Learning through action

Next week, I will be teaching two screenwriting courses at an art college. That’s three hours per class. Two classes per week. For a total of 18 weeks.

I will spare my thoughts on how little the school purt it thoughts into the length of these classes. Truth is, very few classes (except writing workshops) I attended at UCLA was longer than three hours…

So what would I teach these freshmen who know little about screenwriting? How would I teach them?

While I’m preparing my notes, I realize how little I thought about what I have learned from my own film school experience probably until now.

Just like I learnt screenwriting by doing. I’m going to learn teaching through 18 weeks of intense teaching.

Like any movie’s inciting incident where the character is met with the opportunity and is left to decide, I accepted the challenge and there’s no backing down now since my name is on the list. We shall see.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Growing pains

There’re too many good habits I’d like to have, like running, like getting up before dawn, like intense writing for three hours daily on average. And yet, other things get in the way. The things that feel so important at the time. The loud, the cute, the shiny…

Here’s my pattern: when I don’t get up at the hour I’ve promised myself, I start cutting myself short for the rest of the day. When I was in LA, I didn’t pay for training once a week, I might not even go to the gym that much even when I lived in Southern California for three years…  I throw in the towel way too early before I hear the whistle blows. 

I’d admit that what feels good at the time never really feels right later, or even right in the moment…  Life gets in the way as it always manages to. For the past two years, I would use my pending visa status as my perfect excuse.  “I can’t sit still for meditation today. I ain’t gonna write because I just don’t feel right.”

My other voice goes: When will you grow the fuck up? When will you evolve to be that person that you set out to be?  And its answer is more urgent than I wanted (“Thanks, but no thanks. Not now.”).

If we have to feel right to do anything, the human race would have gotten zero stuff done.  It takes a committed leader to claim independence against Great Britain; a single mom of three kids to rise early even when she’s just had three hours of sleep; a tennis champion to start practising her strokes again after she just won the Wimbledon Grand Slam the day before… 

To me, the ‘ruthless’ professionals are like an entirely different species, whom I’ve admired all my life.  It probably explained why I bawled my eyes out watching Jiro: Dreams of Sushi some five years ago at a time when I grilled myself every night about the meaning of my own existence. 

CUT TO: Five years later. Now. I’m living the dream as a working writer. And yet, the residue of my old self lingers in my veins like that of a recovering addict. I can’t seem to drain it out of my system just yet without serious upshots.

I want to be a world-class pro to earn that R.E.S.P.E.C.T.  It’s how Rocky became the Rocky we cheer for. And it’s why people eulogize Lagerfeld when he passed away at the age of 85 yesterday.

Maybe secretly I still fear of missing out on my wannabe-queen-bee social life. Maybe I still want to be loud now just because it feels good to hear people notice that you exist… I know those cravings are fading, but they’re still lurking in the darkness of my subconsciousness. 

To quote that line which is on the brink of becoming a cliche: If not now, when?
So yeah, what the fuck am I waiting for? My own death?

I’ve got the bullet.
Time to pull the trigger.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Half-and-half

I’m your glass half empty gal, the gal who points out the emperor has no clothes on, and the same gal who demands to talk about the elephant in the room. 

Optimists would say: you have a brilliantly critical mind. But the truth is, it makes me miserable.

More often than not, I dread that one year, or God forbid, two years after I return in the States, I’d have to build my friends and my life from ground up. Just like what I’m (not really) trying to do here in Shanghai to re-enter the lives of my old pals.

Today I’ve got birthday wishes from friends in Shanghai and back in LA without doing any “social media marketing.” I used to think little of birthday wishes. And guilty as charged, I don’t give enough of those. But today being on the receiving end, it warms my heart, especially when I think I’m left alone and cast away.

The idea of drinking from the half-full glass isn’t such a bad idea after all. 

 

Much love from yours truly,
YZ

 

Thank-me note

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

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