ahead of deadlines after deadlines. I punched out words but left my heart at the doorstep. It was all motion and zilch emotion. But mainly because emotion was so much harder.

Today, a director sent me a few audition tapes for my opinion. For the first time in my just-started screenwriting career, I see actors doing actions and dialogues that I wrote and rewrote for countless times.

It was pure magic.

When I told the director that I felt so strongly about one particular actor who auditioned for the lead.  He replied, “Yes! He nailed it.” Just like that, I saw the birth of the character in flesh and blood right out of my words.

To say the least, I’m so grateful for the director keeping me involved in the casting process. Not only did he benefit from my understanding of the characters, I also saw how the actors worked my material.  Some problems are in the acting, and some are definitely confusing writing.

Screenwrting is physical, it’s writing with our whole body and heart.  And I know exactly what I need to revise in this new story that I’m working on.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Last person on earth

I would still write. Even though it hurts like a motherfucker.

Have you ever felt like your own thoughts are choking the life out of you?
Have you ever felt like no one else would ever care about you apart from your parents?
Have you ever felt like chasing a dream is something that you’re so NOT entitled to?
Have you ever felt invisible to most people you’ve encountered in life?

Before, during and since the Chinese New Year, I’ve been doing much the bare minimum of social networking. I called off a coffee with a former colleague and friend whom I haven’t seen in three years just because I wasn’t in the mood. I cancelled another meeting today mostly because I wasn’t ready to get fucked in the eyes of all the Valentine decor.  And I lied in both occasions. 

Have I become a hypocrite, a hermit, a pest? Have I lost the basic faith in most folks… and most importantly, myself? Since my other project fell through the holes, I’ve been fishing around. That’s when I realized how much I hated it when I don’t hear back from people. Those emails don’t write themselves, bitch. Moreover, I hated it even more when I checked mails first thing in the morning and then constantly during the day just so I could land the next thing I can talk about… I desperately needed a win. Big or small. Preferably big. I’m only human. Vanity is my vice. It has taken a toll on my physique and my psyche. My neck is tense. My breath is shallow. My belly is tight. My jaw hurts. 

I couldn’t remember when was the last time I jumped off bed to embrace the day. I was in the sour mood. All. The. Time. All I wanted was to stay in bed. But my other self would drag me out. It’s almost Spring and I feel like it’s deep in the winter. It’s already two months into the new year. I’ve already slumped back into my old comfy self.

What if I’ve become the person I hate and I can’t fight it?

So I picked up my Bible The War of Art again. I desperately need Pressfield’s wisdom and strength.  I need it to clear my heart and cleanse my soul.

I forgot what all THIS — writing and the pursuit of my dream — was all about. And here are some quotes that I’ve highlighted, which comes in timely and dearly. 

  • The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
  • If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything.  The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.
  • I’m keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first. 
  • Pros: We show up every day.  We show up no matter what.  We stay on the job all day.  We are committed over the long haul.  The stakes for us are high and real.  We accept remuneration for our labor. We do not over identify with our jobs. We master the technique of our jobs.  We have a sense of humor about our jobs.  We receive praise or blame in the real world.
  • So you’re taking a few blows. Thats’ the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines.  Stop complaining and be grateful.
  • I had not yet had a success. But I had had a real failure.
  • The professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much.  He accepts that. He recognizes it as reality.
  • The professional self-validates. She is tough-minded.  In the face of indifference or adulation, she assesses her stuff coldly and objectively… She’ll work harder. She’ll be back tomorrow.
  • You, Inc.: You-the-writer get a swelled head, but you-the-boss remember how to take yourself down a peg.
  • That moment when I first hit the keys to spell out THE END was epochal. I remember rolling the last page out and adding it to the stack that was the finished manuscript.  Nobody knew that I was done.  Nobody cared.  But I knew.  I felt like a dragon I’d been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath.  Rest in peace, motherfucker.  Next morning I went over to Paul’s for coffee and told him that I had finished.  “Good for you,” he said without looking up. “Start the next one today.”
  • Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, magic and power in it.  Begin it now. — W. H. Murray
  • The Ego hates artists because they are the pathfinders and bearers of the future, because each one dares, in James Joyce’s phrase, to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
  • In the hierarchy, the artist faces outward.  Meeting someone new he asks himself, What can this person do for me? How can this person advance my standing?  In the hierarchy, the artist looks up and looks down.  The one place he can’t look is that place he must: within.
  • If we were the last person on earth, would we still show up at the studio, the rehearsal hall, the laboratory?
  • Do it or don’t do it… If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself.  You hurt your children.  You hurt me.  You hurt the planet.  You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.
  • Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor.  It’s a gift to the world and every being in it.  Don’t cheat us of your contribution.  Give us what you’ve got. 

Artist to artist, I see you. I hear you. I feel you.  You know, at the end of the day, I can honestly say that I don’t do it for others. I do it to have peace of mind.  

And if I were left alone on earth, I would still write.  So write I shall.

Even though it hurts like a motherfucker.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

This life I chose

If there is a next life, I pray that I am a white male math wunderkind in Wall Street.

My nose is running. My throat is inflamed. My head is foggy. I fell sick three days ago. The third time since I got back to Shanghai, living in my parents’ rent-free spacious apartment, eating my dad’s thoughtful cooking and never need to do my own laundry. What a non-starter. Only it isn’t.

The person I knew who did everything on her own has begun to fade in my sleep-deprived memory. Did she really exist at all?

Did I really live in LA for three years on my own?

The past starts to blur not in years, but as fast as months.

My insomnia has now worsened to a point where I had to order melatonin to claim that I had failed at another foolproof task: getting myself to sleep.

Today I turned in the last draft of a short film. Thus far, four short scripts have come to an end. I will wait till May for the directors to come up with the finished films.  

On a side note, I got dropped from the animation feature project weeks after I turned in the movie treatment — the skeleton of the movie which took me weeks to write. It was a hard pill to swallow. I graciously told the director that it was okay when his boss asked for a more well-known American screenwriter to tackle this Chinese tale as old as time. Intellectually, I understood. Sure, I knew that I can do it. But viscerally, the sucker punch has a lingering side effect called depression. 

I also realized that why you shouldn’t announce it until you nail it in writing. What we have here is a stupid girl compounded with a rookie mistake. 

If this’s not enough, just read on. 

I still have problems with people who’re all talk and no walk. A former colleague made me a promise for some Chinese connections and projects before I left LA. I wrote the dude a letter on the new year to catch up on what he has promised. He replied with typical Hollywood flair: no response. I swept it under the screw-you rug and moved on. 

Yesterday, a friend who has got her O-1 visa warned me not to set the return date as early as spring 2020.  I don’t have much of a life in Shanghai with most of my old acquaintances either estranged or evaporated.  And my life in LA got upended and put on hold. Now you’re telling me with the speed that I’m running,  I might have to wait just as long as everybody else?

Yes. Get in line. Unless you’re the Naomi Osaka of screenwriting.

But that’s not all of it.

My thoughtful father sat me down a few days ago and told me that I need to think about “relationship.” Are we having this conversation, like right now? What about the times you cut me out when I had my first crush on some boy that I met at the night school? You sat me down and told me that I need to focus on schoolwork? I love my father so I bit my tongue and said I would think about after I get myself back to LA.  What about men over here? First of all, I don’t have stamina for Finding Nemo right now. Secondly, Chinese men and yours truly are 99.99% incompatible. I just don’t have time to scour that 0.01% right now. 

Today, I vented at my best friend in LA who at one point said, “Sometime I get a bit weary because you’re just very good at turning your friends into enemies.” I started apologizing profusely just as my alter ego began snickering at my level of immaturity for a thirty-something.

I hate February. Not only it’s the shortest. But also it hides my birthday, reminding me that I’m older, poorer, and nowhere near closer to anything that I set out to do.

I need a miracle. I need strength. I need unconditional love. I need to patch up my trust in people. And most of all, I just don’t want to turn into a cynical cat lady who’s gonna die alone and won’t be discovered until her neighbor’s Labrador smells something funny.

In one of the meditation exercises, I was told to make a list of people and things that I feel grateful for, to be the glass-half-full gurl for a change. I found myself struggling in my lonely heart in the dark night while my coward hot tears rolled down from my cheeks. 

Out of everything in the world that I could choose from, I chose writing. Because I want to be remembered after I’m gone. 

But if there is a next life, I pray that I am a white male math wunderkind in Wall Street who loves stocks and being filthy rich — or whatever prototype that is the most sought-after on God’s creating list. 

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. God, if you’re listening, please destroy the pattern you used to make me.

The sure thing

No such thing as a sure thing in creativity.

Everyone starts somewhere.

Except for the extremely fortunate ones like Theodore Roosevelt, and the extremely unfortunately ones like Abraham Lincoln, most of us begin life simply average.

What it comes down to is what course of life we choose for ourselves.

Most decide without having to decide that they would play the game run by the house. The house’s rules are their bread and butter. That’s how they fit in, to feel safe and secure. What it also implies is that the society demands that they strive to go to the best of the best since kindergarten, so they are ahead at every single step. They even have to have the best burial plot.

Usually this is a particular crop of exceptional test-takers, overachievers, IQ lottery winners. Statistically speaking, they are still the minority. They won because it’s in their factory default mode.

The prospect for the rest of us seems gloomier than ever. We’re unhappy, unsatisfied, uninspired. Because we are never going to be able to reach the shiny object that seems just a tad out of reach. 

That leaves us to the last thing we can control: what we choose for our career. The sure-thing careers are lawyer and doctor. If you happen to love these jobs, then hooray!  If you graduate with a student loan, once you are in practice, your future immediately becomes a sure-thing even if your work ethics is just moderate.

Now, what if you are like me, who dreams to be a writer, not in your next life, but right here right now in your current body?

What I can say from my own experience is that graduating from Francis Coppola’s UCLA Film School doesn’t guarantee you the sure thing. Getting picked by a top-notch Hollywood producer when I was still in film school doesn’t get you to your end goal.

The truth is, if you get into the film industry to feel secure, you should get the hell out before you set your foot in.  The film industry is the last industry that would give you that. You have to earn it for yourself.  Word by word. Script by script. Day after day. Night after night…

But if you do enjoy and admire a good story, maybe you would appreciate working above-the-line in the film industry. 

Don’t tell me, surprise me.

 

Yours truly,
YZ