What it takes

A friend in NY called me last night. Just a while ago, he was studying film scoring at NYU, and I was doing screenwriting at UCLA.

We both come from China. We knew each other through a mutual friend. To be frank, the name of that friend eludes me now, just like most folks I used to call friends back home.

It was 2015. We both just got accepted. We had great expectations. We wanted to shatter America with our vision and mission before we had any clue how real artists live, and just how an aspiring expat artist makes a living.

CUT TO: THREE YEAS LATER

He said he’s in a dilemma. The job offers here are just a tad away from starving in NY. But there is an exciting offer back home. The company that is hiring will go public very soon. The package will include some portion of the initial offering.

What should he choose?
Keep SLAVING here?
Or, fly back and SOAR?

Ang Lee is my friend’s alma mater. Friend added—

Everybody mentions Ang Lee. But nobody tells you the staggering number of people whom you never know because life finally crushes on them. And they are just as talented as Lee if not more.

I asked him where he prefers staying in a long run.

“Here, of course.” He admitted.

I told him my concerns for artists to stay true to themselves back home. Because back home, you won’t have sufficient peer support. It would be easy to get lost, again. And then, not many people back home understand your vision. What would you do then?

Here we are, at another crossroad in our life.

But here is what I do know—
Not one choice is less courageous. We have gone this far. We have put our dream to test, unlike most “poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much,” as Teddy Roosevelt said.

Just like life, the conversation didn’t lead to an answer. He asked me for my perspective. I gladly offered.

Two artists. Heart to heart. No glam filters. No photoshop. Just raw cuts underneath the facade.

Three years ago, I despised anyone who yielded to reality. Today, I just listen. Because tomorrow, I may choose it myself.

I told my friend I’ve stopped using social media. I have no instagram. I don’t update my Facebook or WeChat Moments. I still have the accounts, because I may use them to reach out to people. Since I don’t know what I’m missing out, I keep my fear at bay. So I can sit here and write this blog. So I can keep making art.

Just what it takes to get there, I still don’t know. But I do have a better sense. Three years later.

Here is I will tell my younger myself from three years ago—

Your faith will be questioned.
Your passion will be burned.
Your perseverance will be tested.
You will learn so much about the craft. And even more about yourself.
You think you’re pretty strong now. But you will emerge stronger.
It’s going to be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done.

Scared?
Me, too.

Here, I’m leaving in a minute. You don’t have to come.
If you do, buckle up and enjoy.

And she did.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Ugly Cry

I miss holding my father’s hand. I miss listening to my mum telling on my dad’s ‘misdeeds.’ I miss being the judge of the two, giving out my verdicts. I just miss being around them, like the old days, like a kid.

I stole this phrase from a colleague.

Over a weekend, he proposed to his girlfriend, the picture-perfect woman whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet for a few times.  In the photos, a few yards away were my colleague’s friends, holding pro-cameras and iPhones snapping the moment for the love birds on the beach against the cloudless blue sky under the California sun.

The woman, who works the camera by trade (model/actor), didn’t care how she looked and bawled.

“She had such an ‘ugly cry.'”

This comment from my colleague froze in my head.

This morning, that ugly cry hit me. The difference was, no one proposed.

I was alone in my bachelor’s pad. To put it more precisely, I was in my studio apartment. I just had a video call with my dad. It was my 5 am, his 8 pm. Our vocal cat Michael was meowing for attention slouching against my dad’s feet. Dad was concerned, about my visa. He was worried about the What-ifs.

It was the first time in months since I got up when the alarm first went off at 5. I wanted to use it well. I was going to write. But dad’s text got me thinking: he must be worried. I need to give him a call. A quick one, before I got on with my day. We talked for a bit, about this route, about Michael. I asked where my mum was. Then I heard her voice. Her wet head popped into the frame.

“I was just taking a shower. Where’s the lecture video? I was telling your auntie all about your success the other day.”

“Ma, it may take a few more days. Have some patience.” I replied impatiently.

“You dad starts smoking again!” She blurted out of nowhere.

With dad’s vices, mum never has a problem being the snitch. Her Animal Sign is Rat after all.  Dad just smiled back at me. To the others, he’s known for his scowl, even at home. And Michael (he’s our cat btw) knows it, too. But when he gets busted by Mum, the Policewoman, he lets out a gruff scarce laugh.

I told them that it’s five here in LA and I need to get started. 10 mins in and I had to go. I hated that I had to end our convo so abruptly.

I often picture them living with me in the US. I want it happen so bad. I want it happen right here, right now.

Then I made a mistake. I tuned into The Moth Podcast with the theme on Fathers as I prepped my meal.  It was a series of father-child stories. One story was about a son with his estranged writer dad who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The son drove him around when he visited him at the facility. The son was so full of fear—

“I looked at his hand. Not sure what to do. It was so close but felt so far away. Then I took my right hand off the wheel and lay it on his hand, as if I just took a jump off the cliff. I feared that he would swat it away. I held my breath. Then I felt it. He put his other hand over mine. We stayed that way as I drove… For the last few years of his life, that’s what we did. We held hands.”

I broke down at my kitchen counter and started an ugly cry.

I was disgusted by my selfishness, abandoning them back home, coming here to chase my dream. Nobody told me it’s going to be this hard to do the right thing. Why doesn’t it sound and feel right whenever I look at them through the phone screens, and not into their eyes?

I miss holding my father’s calloused hand. I miss listening to my mum telling on people, mostly my dad’s ‘misdeeds.’ I miss being the judge of the two, giving out my verdicts. I guess, I just miss being around them, like the old days, like a kid, without a care of the world, or of some distant dream.

More and more, that’s what keeps me going. And I hope, with each endeavor, I’ll be closer to them. And them, closer to me.

Damn, I’m cryin’ again.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Insomnia

When my mum and I took this little stray kitten home from our neighborhood four years ago, who would have thought he would keep my parents company when I left for the US? And who would have known he was one of the main reasons of my insomnia last night? Seriously, I miss you all. Do you hear?

I had yet another insomnia last night.

Yes, I did take a bubble bath.
Yes, I did meditate.
Yes, I did exercise.
No, I didn’t drink coffee past noon.
No, I didn’t watch Netflix – I don’t have extra bucks for subscription. I don’t own a TV.

I suddenly grew nostalgic.

  • My grandfather, my only surviving grandparent, is 90 years old. I didn’t like him when I was a kid. But he’s my granddad. And we are the only two Dragons (Chinese Zodiac) in the family.
  • My nieces and nephews whom I haven’t seen since for three years. They may not know that I exist.
  • And my cat! Michael (named after M. Jordan, M. Jackson and M. Chang) who’s now four and a half. I miss holding him, smooching him, feeling the vibrations when he purrs. I miss seeing him dashing around the apartment chasing after a ping-pong ball. Whenever my mum took out the Dyson vacuum we bought to deal with his hair, he would stare at the machine, sizing it up. If you poke his back right there, he would bounce up in horror. That jump would be the ticket to play in NBA. Or even his nagging meows trying to wake the family up at five in the morning because he’s hangry.

When my mum and I took this little stray kitten home from our neighborhood four years ago, who would have thought he would keep my parents company when I left for the US? And who would have known he was one of the main reasons of my insomnia last night?

Seriously, I miss you all.
Do you hear?

Michael peeping out of the bookshelf

Yours truly,
YZ

Price v. Worth

Until you’re red hot in demand, there is always a gap between what you’re worth and what you get paid. You’ll have to remind them to reimburse your next six bucks and convince yourself that it does nothing to your dignity and it doesn’t mean they don’t respect your service, and you. 

The lecture I gave yesterday was a blast.

But something bothered me.

When a ‘friend’ approached me asking if I knew any UCLA professor who could do a lecture on storytelling for some Chinese students (aged 14 to 16).  I volunteered, “What about me? I’ve TA-ed screenwriting at UCLA, giving a 10-week lecture series for the undergrads. I work at a Hollywood producer’s production company. Just a while ago, some Shanghai newspaper interviewed me about my Hollywood journey.”

Oftentimes I listed those things to make up for my lack of real writing credits. She agreed and added that they would pay for my service.

So I started working on the keynote deck. I mentioned in passing to my Chinese writer friend about this gig. She said, “Have you talked about how much exactly they would pay you?” I shrugged. “Then you need to ask her now. Better get it cleared now than later.”

My friend was right.
I was afraid to lose the gig if I seemed too ‘greedy.’

There the haggling began. It was unpleasant. She gave me a bunch of reasons just so she could avoid bringing it up to her boss.

In the end, she replied:

“$$$ is the max we can offer. Otherwise, we will have to ask the colleague of ours who graduated from Harvard to do it instead.”

I was pissed. If you just want to pay chicken shit, why bother asking in the first place? Because your staff, Harvard or not, can do it for free.

The word ‘Harvard’ got on my nerves, too.
As if you spend four years in Harvard, you come out invincible and incredible.
As if you get a free pass for life.
As if you understand any subject and can solve every problem on the face of the Earth.

What troubled me most was the woman held a Ph.D in Education. That’s what they taught you at USC? That’s what education means to you? Harvard or nothing?

Then and there, I decided to deliver a kick-ass keynote to show them why I was worth $$$$ for the two-hour lecture.

I think I made my point yesterday when the big boss approached me, giving me his card, asking, “You’re really good at giving lectures. How long have you been doing this? Let’s grab dinner soon!” He then gave me the envelop that contained my fee.

$$$. No more, no less.

I left and went on about my own business. The woman didn’t contact me for our unfinished business. By 5pm, I texted her regarding my Lyft ride in the morning—stuff we’d confirmed during the haggling phase. Tucking away my ego, I sent her the screenshot of the receipt. She PayPaled me back $6.17. The lecture boosted my self-worth. But this act chipped some bits away. I felt like a beggar. But every cent counts for my current situation—unemployed foreign student. And she knew it.

Maybe that’s the experience being a freelancer. Until you’re red hot in demand, there is always a gap between what you’re worth and what you get paid. You’ll have to remind them to reimburse your next six bucks and convince yourself that it does nothing to your dignity and it doesn’t mean they don’t respect your service, and you.

This is what I’ve learned and what I’ve internalized:
I just have to keep at it till I can call my own shots.
And I will outlast ’em all.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. Imagine if I did recommend my screenwriting professor to them. What damage would that do to my relationship with my professor?

Tired, but not exhausted

Maybe the cliché is true after all. There is a will, there is a way.

It’s been a long day. A little too long.

The brainstorming meeting at the Chinese director’s place was truly fruitful. The only downside was, I didn’t come home until after 11:30 yesterday.  Then I started working on the Podcast Fellowship project. I’ve promised myself to show up every day. So I had to, no matter how late.

I wanted to go to bed. But I have an early lecture the next morning at 9. I wanted to run through the notes a few times before I felt I could have a good handle on the things I was going to share.

I had insomnia. I didn’t fall asleep until after 2:30 am. It was just a little lecture for some junior high school kids from China. But it was also my first public keynote in a long time.

I dragged myself up again at 5:40. Meditated for 10 mins. And started working on the slides sequence. New ideas rushed towards me. I kept tweaking until 7:15 am. I had to leave in about an hour. I gotta get ready.

By the time I got to the Rolfe Hall at UCLA, it was 8:40. Still ahead of time. I got the props I asked the team to prepare. Then suggested we rearranged the tables and the chairs to get the normally reticent Chinese students.

My lecture to the Chinese students from Beijing was well-received. I felt a wave of acknowledgement that had abandoned me when I was so focused to be a writer. I think that was also why I started working on my podcast. I craved to be under the spotlight. I knew I captivated my Gen-Y audience who’s famous for their 8-seconds attention span. Most important, they seemed to be really listening and learning. It felt great.

Then the Chinese filmmaker couple picked me up. We drove far past San Gabriel to the law firm regarding my current visa situation, maybe what the lawyer proposed was my best and ideal choice. In a few weeks, I may need to make a decision.

After the Chinese couple sent their car to the dealer, we Lyfted back to UCLA. Them for their daughter’s summer camp presentation. I went to get my thermos I forgot in the classroom.

But there was one last stop. The bank. The couple needed me to be their interpreter. It was a simple case. But took a long time to get the details right. When they processed the last few steps, I deposited my lecture fee.

By the time we got to their place for dinner, I had eaten nothing for 18 hours. Probably my longest strike I could remember. Strangely, I feel alive. I come to know that I’m on the right path, even though the going gets tougher. Since October 31, 2016, the day my former landlady decided to break her promise and keep my rent and security deposit, I felt cursed. I was depressed. The chip on my shoulder was chipping away my soul. But today, today I started to feel light and fine after almost two years of tedious struggle, rebel without a cause.

Maybe the cliché is true after all. There is a will, there is a way.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

You never know

The worst case scenario is no. But these days, you would probably get a ‘no response’ response at best. so what do you have to lose? You never know. 

I’m staying home today. I have a haircut appointment at noon, because I have a lecture to present tomorrow. Then a 4:30 meeting with the Chinese writers. So I decided to use my own vacation day to stay at home. Barely 8 o’clock, there was pounding against my wall. The construction workers started their day’s job. But I’m uncharacteristically  undisturbed. A great time to practice Zen, right?

Yesterday evening was the screenwriting class I enrolled at UCLA Extension. It was much better than the previous two sessions.

I thought the instructor was high-strung. During the break by the water-cooler, we had a little chat. She was juggling so many balls—

She was teaching two evening classes.
She was also taking a YA Novel writing class through UCLA Extension. The deadline was 12 hours away. She wanted to turn in 30 pages, but she only had 10 as we spoke.
She was also working on a rewrite. The deadline was three days away, the Sunday. But she hadn’t started yet.
All the while, her 98-year-old mother back in Ohio was not doing well. Struggling.
Her other industry friends had projects announced on Deadline.com. But now, the people she wanted to give scripts to were all busy with their own stuff.

“That’s the life I’m dealing with.” She shrugged with a sad smile. I wanted to give her a hug. Because I know that face. I am that face.

I was critical of her in the first two classes. Because she was giving an unfair amount of time (50 mins out of a three-hour class for a dozen students) to a 65-year-old woman who was adapting the Holocaust memoir written by her parents. To be frank, the woman had a low screenplay IQ. She had an even lower EQ. I was on the verge of losing it. I bit my tongue and stared at the clock. I stormed out of the class the second we were dismissed.

The instructor said she stayed until 11:15 PM?! last time for the woman. I told her plainly, “Set some boundary.” I suddenly had more empathy towards her than I had known in me.

After the break, I pitched my old-new story. It was the first feature I wrote at UCLA. I got some really interesting notes. As soon as I got home, I watched the reference movie they mentioned, Stand by Me (1986).

I thought the class level was beneath me, at first. But yesterday from the table read, I found two guys were pretty good writers already. One had impressive action beats. Another had a fantastic ear for dialogue.

Although I didn’t bring in new materials last night, I got new ideas from the group. I did it by simply showing up. (Hat tip to Seth Godin’s blog post on “Showing up.”)

But it didn’t just end there. The “dialogue guy” emailed me through the course platform later, saying that he also wanted to apply for UCLA’s Screenwriting MFA program next year and asked if he could ask me some questions regarding the program.

It was a really thoughtful email. He explained that I was the only one he knew that went to this program most recently. He seemed sincere and respectful. Immediately I replied. I gave him my cell and email address. Of course, next time in class, we would talk more. I would even approach him if he didn’t. He showed me two things: bravery and sincerity.

Funny thing about reaching out. I’ve had many, many of those situations, mulling over how the recipient would think of me. But guess what, there is nothing I can do. The worst case scenario is no. But these days, you would probably get a ‘no response’ response at best. so what do you have to lose?

You never know.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

To be or not to be

How to sustain your dream when you’re trying to livin’ the dream?

A voice whispered in my head: quit screenwriting.

I woke with a jolt and throbbing pain in my chest.

But this is what I set out to do when I gave up everything in Shanghai and came to the US in 2015 to pursue this dream. I argued with the voice.

The voice kept reasoning with me—
Here is thing: You’re just not good at this. You haven’t sold anything. Nobody asked you to pitch anything. You haven’t won anything big. The market is permeated with big IP sequels that only care about the box office. Do you know how expensive it is to make any movie? Any feature, the budget starts at $1m. And just what makes you think your story should be told onscreen?  Hon, shall I keep going?

I fumbled, well, I want to bridge the East and the West— exactly what I wrote in my “Statement of Purpose” when I applied to the UCLA Film School.  And it worked.

But come to think of it now, it’s not working for me anymore. The two scripts about the Chinese culture I wrote at UCLA aren’t really the ones that come from the heart. At the time, I was running short on ideas and thought they were cool subjects worthy to be known.

They can be known through books. Documentary at best, not necessarily feature film. The voice shot back relentlessly.

Quite true.

As I write this, I am writing a thriller feature. It’s an adaptation. It’s a period piece. Two weeks ago, I decided to make it contemporary. Why? It’s cheaper and more relevant. Two days ago, my screenwriting friend (who is one kick-ass screenwriter, sold tons of projects and has one movie made) agreed to collaborate with me, because she knows about my quagmire and the collaboration will get me further and faster into the game. Plus, she loves the project. I’m thrilled. I really like the story. I want to like it more. But I’m too much inexperienced to tackle something as classic as this book, like a baby alligator trying to tackle a grown hippo on Training Day #101.

I am also working on my first novel. I clock in 2,000+ words or more every day since July 10.  I am less than 27 days away to finish my rough first draft. I want to get it published, or self-published by February 2019. Why the rush? Because again, I need it to apply for my artist visa (O-1) next year. At the same time, it’s the story I’m burning and dying and all the while afraid and shying away to write.

See the difference? I can’t wait to get behind my desk to work on my book. But I’m procrastinating with my screenplays.

Here is thing: I have total ownership with the book. But screenplays? They are just blueprints for movies. Feature screenwriters get hired and fired all the time. What’s my worth to keep being a screenwriter? Shall I start generating more TV ideas?

I will ask these questions to my friend and now writing partner the next time I send her notes on our collaboration project. The most pressing one: To be, or not to be. How to sustain your dream when you’re trying to livin’ the dream?

 

Yours truly,
YZ