Today is a brand new day

I woke up this morning feeling my head was going to explode, and there was a lump in my throat. It’d better be an elephant standing on my chest having a party.

I immediately didn’t want to go to the office. What’s the point? I’m not on their payroll anymore because of my visa. I’m just a ghost. Then I reasoned with myself that my apartment would be too hot by early morning, there was construction downstairs, and I didn’t have money for AC. Look, the office is cool and has fancy food and clean bottled spring water. I dragged myself up and realized that I didn’t shower yesterday.

30 mins from waking up and I was already tired. I wonder if my parents weren’t supporting me, if my friends weren’t helping me, if my boss weren’t keeping me in the office, I might as well be another homeless person on Westwood Blvd in the City of Angels.

I need to keep going. Because I have to. Today turns out to be a day that I have to pull off by grind and grit. They’re short of stock right now. But not out of stock, yet.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Current Status: Somber

I had a candid convo with a Chinese director friend about my status quo and the next step.

It’s SOMBER. And I saw it coming.

Right now I’ve switched back to be a student, at UCLA Extension. Next year, if my current boss still likes it, he will enter me into another H-1B lottery. Plus the artist visa (O-1).

But working for a high-profile Hollywood producer doesn’t cut it. I need to show the immigration board just how bloody brilliant I am to deserve an artist visa. It has been what I have feared since last year. What if this, what if that?

At this point, my stress level isn’t as crazy as last year. How do I know? Because I’m typing. Because I’m not blocked. I know how cliche it sounds whenever people mention Writer’s Block. Seth Godin argues that there is no such thing as Writer’s Block. Plumber doesn’t get Plumber’s Block. So why should writers be any different? There is a lot of truth in it once I was unblocked. But for the better part of last year, I simply couldn’t sit down and type. I couldn’t bear the thought of my incapacity to become Stephen King from the get-go.

I know it takes time. But I don’t have time. I am on a 12-month journey to be brilliant. If I didn’t, I failed. So I chose to do nothing, like an ostrich in the sand, hoping the storm would abate on its own. A year later today, I’m in the center of the storm.

Because I didn’t want to know (that early on) that I just don’t have what it takes (whatever that means), I procrastinated and tried to deal with the Devil to get me into the lottery.

Of course, I didn’t get in. I later told my dad that maybe it was a good thing that I didn’t get in. Because if I did, I might stop fighting for myself, forget why I am here in the first place, and start being mediocre by feeling content reading and critiquing other people’s work.

All the time I thought if I did a good job for the producer who pulled me out of the film school, making me an offer I can’t refuse, I would start to be introduced to the folks in the industry. I would soon become the next big shot. Months into the job,  I felt I was diminished as a writer, because I was not writing. And the stuff I gave to the producers were exactly like a pin dropping into the well. I was frustrated. I wanted to prove myself. I would climb as long as they threw me a rope—with the other end tied to a tree trunk, of course. I told my screenwriting mentors that maybe I should start working on my own stuff during the office hours, because after begging for stuff to read and critique, the producers had no time for me and were always so preoccupied with their ongoing projects. “No, no, no, no, no.” They protested vehemently. I stifled myself, so willingly… “He knew people (meaning the government and what not). You would be fine.” I silenced that last thread of anxiety, trusting that the big shot producer would make my worries go away with a snap of his magical fingers.

A year later.
Now.

“You were sewing the wedding dress. But you ain’t the bride.” The director said.

But here is the thing—I don’t regret it. I don’t blame the others, or myself. I didn’t know better. But now I do. And the director is right.

“What you need to do now, is to enter tons of screenwriting competition awards and WIN. Period. Not just once. But a bunch of times so you have a long enough list of credits to showcase your artistic capacity.”

I realize that this is the ‘shortcut’ I have been dodging the whole time. I thought it was too hard. But that’s life, the life I chose in 2015 to be a writer.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

If I knew it then…

Would I still go down this road?

Sometimes this question would pop into my head during my darkest hours, alone facing the ‘consequence’ of chasing a dream.

Was it a pipe dream? For someone like me, to make it into Hollywood as a screenwriter whose first language isn’t English? Whose parents aren’t in the trade not here or back home? Who has to constantly watch how much she spends, including a visit to the Starbucks.

“It can be demoralizing.” A writer shared his underground years with us in an auditorium. I didn’t know why he used “demoralize” then. Now I know, on a visceral level.

I can also admit that I was driven by fear when I was thinking about that question. I wasn’t writing. I was the murderer on death row, waiting to be executed. And I also happened to be the person who would pull the trigger.

Because of the clause in my student visa, I am off the company’s payroll again after my OPT (Optional Practical Training) ends in June. Certainly after the work visa (H-1B) rejection letter from USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) in July, I had to switch back to student visa in order to avoid deportation. That means another 13 grand plus LA-standard living expense.

I had pictured the ‘worst case scenario.’ Now I’m livin’ it.

I have to write now more than ever. Because I need a list of credits and wins to apply for artist visa (O-1) next year.

I know I have to face my worst fear head-on. I have nowhere else to run, or hide. I’m stripped naked, left with a dull sword to slay the dragon.

Would I get out of here alive? I don’t know. Nobody knows.

All I know is this: I will never stop writing.

And this: If I knew it then, I would still do it. I’m happier now. Because I see a forward motion.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Yours truly YZ

I was born in Shanghai, China in the late 80s with a B.A. in English. I didn’t graduate from one of those Chinese Ivy League schools. I had a chip on my shoulder, naturally. I had so much to prove. I didn’t know exactly how. I accepted a job offer to work at a joint venture firm as general manager’s assistant. The salary was competitive. I didn’t try to look somewhere else. There is a job right in front you, you take it. For a working-class kid, that was a no-brainer.

I was cutting corners. I knew I should have tried some and failed more. I didn’t like to be rejected. But who does? I reasoned with myself that it was time to collect my own paychecks and become a real adult. My dad is a driver. My mum is a homemaker-against-her-will. She was one of the numerous victims in the 1990s mass layoffs and was diagnosed with Hepatitis-B shortly after. At merely some forty years old, my mother was on expensive medication for life. It took me another decade to recognize my ever-so optimistic mother was deep in depression. To make matters worse, she had a rebellious young girl who was going through puberty.

Now, a decade later, I felt this tremendous responsibility to my family. I didn’t want to be a burden. I wanted to be an asset. I wanted them to be proud of me, their only child. I didn’t look within when I took my first job. I looked for approval from the outside – how people regarded my job, my rank, my salary. I didn’t know what to do about my life, my talent then. I just wanted to feel stable and secure for a while.

Fast forward to three years later. I completed three job hops, each with a bigger title and a larger package. I spearheaded a successful pro bono fundraising for some 1,000 kindergartners in quake-stricken Sichuan. On top of that, I was contributing articles for a bilingual magazine on the side. I was restless. I had to have a purpose. Throughout this chaotic period, I found my passion in storytelling. I had always loved films. I had always wanted to go to the US, but I detested the cliché and overpriced MBA programs.

What about screenwriting? A voice whispered in my ears.

Bingo.

In four years since my graduation from college, my salary had quadrupled. I was Head of Social Media at a prestigious ad agency. I was earning a salary that my older colleagues would kill for. But deep down, I felt hollow and shallow. I couldn’t bear the look of myself. Why can’t I just enjoy the ‘sweet smell of success?’ I couldn’t. I took the job to share the burden of my parents’ mortgage on the apartment we just purchased. But helping my folks still couldn’t shut the voice inside my head.

I was perplexed and miserable. I took two weeks off during the Chinese New Year and went to the US for the first time. I brought back memorabilia like a mini Statue of Liberty.

On my first day back at work, a coup d’etat against my department was underway. A few months ago, my supervisor, a Caucasian woman originally from Seattle, wanted to restructure my team. She asked me to deliver the news to my junior executives that she wanted to move them to another team. “Don’t ask them for opinions. Just go deliver the news.”

Of course, I wouldn’t let her have it. I asked the girls if they wanted to move to the other team. They said no. I stood up for them. The supervisor threw a tantrum. I thought she came from a free country that put people first. Or she realized early on that America wasn’t for her.

Now, two months later, my supervisor was coming back with more amo. She wanted total annihilation for Ground Zero. The Seattleite brought me along with the ass-kisser Sr. HR into the grand conference room that normally hosted 50 people, which was a case in point on how international ad agencies use resources. Clients, beware. Unless you have deep pockets.

The three of us in this posh office. Them from across the table. It was the climax, the show-down, the finale. She was the hero. I was the villain.

She started her carefully rehearsed speech, “The president has decided to regroup—”

“Sure. But before you say anything further, I want to quit.”

“Where are you going?” The HR suddenly straightened her back.

“Don’t worry. I’m apply for grad school.”

“MBA, yes? I can write you a recommendation.” The Seattleite was suddenly as cute as a Barbie Doll.

“That’s very kind. But I’m applying for film school.”

I looked over my shoulders to check if there were cameras. No, it was for real. I made it a reality.

Fast forward a year later, I got accepted into the film school that I thought I had no chance. But the euphoria was soon replaced by despair. I realized just how poorly I wrote, how huge the gap between my writing and my cohorts. I tried to ask them for coffee. But the best writers never responded, as if I were invisible. The chip on my shoulder was growing at a ferocious speed. I couldn’t and didn’t let it stop.

A year into the program, I got the feedback from the latest school-wide Screenwriter’s Showcase. I got 0 out of 10 from one judge, who said verbatim, “There is not one single aspect of this screenplay that is worthy of the UCLA reputation.” The judge went on listing the aspects he referred to as if the message needed more clarification: dialogues, plot, grammar…

I was devastated. For the first time as a writer, I understood how a paper cut could feel worse than that of a machete. I had no choice but went to Trader Joe’s for some comfort food. There I bumped into my future screenwriting mentor JS. He was lining behind me. We started chatting. I told JS I was a wannabe screenwriter. He gave me a look into my soul. A pause. “I’m a screenwriter myself. Nice to meet you.”

JS said, “Everyone reads the same script differently. The person who gave you this note probably was jealous. Maybe he wanted and failed to get into UCLA Film School. Or maybe he just had a bad day. Welcome to Hollywood.”

The two of us, holding our 10 lbs grocery bags, chatted for another half an hour until his wife called. “What you need to do now, is go back and start your script. Maybe you’ve already started. If you stop writing because of that note, because of that person. Then he won. Do what you want your heroine to do when she hits ‘Rock Bottom.'”

I printed out the comment and stapled it on the wall, a shrine for rejection letters. I swore to myself that I would keep writin’ and dreamin’. Same event the following year, I won.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Frenzy and the British Humour

In the Hitchcock Studies class yesterday, we discussed Frenzy, Vertigo and Rebecca.


Unlike Vertigo and Rebecca, I was the only one who said I really enjoyed Frenzy.

The rest of my cohorts disregarded it as “shallow” or “jarring” to watch.

Frenzy was the second last film by Hitchcock. It was back to his hometown in England. No more James Stewart, Cary Grant, or his blonde female celebrities.

True, the rape/murder scenes “objectified” those women. But as a pure viewer, I had a great time watching it — as it was, a film to enlighten, a film to entertain.

Frenzy seems to me a hybrid of Corgi and Husky. I haven’t watched another film that combines suspense, thrill, crime so well with (dark) humour.

My film cohorts didn’t appreciate the hero saying that he seemed pathetic. But isn’t that the case with the British movies? An Average Joe’s adventure in his mundane life. My year-long sojourn in England lent me this perspective.

The Brits want someone they can recognize on the street. They root for the underdogs. They despise wisecrackers, quite the reverse to the American audience.

That’s why the Brits created Mr. Bean. That’s why they have heartfelt little story like The Full Monty, a group of unemployed men strip off to regain their manhood.

I certainly don’t dream of persuading my opinionated cohorts. But as true in film as in life —

There is not but one right answer, one right taste.

What qualities are you looking for?

I am no longer “fresh.” I was assigned two mentees from the incoming students.

I got hold of their surveys first before I reached out.

The last two questions were interesting.

What qualities are you looking for in a mentor?

What’s the first question you want to ask your mentor?

I think these two questions are almost more important than those asking opinions about a certain taste. These two questions reveal a person’s character. I certainly don’t think there is just one answer. But I do find some are a bit better than the others.

One student was looking for a cane while the other was looking for a gate.

What’s the difference?

  • The cane student wants to know all the right answers to all the questions.
  • The gate student needs to know just enough towards the goals.

Wait, I thought this is grad school. Aren’t we responsible for our own success and failure?

We are. Mentors or not, we are the ones who do the heavy-lifting.

Nobody else.

Last year when I just arrived, I didn’t try to seek all the answers all at once. I was acutely aware of my mentor’s time, so I didn’t badger the guy all that much. All I know is this — the work won’t get done by itself. No matter how I tell you about my own writing habits and schedule, you won’t get a quick fix.

There are many different ways to frame a question. But behind those questions, there lies the fundamentals of our understanding towards the task.

I then looked into my survey from last year. The quality that I was looking for in a mentor is this —

Candor.

Thank you, Mr. Duncan

I never liked San Antonio Spurs.

I couldn’t bear watching them playing against my favorite teams over the years, namely, Los Angeles Lakers (Kobe Bryant), Dallas Mavericks (Dirk Nowitzki), Phoenix Suns (Steve Nash), and winning time and time again.


I thought they were cowards who preyed on their opponents’ errors. I thought they were the most uncreative bunch who could even dunk properly. Most of all, I never thought highly of the center of the team — Tim Duncan.

Yes, I know he held probably the highest degree in the league. But still, he seemed so beige to me.

That was probably until then I read the news about his retirement. I suddenly realized that the man had been with the same team as long as I could remember watching NBA.

When everyone was shouting for attention in this world of social media, he focused on just one thing — basketball in addition to family and friends.

I tried to imagine what kind of life that was. So simply. And yet, so profound.

Isn’t it his persona? This quietness. This resilience. This focus.

I find myself reading about the guy at the verge of his retirement. We need more heroes like Duncan, who led without seeking for attention, who played his part and no more and no less.

Don’t you love the guy when he says —

I’m just a basketball player. I play the game. I go home.

I didn’t. But I do now. Thank you, Mr. Duncan, for all those “beige” years.