Drip by drip

A friend contacted me about a gig: interpret a dozen of non-Chinese films for a Chinese movie critic who is a judge at an international film festival. I would help him to understand what those movies are about to write reviews and score them.

I definitely want the gig. Here are my rationales:

  • I’m curious about what movies get selected and the process on the whole.
  • I want to make connection with this Chinese movie critic.
  • For someone doesn’t have an income right now as a full-time foreign student, I can always use some extra bucks.

But by taking this on, I’m contending with my own projects: My scripts. My novel. My podcast.

I feel stressed.
Actually I can’t remember the last time I was ever chill.

Earlier this year, I was more than just stressed. I was depressed. I felt I was not going places. My work didn’t amount to anything. I was not valued in the office even though I was hired by the big boss when I was still in film school.

Here, Simon Sinek might say this is the typical Millennial Syndrome because the Millennials want things to happen right here, right now.

In my defense, I was asked to read scripts. I read so fast. Soon I ran out of materials. I went after books on Amazon. Then office manager told me the (outsourced) finance manager need to see the producers’ green-light notes before I could order them online. [Translation: Stop doing what you are not told to do.]

So I stopped reimbursing and used my meager salary looking for new materials for the firm. I wrote treatments. I tried pitching to the producers. But their hands were full. Their desks are loaded with more important projects. [Translation: projects that would generate revenue; projects that have higher ROI; projects that they found themselves and appeal to their own tastes.]

As this route led me nowhere, I was dejected. I grew cynical. I thought about quitting. But I had nowhere else to go. My screenwriting mentors asked me to hang on because I was right next to the Hollywood mojo.

Watch and learn, kid!

And yet, I couldn’t see the value of this 9-to-6 job.  I was utterly unfazed after the bedazzlement. I finally came to my senses: it was just like any other jobs I’d held over the years. Who said Hollywood was all dream and drama?  For a few months, the closest drama I’d got was: I was dying of boredom. (Melodrama of course…)  I wanted to create my own stuff. I knew I had ‘the Right Stuff.’  I didn’t want to disappoint. But to be frank, I was disappointed. After the recruit, my boss scarcely bestowed his wisdom like he did in the class.

I wanted to stand on the desk and scream at the top of my lungs in a place everyone was talking but nobody was listening—

Gimme somethin’, sire.
Anythin’!
And I’ll make you proud!

The dream of working for the producer came true fast. But the reality hit me, faster and furious. Finally I realized that I was both the Boy and the Emperor. I had no clothes on. At least I was honest about being naked. This was nothing but day-trading. This was bullshit.

But after getting the H-1B work visa rejection letter from the immigration board, I had an epiphany.   I, not anybody else, had to fight for my artist visa next year, to maximize my chance. Instead of half-assing my effort betting gold on others, I have to do the work and ship fast.

In those darkest days, I came up with a podcast idea called Rock Bottom with YZ. Hence the namesake of this blog. Then the machine started running again:

  • I began my first novel. 47,000 words and counting. Half way through.
  • I picked up screenwriting, after abandoning it for a year.
  • I returned to the world, after being a scared and hurt hermit.
  • I did a lecture on storytelling, mading an impression and some new contacts.
  • I joined a Chinese TV Pilot writer team, not caring who takes credits.
  • I’m about to collaborate with two artists on a short about immigration.
  • I’m going to collaborate on a book project with my Chinese writer pal.
  • ….

The list goes on.

I was stressed that I didn’t know what to do a year ago.
Now I’m stressed that I have only 24 hours a day minus 6-7 hours of sleep with all the things I want to create and collaborate.

I know I’m closer.
I know I’m getting there.
I can feel it in my gut.

I just need to take a deep breath and repeat my mantra: Drip by drip.

By denying me the snazzy title, the to-do list, the caring boss, the paycheck, the work visa, prospect of a romantic relationship… everything that I want, could very likely be the best things that can ever happen to me, all at once.

Bring it on.

It’s not 20/20 hindsight yet, but I have a hunch.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Never judge a book by its cover

I talked with the classmate from the screenwriting class during recess yesterday evening.

The lad is from Ireland. He was in finance for 13 years. Eight years in London. Another five on Wall Street. Still carrying a gruff Irish accent, he dons the same weathered baby-shit brown tee to the class. I would’ve never thought in a gazillion years that this lad in front of me used to be in suit and tie all day long for the most part of his adult life.

“I never wanted to be in finance.” He cut to the chase. “Money was good. But I was miserable.”

He pulled me in right away. A storyteller he is.

“I went there to make just enough money so I can live off later to write my own films and get them made cheap. I know my stories would never go through the studio pipeline. I have savings.  Now I want to apply for film school to get ahead with my pursuit.”

Wow.

“How do you like your film school experience?” He marched ahead with the big question.

I explained that if he wanted to write lots of scripts, UCLA Film School is a no-brainer. Because of its quarter-system. When I was there, I wrote one full-length feature script every ten weeks, along with other classes like Howard Suber’s Film Structure, and miscellaneous classes like producing, acting. I did feature and TV pilot in one quarter plus other classes and TA. It was sheer madness. But I learned about my limits and potentials.

He was concerned about the odds of getting in. Wall Street has its mark on him.

“There are thousands of applicants, right?”

“But you are a very good writer.”

I think he’s playing a good hand. Of course, there is luck and other x-factors. But how would you know if you don’t try?

We had to dash back, because the class had started. Scanning his baby-shit tee again, I beamed.

Good to meet you, Ex-Wall-Street-Wannabe-Filmmaker from Ireland.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Maybe there is a better way

Yesterday afternoon, my colleague and good friend and I went through the storyboard for his shooting this coming Saturday. At first, he just ‘donated’ me a writing credit for the short, because it would help me with my O-1 (Artist Visa) next year. But I wanted to earn it.

Frame by frame, I gave him new angles, ideas and recommendations to play with. I saw his eyes lit up. We were on the same page the whole time. Just by sitting there talking, it rekindled my love for screenwriting.

I told him I felt like I was in a silo when I was developing these feature-length scripts. I have no one to talk to unless I’m in a workshop or when I do a script exchange. I want to be part of the creation, from script to screen. It is never meant to be done alone in the first place.

My friend then said his director buddy approached him. The director wanted to do some projects, not those assignments to pay bills, but stories that can nourish his soul. They narrow it down to this theme: immigration. My friend mentioned my name and my story.

I was flattered and humbled. I pitched him my ideas on the spot.

“Hey, hey, hey, hold your horses.  How about the three of us grab lunch next week and start hashing out the story?”

I was thrilled. Maybe, just maybe, I would be able to apply for O-1 next year after all. I will emerge from an unproduced writer to an aspiring writer with a few body of works.

All this time what I have dreaded impossible is actually doable. Because I just need someone who believes in my potential.

One person at a time.
And then, the Snowball Effect.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

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 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

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

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?