A sage professor asks us to face the worse-case scenario as film students — What if you didn’t “make it”? What would you do then?
It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you’ve lived so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all.
It is one of my favorite quotes, from J.K. Rowling.
True, I ended up quitting making films and leaving the film industry altogether.
Everyone in the program set his mind trying to “make it” at the very beginning. It became quite black and white that if you didn’t, you lost the only reason you were here. But in truth, “it’s not the end of the world,” a sage told us at a class. Understanding that is a huge revelation.
Would I choose not to study film if I knew I was not going to “make it” as a filmmaker? I still would. My chapter at UCLA taught me things which I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
I thought I was brave ‘enough’ landing in LA knowing nobody. Not nearly. You should see my face when our writings got read at the first group gathering. I felt stark naked. I could not breathe. I must be dying. I didn’t. My writing even got a few laughs. For the next three years, I had attended hundreds of writing workshops. I remember my humiliation seeing everybody else got minor notes while mine was major. The instructor killed more than half of my ten pages. It was hard not to compare yourself with the others. But then I substituted “Why on earth?” to “Why?” Now I could then hear my real problems. Over time, I got better.
I learned that the worst pain is not seeing your best work get rejected, but having your work rejected and knowing you could have scored better. But you were too much a coward to submit your best art. In your wonderland, you know you had room for improvement. You say to yourself, “Wait till I give my 100%.” But then I asked the what-if — What if I did give my best shot? Would I have a better shot? I knew what I had to do — Do my damnedest. The feedback I then received was a more precise understanding of my “status quo.” That in turn propelled me to become better. With that mindset, I grew muscles.
So you must accept your imperfect self to make better art every day. I admit my work sucks, but I am going to do my best to improve. A screenwriting instructor once told me after a brutal session, “Be patient with yourself.” Overnight success stories that media loves make us forget the real trajectory of learning new things. It takes time.
One of the definitions of the word “Courage*” is —
The ability to do something that frightens one.
I go where my fear is. Writing English screenplays at UCLA as the only Chinese is on my “Top Five Scariest Things I’ve done” list. Even if you do fail by society’s definition of failure, they can’t take away your experiences nor the things you’ve learned.
Dumbledore once said to Harry —
It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.
Would you beat yourself up if you dream doesn’t come true? Would you add another chip on your shoulder? Or would you keep living to find something else to do with your life?
Chasing dreams is courageous. To admit the dream you hold dearly to isn’t the one for you takes more courage. Do you cut off from friends and family and live in denial? Or admit it’s time to move on? Granted, this is not a hero line in a movie. But in real life, it is for me.
So, you did lose. I see where you are heading. You see, life is not a zero-sum game. We set our minds to follow our original plan. It’s marvelous if success follows suit. It’s also important to know it’s okay if it doesn’t. You’ve got to be a big enough person to see through your own reality distortion field. Accept that with grace and live on. I did.
Even though I was no longer in the film industry, I became a much stronger storyteller. I felt so much more connected with my words and thoughts. I knew I had many ideas. And I could execute them on the page. Before film school, it was a mere fantasy. Now all these became my new skills. It helped as I consulted brands on storytelling. Or writing columns for bilingual magazines. A publisher in China learned about my experiences at UCLA and signed me a book contract. My book sold well. Reading notes from the young film students made me the happiest of men. It triggered more writing projects. I am still a writer after all. Now, does it sound intriguing to see your own life stories influencing other human beings and not the fiction version?
I once read a book called “Dying to Be Me.” It is about the author Anita Moorjani’s surreal healing journey through the Near Death Experience. When she was “up there,” she described the indescribable landscape — her tapestry of life interweaving with each other making it the most radiant color she had ever seen. Most of us are social beings at the mercy of others’ opinions. But how do you define a fulfilled and happy life? Money? Fame? Car? House? Or this — having a fulfilled lifelong relationship, seeing your work produce meaningful changes in other people’s life? It all depends on your definition towards a good life. Earthly things don’t carry on beyond this realm of life. What we hold dear to is not that precious after all.
I began this note with a quote from J.K. Rowling. I will end with another —
I would like to be remembered as someone who did the best she could with the talent she had.
And I will add this — On her own terms, in her own way.
Fan: Which Hogwarts house would you be in?
J.K. Rowling: Gryffindor, I hope. I value courage beyond almost anything.
That makes me a legit Gryffindor, eh?