Today is Thursday, the last day of March, and the fourth day into the new quarter.
At the pitch session yesterday, the instructors asked the first-year screenwriters about what they have learned, and second-years about their advice to the first-years.
Here is my learning as a first-year— Just keep writing.
For most students, two years is all we’ve got. Less than a year ago, we met with our second-year mentors at the department orientation. I had butterflies in my stomach not knowing what was ahead. Now I can no longer call myself “fresh meat.” And the second-years are doing their last quarter.
How time flies!
I am still debating whether I should do a third-year. Maybe, maybe.
But what struck me with the program is this — while our minds are still lingering on the last story we created merely twelve weeks ago, now we need to come up with something completely new.
The program encourages original new stories than rewrites.
That I can’t agree more. If the story is there already, you can always rewrite during your free time borrowing fresh eyes from your writing cohorts. I feel that during the quarter, we should just hash out new stuff. It’s how we grow muscles.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have issues with rewrite during the quarter. But, money-wise, I don’t think it’s savvy investment. Time-wise, not so much either. While the rest of us start afresh, most re-writers get lazy bringing in their first act from the previous quarter. They run out of gas fast. They have the vantage point maybe till mid-quarter.
Through my observation, rewrite with the class requires a lot of discipline. You have to have a fresh and critical pair of eyes looking at your old stuff. And you should be prepared to have a complete overhaul on the story.
Truth is, I am fascinated by the messy creation process. As a writer, we reboot like the computer system, start anew. We get to know the characters in the new story till we know them to the bones, during when we write the shitty first draft. And then, we rewrite. Finally we are done, for now.
I used to consider myself a perfectionist with grand pride. Now so much less after I finished the two quarters. You have to let go the notion of “I have to be perfect before showing anyone my art, my work.” It’s impossible when you have to hash out stuff each week at the writing workshop watching people tearing down your beloved brainchild. But once you let go, you become so much more thick-skinned towards the critiques. Some are useful. Some less so. You grow wiser taking critiques with a grain of salt.
They can’t do you harm if you stop take yourself too seriously.
But do take your work seriously, if you want to be treated professionally as a writer.
The host sent out the invite to all 41 screenwriters in the program.
Guess how many showed up (apart from the host).
Two. Me and another guy.
Then the host showed me the RSVP list. Quite a lot confirmed. But in the end, they decided to spend those hours doing something more important than talking through the new stories for the new quarter.
I was going to be one of them — Confirmed and bailed out later. I then told my flatmate that I just wanted to be left alone since she was moving out today. My flatmate quipped —
Get yourself out. It’s the only way to meet men.
So I did. It turned out to be two men after all.
The host friend felt a bit hurt. He didn’t do anything wrong. He said he tried not to take things personally. Well, I can’t. That’s why I stopped trying to host events that involve more than four people a long time ago. It’s exhaustive, underappreciated. You beg people to confirm, then you follow up when the date is close. Excuse me, but —
Who is doing whom a favour?
I much admire the friend keep hosting events like this. I myself can’t bear the thought of people not showing up, or promising to show up and bailed out in the end. Then I thought, not showing up is your loss. Today I got some interesting directions which I will use in the actual story pitch tomorrow.
Three brains are better than one.
Days ago, my cohorts had a Spring break barbecue. Quite a few joined. I was not on the invite list. All were the popular kids. Of course, it hurts a little. But I’d rather join stuff like today’s than “hanging out” with cohorts. I hang out with another bunch of people. To me, cohorts are cohorts. If I find interesting cohort that I want to get to know better, I ask him for one-on-one coffee. That is so much more meaningful and worthy of both of our time. I might appear like a lone wolf. But I cultivate deeper friendship over time.
A professor once said, “Take any meetings as you start off your career. They might surprise you.” To me, events like the one my friend held is one of them.
Shut up about all those excuses that you can’t make it. Just get off your ass and show up. Or, don’t bother RSVP.
Recognize or affirm the validity or worth of (a person or their feelings or opinions); Cause (a person) to feel valued or worthwhile.
via Oxford Dictionary
We all want validation of some sort.
A salesperson wants his sale pitch turn into green notes, so he can claim that he’s a ‘good’ salesperson. Otherwise, he has failed.
A parent wants his kids to shine at school, so he can say he’s a ‘good’ parent. Otherwise, he has failed.
A friend wants to know if she is being helpful, so she can keep feeling connected and fulfilled. Otherwise, she begins to question if the friend reciprocates her time and endeavor.
But a writer, a writer just wants to hear any feedback you have for her story when you ask to read it. Otherwise, why bother?
I email-pitched a feature writing class for the coming Spring Quarter. Then the roster came out, my name wasn’t there, again. Surprise? Nope, I was not. It was not the first “Ouch Moment” since I got into the program. Was I hurt? A teeny bit.
But now I can shrug it off and move on. Just another pinch of salt throws onto my open wound. Now I am so much more thick-skinned, I feel I can take another blow. Why not? Punch me. Punch me hard. Let me see if that’s all you’ve got.
I want to keep getting better. I want to be so damn good, so damn big like an elephant, so the next time you see me, you can’t ignore me. Because you really have to address “The elephant in the room.”
“I will never let anyone see that they get to me.”
No, I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, literally or figuratively.
I got a credit card bill notice stating that a large sum of money was spent in a Shanghai hospital. It had to be my parents, I concluded. Only they have access to that card.
But the hospital?
It was 8 o’clock in the morning in Shanghai. What could go wrong? What was going on? And most important, who was in the hospital?
My heart was pounding. My thoughts were racing. My body was quivering. I began praying, please, please, please…
I tried to call their cells. No one picked up. I called one of my aunties. No answer. I then texted a friend in Shanghai giving her both of my parents’ numbers.
“Could you check on them for me? Please?”
I waited. No reply. I then tried calling another auntie, my Mum’s eldest sister. She picked up. Thank God. And thank Chairman Mao for not implementing the One-Child Policy.
— Talk to me!
*I demanded. My voice was shaking.
— Oh, it must be your dad.
— My dad?!
*Last year in January when I was still in Shanghai, it was Mum who was hospitalized.
— What happened?
— Just a minor surgery.
— A surgery?! What kind of surgery? Be specific!
— Oh, he’s been having this condition for well over two years now.
— Two years? Why don’t I even know?!
My tears poured out. I felt I had failed as a daughter.
I want to be filial. But me in Los Angeles, and them back in Shanghai, how filial can I be when all I do is to call them once a week at random and strange hours?
My savings are now dried up and I haven’t been employed since last August. I now practically live on my parents’ meagre savings while they haven’t seen much of the world yet. And they are pushing into their sixties. The clock is ticking.
I want it so bad to give them back, give them the best. To thank them for their nurturing, for their teaching, for their selflessness, for their understanding, for their encouragement and for their support. I want to become rich and famous — Not because I want them for myself. But I can stop worrying about money, stop missing my parents in the darkness of the night. So they can start to enjoy their life and worry less about me and my expat life in the U.S.
This has become part of the source of my drive — To give them a better life. I don’t really care what people think about me, how I dress. But I care how people view my work. Because that’s what defines me now, that’s what will bring something tangible and meaningful to me.
But what about love?
Love is only so transient. Another cousin of mine is getting married this June. I am going to miss her wedding. She is one year older than I am. I am 28, and I haven’t yet had a boyfriend till today. Pretty pathetic, right? I feel that no matter how sincere, friendly, gorgeous, put-together, versatile I am, no one is ever going to get serious about getting into a relationship with me. I’ve met four guys since I arrived. None were serious players. I think next time, I might just cut to the chase and ask, “Are you serious, or are you just fucking around? Because if you belong to the latter, please just fuck off.” I just can’t afford to waste another ounce of my energy on chicken shit like this.
My parents won’t say it, but I know what they are thinking. They want me to find someone who deserves me. They want me to start a family so my significant other can take some burdens off my shoulder. And unlike my rebellious younger self, I want to be their trophy daughter. I want to exceed my parents’ wildest expectations of me — even though all they ever want for me is myhappiness.
All I want for them is their happiness, and to join with me here in the U.S.
If God’s design for me is to live alone, work alone, and die alone. So be it. I will then gear all the energy to work till the last breath I take. I will work my damnedest so I can show my parents the world they’ve missed out while supporting my life here. That’s the least I can do.
— A wish from a child who’s far, far away from home.
“Like a virgin” should be Brooklyn’s real title, or logline.
I am an expat myself, a single young Chinese woman living on her own in the US of A. So yes, I am more than curious about this immigrant story.
Is it NOT an immigrant struggle story?
In general, the movie title carries the most weight. And this one is called — Brooklyn. So, duh.
To begin with, we never knew why she left Ireland. “There is nothing left for me here.” Our heroine Eilis stated sadly but with a tinge of determination. I am not familiar with the Irish history back in the 1950s. But darling, would you mind giving us some more background information rather than her working in a banal grocery shop under a demanding spinster owner?
16 minutes into the story (please bear with a screenwriting student’s kink to time the structure and the pacing), our Eilis finally, finally landed America without getting evicted on the Ellis Island.
I then thought —
Okay, now it’s going to be how much she struggled to adjust into her life in America in the 1950s, right?
But uh-huh. Lo and behold, I waited and waited.
Was there ever an exterior struggle?
Eilis’s mother had her old-time golfing club friend Father Flood in Brooklyn arranged everything for Eilis.
Father Flood became Eilis’s sponsor, so Eilis didn’t need to worry about her visa, her accommodation. *What’s better than having someone look after you without having to doubt the man want something more? He’s a priest, he preaches. Eilis is safe. No sugar daddy problem, ever.
Eilis’s bunkmate on the ship, Georgina taught her how to dress like a tart to pass the immigration screening.
Eilis landed a decent job of her caliber at Bartocci’s, Brooklyn’s fancy department store skipping all sorts of screening and interview. *A Chinese would say, that’s some strong Guanxi there.
Eilis with her distinct Irish accent, made no friends at the fancy department store. The tease by the restaurant service guy was too subtle to get into the skin. Or it was me too thick-skinned?
The poor American co-worker at Bartocci’s made such an effort throwing herself with Eilis by striking a one-way conversation — “What did you see, Dorothy? I saw ‘The Quiet Man’, Eilis. They filmed it in Ireland. Oh, I’m from Ireland. I know you are. That’s why I thought you might be interested.” And then, “Thank you” was all Eilis could muster. My jaw almost dropped. Well, if your mother tongue is not English like me, I would not mind you just utter a simple harmless “Thank you.” But dude, you do speak English even though with an accent. How could you survive when you don’t even make an effort making new friends at work when the person seemed nice and approachable?
Father Flood paid for her first term tuition at the Brooklyn College to study accounting so she could climb up the career ladder, being the ambitious expat career woman in the 1950s. Father Flood, what an Angel you are.
Then enters sweet Tony, the jolly good Italian plumber boy at the Irish Ball who digs Irish girl. He fell for Eilis, even though she didn’t even talk normal. When Tony asked to walk her home, Eilis replied, “I’m going to say yes, then I’m going to tell you why.” Maybe she was too uptight a girl being brought up in a uptight family in remote Ireland? It didn’t matter. They fell in love. They never bickered. Tony’s family loved Eilis.
How convenient! La vie est belle!
I then thought to myself, so Brooklyn has to be a feel-good movie about a boy and a girl fell in love and lived happily ever after?
Then Eilis’s sister died in Ireland, the reason of which puzzles me still. Eilis had to go back. Tony, being the sweet and thoughtful down-to-earth boyfriend he had always been, asked Eilis to marry him after Eilis clunky encouragement, “If you ask me again today, I might say I love you too.”
What kind of human being talks like that?
Anyway, they did get married at the City Hall.
But, let’s not skip the chapter that Eilis invited Tony for a sleepover at her place the night before they married.
Eilis, being the rational girl the whole time, what about your promise to Mrs. Kehoe and her trust in you being the good girl?
The two of them on the single bed, it squeaked. I cringed.
Then Eilis took us back to Ireland. Enters the dashing well-to-do rugby player who conveniently fell for her and her newfound confidence and style. They went to the beach. Eilis put on exactly the same bathing suit when Tony, now her husband, invited her to Coney Island. If she was self-conscious then, now she was sophisticated.
You go back home for your sister’s death and to console your heartbroken mother. But you didn’t forget to pack your green flirty swimwear?
I smell trouble, Plumber Boy.
Being the girl with an American accountant certification, she landed a part-time job at Davis’s — her late sister Rose’s job.
At that point, I finally realized she was to play with two guys’ hearts. She wrote back to Tony only once and became touchy-feely with this nice Irish fella.
The second time she was home, she was rude and arrogant. She was pretentious even. It made her agony over leaving her hometown later at the knowledge of her sister Rose’s death hypocritic and very much underdeveloped.
Then came the just-in-time warning of the vicious shop owner. Feeling insulted, Eilis made up her mind and bought a ticket back to America before her reputation in Ireland was ruined, because “people talk.”
Eilis mustered her Irish courage —
I’d forgotten what this town is like. What were you planning to do, Miss Kelly? Keep me away from Jim? Stop me from going back to America? Perhaps you didn’t even know. Perhaps it was enough for you to know that you could ruin me.
My name is Eilis Fiorello.
Oh, now you are suddenly a Mrs. Fiorello. How convenient.
Miss Kelly, the Irish shop owner, is the only villain-ish character in the movie. Who did what? She merely tries to warm the young girl against the danger of bigamy, and to remind her that she was married already back in America. I thought that was quite admirable of Miss Kelly.
I feel truly sad for the Irish block. All he got was an explanatory letter that the audience didn’t even know what Eilis actually said. But of course, we need not to know. Years of self-explanatory cliche movie montages are enough to fill in the blank.
I feel so much sadder for her Italian husband, Tony. When Eilis leaned against the Bronx brick wall waiting for him after work in her floral Sunday dress with a shade of dusk on her gorgeous and now sophisticated Irish complexion, who could resist? Not this lovesick Irish-loving pasta-eating sweet plumber.
Well, you don’t have a clue about your Irish wife, do you?
Even if you do, whatcha gonna do ‘bout it?
Some side notes:
On Dolores: I just feel sorry for the nerdy girl Eilis boarded with. During her first meeting with Tony, our adorable innocent Eilis told him that she thought Dolores was “awful. If I leave with you, I’m sure she’d understand. You’d be rescuing me.” I actually am quite fond of Dolores’s brutal honesty. Nobody danced with her. She was beyond bored. She didn’t even try to sabotage others’ dates. Being in the same ballroom with her, I thought Eilis was going to help her to find a dancing partner. But no, she teased her with the Italiano, and begged him to walk her home so she didn’t have to be with the poor nerdy gal.
Shame on you, Eilis.
The icy supervisor at Bartocci’s, Miss Fortini, suddenly grew fond of Eilis. It seemed laughable and unconvincing. Her quote below —
Eilis! You’re like a different person! Where did that miserable little mouse go?
How did you do it? Maybe I can pass some advice on to the next poor girl who feels that way.
I’m not passing that on. I’d rather have them homesick than heartbroken. Does he talk about baseball all the time? Or his mother? Then keep him. There isn’t another Italian man like him in New York.
All those dialogues, seem way too on the nose. I respect her the way she was, before she was nice. She didn’t need to be nice or likable. Being strict as supervisor at a high-end mall was her job. Why else would I hire her were I the store manager?
It’s hard to get a movie made, but such a beige movie made me moan the loss of the two hours of my life which I’d rather jerk off.
As I finish typing this review, I realized Nick Hornby was the screenwriter, the guy who adapted Lynn Barber’s AnEducation, which I adored.
Sorry dude, no love from me this time. But wait, I really am not sorry, apart from the fact that I saw the film.
It came from my writing instructor’s voice critique on my screenplay. All-positive notes.
Listening to her showering praise on me was surreal. To me, that moment was like winning an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
My Winter Quarter began as a thriller-drama. I pitched four teachers and was on none of their roosters.
Before anybody gave me an explanation and a solution, my thoughts took me to the darkest alley I’d ever known. You know, that you don’t belong, that you’re a foreigner… kind of self-debasing crap.
Then the nurturing instructor let me in. Sitting for the first time alongside the second and third-year screenwriters in the writing workshops, I bled the most. Sometimes six of my ten or twelve pages were tossed out of the window, or sank without a trace. I worried, not just as small as whether my humor came through on the page writing a comedy about Chinese girls in Liverpool. I worried if I had what I took. As if she saw me through, she always said after another brutal session —
Be patient with yourself.
So I tried.
She got back on Sunday with the voice critique I mentioned at the beginning of this note— it was the most marvelous note I ever received. “YZ, I have zero note for you to change. This is a strong first draft. And you know I will say it if I spot a problem… You have a strong voice as a writer. It is what the industry is looking for, not the mechanics.” As a China-born screenwriter at the English writing session with the native speakers, I felt relieved.
“I see your joy as a writer.”
There she said it. It got me hard. I bawled and quivered at my writer’s desk. Outside, the Californian sun fluttered through the curtained window. I thought it would have been more fitting if I were in England — like my characters. The English drizzle would serve best as I sobbed. But another thought, the sun is better for compare and contrast.
Knowing when to let go is my latest learning as I finished the first feature-length script at the film school. Tweaking here and there, losing sleep and gaining weight, had been the theme of my life for the past two weeks as I wrote and rewrote. But at some point, I had to let it go, and let it be. I had to let other people see my Frankenstein. I had to bear the critiques which may sound harsh, professionally and personally. The two-quarters writing workshops have significantly thickened and toughened my skins. I learn to take the punches with enough seriousness and with a grain of salt.
Giving notes can be surprisingly rewarding.
Knowing that my notes were helpful always gives me immense pleasure. We are competitors for the department showcase. But I am here for the long haul to partner with writers and join the writing community. Because everyone’s story is unique, and it certainly is not a zero-sum game for writers as it is for salesmen, writers should celebrate each other’s work and success. When my cohort said my notes were one of a kind that made him think in a way nobody pointed out before, I was proud. That comment came from my more experienced former English teacher All-American cohort. How cool is that?
Which draft is going to be “The Final Draft”?
My answer is, the draft before the deadline, not that I’ve been procrastinating. On the contrary, I’ve been procrastinating so much less. I did script exchange with three fellow cohorts — giving notes to each other’s script as we arrive at the crop season. With their notes, I made changes till the last second.
As I hit sent and slept on it, I received and read the new round of critiques based on this “Final Draft”. It was from one of the three cohorts. He’s very adamant about structure and pacing, especially when mine is a comedy. His notes gave me a lot more to think about rather than just getting content with and stop becoming better. I much appreciate people who can push me to become better. This particular cohort is one of them. Right away, I sent my feature writing instructor about the issues. I won’t stop tweaking it till I find a good solution for my story.
As I sent my baby away and await feedback, I want to shout at the top of my lungs that I love my script. I love the world I created. I love my characters. I even envy them having the friendships I crave.
Last Monday, I bumped into my original N0.1 choice writing instructor. He said I was on the very top of his list, but he assumed somebody else removed me from his list. He wasn’t happy about it. He even suggested that I only pitched him next winter — the only time he taught in LA. Now I think I can have a good laugh about “my darkest episode” at the film school with a light heart.
After these first two brutal quarters, I feel so much less anxious, and so much more at ease. Sure I will keep struggling with my stories, but the past failures and struggles lent me a new light seeing things — sort of like I have an older self time-travels to me and pat me on the back during my struggles and said, “Trust me, it will be just fine.” It could be a darn cliche line in any other context. But now — I simply know better.
Because I am better. And I will become even better. I won’t stop trying. I just won’t.
We proceed without fear of failure or hope of success.
I have classmates who take two writing classes (Feature — 100 pages; Spec — 30–60 pages), directing and producing and TA for four days a week. When I expressed my admiration, the girl, who’s a second-year student, said that she felt like she’s been here for 20 years. And yes, she would graduate this Spring.
As an afterthought, she said —
Well, good that you finished your script. I haven’t finished mine yet.
I would love to be a multi-tasker, but would I want it at the cost of not finishing my scripts? No. This is what I am here for — to start with.
I made it very clear to myself that these first two quarters (if not the first year) are going to be about writing. Some of my classmates already have a leg up due to their previous involvement in the film business or writing scripts or novels. I don’t.
If I compared myself to them, I would never be happy — being a happy writing writer is almost a mission impossible.
Look, that person’s work is already out there. See, that person just landed a big gig.
For me, I have to stay low and just focus on my craft — for now. Because I don’t want to go to those networking events telling everybody I write screenplays, but when they ask what I “have written,” I can only give them my perfect first act, which is what, 30 pages. No. I want to have some works ready before I approach people. Or I can’t even fake the confidence which has no ground.
When it comes to writing, it’s never going to “Fake it till you make it,” but this —