Tricks to a flow state

I started this new story at the end of January. I thought I could finish the first draft faster. I was wrong, like always. Today I finally forwarded it to my collaborator. I even finished the two outlines for my classes starting next week.

Fear didn’t get in my way or into my head today, or the last few days. So what have I done differently? How can I make more days as good as today? 

Here is my routine as I recall my last couple of week:

I get up in the morning. I have my first glass of water with honey.  I meditate for ten minutes. I have my breakfast with coffee.  Afterwards, I take a 30-40 minutes walk.  I then change to dry clothes.  I drink my tea and I sit down behind my desk. 

Right before I’m able to check my gmail, I use SelfControl app and set a 1.5 hour for the first offline session. I make sure Do Not Disturb is ON so I can’t see any notifications from anything. 

Then the writing begins. I would only get up from my chair if I need more water or need a quick bathroom break. Otherwise, I’d just sit behind my desk and work. 

This way, I clock in around three, four hours of decent writing time. But my stamina is still on the low end.  To paraphrase what Haruki Murakami said in his What I Talk About When I Talk About Running book, writing is like running. The stamina can be improved through training.  I’m confident that I will get better.  Drip by drip.

Here are my tricks to into a flow state:

  • Place the phone in the other room while you’re working.
  • Check email right before lunch and dinner. Remember to close it.
  • Get offline during writing.

When I’m there, those fuckups can’t haunt me, those liars can’t hurt me, those bureaucrats and hypocrites can’t upset me.

Right here, right now, it’s just me and the characters, the world I’m creating.  

It dawned on me the other day that naysayers look fierce exactly because they’re powerless even though they seem to have the power to reject you.  You see, parasite can’t survive without the living.  Gatekeepers can’t exist without us. The artists.  The pros. 

Because we make things. We change things.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

If you ain’t fast, you die.

These days I’m working on a new story. The main character is a first-generation wannabe immigrant. It fascinates me how these people get their footing in a new country – whatever it takes. They’re the antelopes with leopards up their asses.

“If you ain’t fast, you die.” This type of people are locked in the survival mode. They almost always work their whole life and never take a day off and say they enjoy leisure.

I remember hearing this origin story from a Hollywood producer who used to crash at friends’ places when he was a broke upstart. When his offspring works in the same business and in the same office, I can’t smell the kind of drive that made the old man who he is. 

How can you instill that survivor mindset that can only be bred by Mother Nature? Of course, the second generation will still be well-off. But if you want to break out from the shadow of the old man, you either have to be twice as good and hardworking, or you have to find your own drive. 

So here’s the good news for most of us: we can be the first generation of anything.

 

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

 

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

 

Last person on earth

Have you ever felt like your own thoughts are choking the life out of you?
Have you ever felt like no one else would ever care about you apart from your parents?
Have you ever felt like chasing a dream is something that you’re so NOT entitled to?
Have you ever felt invisible to most people you’ve encountered in life?

Before, during and since the Chinese New Year, I’ve been doing much the bare minimum of social networking. I called off a coffee with a former colleague and friend whom I haven’t seen in three years just because I wasn’t in the mood. I cancelled another meeting today mostly because I wasn’t ready to get fucked in the eyes of all the Valentine decor.  And I lied in both occasions. 

Have I become a hypocrite, a hermit, a pest? Have I lost the basic faith in most folks… and most importantly, myself? Since my other project fell through the holes, I’ve been fishing around. That’s when I realized how much I hated it when I don’t hear back from people. Those emails don’t write themselves, bitch. Moreover, I hated it even more when I checked mails first thing in the morning and then constantly during the day just so I could land the next thing I can talk about… I desperately needed a win. Big or small. Preferably big. I’m only human. Vanity is my vice. It has taken a toll on my physique and my psyche. My neck is tense. My breath is shallow. My belly is tight. My jaw hurts. 

I couldn’t remember when was the last time I jumped off bed to embrace the day. I was in the sour mood. All. The. Time. All I wanted was to stay in bed. But my other self would drag me out. It’s almost Spring and I feel like it’s deep in the winter. It’s already two months into the new year. I’ve already slumped back into my old comfy self.

What if I’ve become the person I hate and I can’t fight it?

So I picked up my Bible The War of Art again. I desperately need Pressfield’s wisdom and strength.  I need it to clear my heart and cleanse my soul.

I forgot what all THIS — writing and the pursuit of my dream — was all about. And here are some quotes that I’ve highlighted, which comes in timely and dearly. 

  • The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
  • If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything.  The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.
  • I’m keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first. 
  • Pros: We show up every day.  We show up no matter what.  We stay on the job all day.  We are committed over the long haul.  The stakes for us are high and real.  We accept remuneration for our labor. We do not over identify with our jobs. We master the technique of our jobs.  We have a sense of humor about our jobs.  We receive praise or blame in the real world.
  • So you’re taking a few blows. Thats’ the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines.  Stop complaining and be grateful.
  • I had not yet had a success. But I had had a real failure.
  • The professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much.  He accepts that. He recognizes it as reality.
  • The professional self-validates. She is tough-minded.  In the face of indifference or adulation, she assesses her stuff coldly and objectively… She’ll work harder. She’ll be back tomorrow.
  • You, Inc.: You-the-writer get a swelled head, but you-the-boss remember how to take yourself down a peg.
  • That moment when I first hit the keys to spell out THE END was epochal. I remember rolling the last page out and adding it to the stack that was the finished manuscript.  Nobody knew that I was done.  Nobody cared.  But I knew.  I felt like a dragon I’d been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath.  Rest in peace, motherfucker.  Next morning I went over to Paul’s for coffee and told him that I had finished.  “Good for you,” he said without looking up. “Start the next one today.”
  • Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, magic and power in it.  Begin it now. — W. H. Murray
  • The Ego hates artists because they are the pathfinders and bearers of the future, because each one dares, in James Joyce’s phrase, to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
  • In the hierarchy, the artist faces outward.  Meeting someone new he asks himself, What can this person do for me? How can this person advance my standing?  In the hierarchy, the artist looks up and looks down.  The one place he can’t look is that place he must: within.
  • If we were the last person on earth, would we still show up at the studio, the rehearsal hall, the laboratory?
  • Do it or don’t do it… If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself.  You hurt your children.  You hurt me.  You hurt the planet.  You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.
  • Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor.  It’s a gift to the world and every being in it.  Don’t cheat us of your contribution.  Give us what you’ve got. 

Artist to artist, I see you. I hear you. I feel you.  You know, at the end of the day, I can honestly say that I don’t do it for others. I do it to have peace of mind.  

And if I were left alone on earth, I would still write.  So write I shall.

Even though it hurts like a motherfucker.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Work ethics

It’s something that has become a rare commodity as the younger generation replaces the old.

So what is work ethics and what makes it so rare these days? Work ethics to me is whether a person delivers what he’s promised. If the stake is low for you to deliver something, maybe you would postpone doing it, or you might never do it after all. 

My dad is one of the few people I know holding an impossible bar for himself. He’s not only punctual, he’s at least thirty mins early. He’s not just experienced, he reads the roads like the back of his hands. He retired two years ago. The company was supposed to have nothing to do with him, but they wanted him back. Today, he went to a dinner his former boss threw on his behalf. Some two dozens of company officials attended. During the fine wine and dine, his former bosses complained to him the newer drivers too often get lost, get fined, get into serious accidents that almost get people killed… They gave him gifts and asked a former colleague dropped him off after the dinner.

Too often we can’t wait to brag about our accomplishment through social media. For my dad’s generation, their action is their brand. It takes years to build the kind of reputation that my dad now has. And it takes only a couple of slips to wreck the name. 

It’s about doing what one’s required, surpassing it and repeating it days after days. Years after years. Until it’s in our bones, our second nature.

It’s easier said than done, and that’s why it’s rare.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

How do you spend the day

Is how you going to spend your life.

This quote often sends chills down to my spine especially when I’ve not been productive, or when I’ve squandered the day not accompolishing something meaningful.

When I was on the phone with a dear friend in LA the other day, friend asked whether I had gone to movies, dined with friends, had fun and what not apart from working.

I suddenly grew sheepish, because I hadn’t watched a single movie in the theatre lately. I blamed the lame movies that got imported. I hadn’t met many friends either except the ones I really wanted to meet because the deadlines had been hovering above my head since I got well from pneumonia.

It was as if everything I do, or plan to do, I had to give it some kind of meaning. Otherwise, it was not worthy of my time. It even haunted me in my dreams.

When dad asked me to help him to fix a phone app, I spent almost half an hour on it due to the app’s stupid user interface. Dad later apologized for wasting my time, for interrupting my writing. At the time, I did complain a little, explaining that it takes a person 30 mins to actually get into the groove to do anything creative.

Later, Dad, the busiest and earliest bee of the family, said without any context, “you know, a day passes by so fast. I don’t even know what I’ve done and then day has turned into night.” At the time, I was winding down watching Frasier. I looked up from my laptop and said, “Yes. I feel the same way.” Suddenly it struck a chord and made me meloncholy.

As of now, I am close with my loving parents, my needy cat who has to nap on my lap. Sometimes I admit I feel a bit overwhelmed. But soon, maybe a year or so, I will pack up my things up and leave again. This time, I will bid farewell and try to make my own home in LA, again.

You see, before we know it, our parents will be older. So are we. We dash through days, months, years, brushing shoulders with people zipping in and out of our lives.

By now, I don’t have a single junior or senior high school friend that I’m still in touch with. By uprooting my career some four years ago, I’ve made myself obselete in most of my old Chinese acqauintances’ memory drive while trying to squeeze into my American friends’ life, who may already have one friend too many… Such is a pickle of hard fact that I must chew and digest.

I only hope that when I take my last breath in this lifetime, I can say that I have had a brave life. I’ve done whatever I can to become the best version of myself with whatever resources that are available to me. I’m a good daughter, a sincere friend, a fun companion. And most important, I stay true to my heart.

 

Yours truly,
YZ