By now, I knew where this smartass was steering with the conversation.
When people were panicking when things went terribly wrong, the program director said—
“Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”
I nodded. Message received.
For a task like yours, you focus on the problem. Not the feelings.
Well, people are made different.
Asshole. I thought to myself.
Then I heard myself saying—
PS. I’m my own guest for this week’s podcast.
You may find it interesting if you’re also contemplating these things:
a) study abroad;
b) go to film school;
c) become a writer;
d) start podcasting;
e) all the above;
f) fear of the things above.
I hear you. I’ve been there. I’m still working on it.
When you become a writer, you play with the degree of “seriousness.”
Do I take myself seriously?
Or, do I take my work seriously?
I hear people complain, “Why (the fuck) is he/she so (fucking) serious?” Those folks, as I observe, tend to hang out with people who are chill and lay-back.
But before I pour my love for intense people, let me first talk about two shades of “intensity.”
Are you intense because you want to make it so bad just to prove to the world that you have what it takes? *I stay away from them. I just don’t like the smell oozing out of their body. Whatever they do, you know their BIG plans from miles away.
Or, are you intense because you have a story burning inside that you have to get it out and share with others? *Darling, shall we grab coffee sometime?
When self-help books praise (serious) people who are born with or stuck by a calling, I would give it a grain of salt.
First off, by now you should know you ain’t no Steve Jobs.
Second, let’s define “calling.” Let me give it a spin: God sheds light on you and exclaims with tears in his eyes, “My Child, I have a mission that only you on Planet Earth can do. Now go make me proud.”
Third, it’s too (fucking) passive. It is as if you wait outside in the rainstorm praying to get struck by lightning when there is no tree around to add to the odds.
Truth is, nobody can give you that thing called calling, clearly not those self-help books. They rub it into your soft spot to promote sales.
If you want to be a singer, sing.
If you want to be a painter, paint.
If you want to be somebody, go be it.
You see, the point is not in the noun. The key is in the action — that verb. Nobody gets to define you for you, you define ‘you’ by doing* what you think is best for you.
*Sadly, most people decide sitting is for the best. Then they become couch potatoes and die of heart failure, literally or figurately.
I love that phrase — force of nature. I love serious people who are like that. I’m fortunate to have friended a few and see them in action.
Wherever they go, they bring weather, they bring phenomena.
Religious or not, they never sit on their asses waiting to be called upon by God Almighty.
They call upon their own lazy bones and get the shit done.
That’s what they DO — day in and day out.
So stop being sedentary and kid yourself that you should just focus on dreaming. Be violent! Be vocal! Announce to the world (including your archenemies, well, especially them) about your batshit crazy plans. Scare yourself the shitless.
— Then what? Then I’m afraid, darling, you now have to go do it.
— What about hmm… Plan B?
— Let me see, kill yourself.
But mind you, your dead body still has to take the blow when people pay cheap homage to you at your own beige funeral. Your archenemy would laugh at the top of her lungs, “I knew she is, strike that, she was a chicken.”
Okay, maybe that’s a little too heavy. Point is, once you start doing, one day you’ll be livin’ your dream.
I have friends who are also not from LA complaining how much they abhor the city, how dirty the streets are, how rude the people drive. I would ask, “Have you tried looking up?” “What do you mean?” “From where I come from (that is, China), the sky this blue happens every once in a blue moon.” Then they smile.
There is not a single day that I don’t feel like the luckiest person alive. Life is never easy, especially when we are still mapping out our future at a relatively mouldable age. But because I’m living here doing what I do, I am already grateful. All this is what I’ve been dreaming of consciously and unconsciously since I was a ten-year-old tootsie. That young thing who knew nothing about geography scribbled on her notebook that by 25, she would be in Meiguo, the Beautiful Country, aka. the United States.
I didn’t move and live in LA until September 2015 as a twenty-seven-year-old, but I was indeed 25 the first time I toured the East Coast in January 2014 before quitting my job and applying for the program. Technically speaking, that ten-year-old was right after all.
Don’t dismiss seriousness and call it ‘nerdy.’
Don’t give your inactivity, your procrastination another lofty* excuse that “I am looking for my calling.”
*Lofty: I am suspicious of anything “lofty.” It sounds condescending. Instead, look for things you do that give you goosebumps, that put you in the zone, aka. the Flow* as eloquently explained by Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
*Flow: also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. via Wikipedia.
One more thing.
What is art?
Art is intimate. You can’t know your art if you put it on a pedestal.
Your art is a mirror of yourself. It’s a process of understanding yourself.
Art is an act of doing. It’s work-in-progress.
Art is hardlabor. Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty like a construction worker.
A sage professor asks us to face the worse-case scenario as film students — What if you didn’t “make it”? What would you do then?
It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you’ve lived so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all.
It is one of my favorite quotes, from J.K. Rowling.
True, I ended up quitting making films and leaving the film industry altogether.
Everyone in the program set his mind trying to “make it” at the very beginning. It became quite black and white that if you didn’t, you lost the only reason you were here. But in truth, “it’s not the end of the world,” a sage told us at a class. Understanding that is a huge revelation.
Would I choose not to study film if I knew I was not going to “make it” as a filmmaker? I still would. My chapter at UCLA taught me things which I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
I thought I was brave ‘enough’ landing in LA knowing nobody. Not nearly. You should see my face when our writings got read at the first group gathering. I felt stark naked. I could not breathe. I must be dying. I didn’t. My writing even got a few laughs. For the next three years, I had attended hundreds of writing workshops. I remember my humiliation seeing everybody else got minor notes while mine was major. The instructor killed more than half of my ten pages. It was hard not to compare yourself with the others. But then I substituted “Why on earth?” to “Why?” Now I could then hear my real problems. Over time, I got better.
I learned that the worst pain is not seeing your best work get rejected, but having your work rejected and knowing you could have scored better. But you were too much a coward to submit your best art. In your wonderland, you know you had room for improvement. You say to yourself, “Wait till I give my 100%.” But then I asked the what-if — What if I did give my best shot? Would I have a better shot? I knew what I had to do — Do my damnedest. The feedback I then received was a more precise understanding of my “status quo.” That in turn propelled me to become better. With that mindset, I grew muscles.
So you must accept your imperfect self to make better art every day. I admit my work sucks, but I am going to do my best to improve. A screenwriting instructor once told me after a brutal session, “Be patient with yourself.” Overnight success stories that media loves make us forget the real trajectory of learning new things. It takes time.
One of the definitions of the word “Courage*” is —
The ability to do something that frightens one.
I go where my fear is. Writing English screenplays at UCLA as the only Chinese is on my “Top Five Scariest Things I’ve done” list. Even if you do fail by society’s definition of failure, they can’t take away your experiences nor the things you’ve learned.
Dumbledore once said to Harry —
It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.
Would you beat yourself up if you dream doesn’t come true? Would you add another chip on your shoulder? Or would you keep living to find something else to do with your life?
Chasing dreams is courageous. To admit the dream you hold dearly to isn’t the one for you takes more courage. Do you cut off from friends and family and live in denial? Or admit it’s time to move on? Granted, this is not a hero line in a movie. But in real life, it is for me.
So, you did lose. I see where you are heading. You see, life is not a zero-sum game. We set our minds to follow our original plan. It’s marvelous if success follows suit. It’s also important to know it’s okay if it doesn’t. You’ve got to be a big enough person to see through your own reality distortion field. Accept that with grace and live on. I did.
Even though I was no longer in the film industry, I became a much stronger storyteller. I felt so much more connected with my words and thoughts. I knew I had many ideas. And I could execute them on the page. Before film school, it was a mere fantasy. Now all these became my new skills. It helped as I consulted brands on storytelling. Or writing columns for bilingual magazines. A publisher in China learned about my experiences at UCLA and signed me a book contract. My book sold well. Reading notes from the young film students made me the happiest of men. It triggered more writing projects. I am still a writer after all. Now, does it sound intriguing to see your own life stories influencing other human beings and not the fiction version?
I once read a book called “Dying to Be Me.” It is about the author Anita Moorjani’s surreal healing journey through the Near Death Experience. When she was “up there,” she described the indescribable landscape — her tapestry of life interweaving with each other making it the most radiant color she had ever seen. Most of us are social beings at the mercy of others’ opinions. But how do you define a fulfilled and happy life? Money? Fame? Car? House? Or this — having a fulfilled lifelong relationship, seeing your work produce meaningful changes in other people’s life? It all depends on your definition towards a good life. Earthly things don’t carry on beyond this realm of life. What we hold dear to is not that precious after all.
I began this note with a quote from J.K. Rowling. I will end with another —
I would like to be remembered as someone who did the best she could with the talent she had.
And I will add this — On her own terms, in her own way.
Fan: Which Hogwarts house would you be in? J.K. Rowling: Gryffindor, I hope. I value courage beyond almost anything.
I did something that was about to cost me another wrecked friendship.
I saw it coming. I was stiff on the friend. I could have been more friendly. But I wasn’t.
I’ve been contemplating a way to invite the friend for coffee/lunch to talk things out. But I’ve been struggling.
Is it about the ego?
I wish I could say, “ I don’t give a fuck about my ego.” But I do a little bit.
And yet, someone has to initiate the talk to rekindle a fading friendship.
Why always me?
Is another question I often ask. When in such dilemma, I always do the “Years Later” test — Would I regret not salvaging the friendship that could have survived? If the answer is — Yes, hell yes, I would regret. Then I know what to do.
People are complicated. Sometimes they take your gesture the wrong way. But at least you can try and then judge for yourself. If the friend doesn’t appreciate or respond in the same manner, maybe he is not a friend after all. Your move can be a friendship-worthiness test on the friend too.
For a clear conscience, I will do the deed for my own sake.
Three nights ago, I submitted a scholarship application. The next morning I received a note which goes, “Based on the financial information you have provided your request for scholarship consideration cannot be considered.”
I was flabbergasted. I spent months on the application. That they demanded four recommenders was pretty remarkable — when I applied for grad school, it asked for three. I visited the graduate student writing center with my personal statement materials for six consecutive weeks. And now that was it? I told myself as I submitted the application that I did my best; if for some reason I was not granted anything, it was fine really. C’est la vie. But not like this! If I were not in a financial rut, would I spend hours of my life pondering on “what I can contribute to the world peace” when I can work on my screenplay?
After I calmed myself down, I emailed back stating the fact that the budget policy they mentioned in the previous email was never written on their website. And I certainly was not planning to drop out of school. All I did was being honest about my financial status — You wouldn’t possibly know what grants you are awarded, what waivers you receive, and whether or not you would get TAship months from now, would you? Do I look like a fortune teller to you, darling?
Thankfully, I kept the sarcasm to myself, and begged them for a second chance to send an amended budget.
I sent back the thought-through new budget yesterday after grilling them with detailed questions.
— We have now sent your application onto the Trustees. Good luck!
Then, sheer exhaustion overtook me.
Why do I have to fight for every bloody thing in my life?
I screamed at the top of my lungs — in my head. My brain raced. It took me back to January — Early in the Winter Quarter, I pitched four feature writing instructors. When the rooster was released that Friday, my name was on none of them. I emailed. I texted. I walked about in my room like a caged beast waiting for an explanation. In that darkest hour, my thought led me to the most desperate corner my head could possibly reach — My being accepted was a mistake. I was the mistake. I was Chinese. I was a joke. My story was worthless shit. Nobody liked me. Nobody wanted me here after all. Why the fuck was I wasting so much money moving over here and struggling alone? I cried and moaned for my pathetic status quo. It was only when a beloved instructor texted back having me in her session did it stop me from doing anything stupid.
Talking through what had transpired to my flatmate and to my parents via WeChat, I cried again, uncontrollably.
I never felt this vulnerable. Why do I have to fight for everything in my life? Why can’t I just sit there for things to happen, every once in a while? Why the worst-case scenario always happens to me? Why everyone else can lay back and focus on their work while I have to spend more energy than I wanted on things that are not even about writing? It is not even my fault…
I get it, life is not fair. But when shits happen, they exhaust me. I know there are a lot of things in life that are beyond our control. But I don’t have much memory about me getting lucky, ever. Getting accepted into the Screenwriting MFA program here is the luckiest strike that has ever happened to me. Period. But still, I planned a year and a half ahead working hard toward the goal.
Oh, by the way, have I told you that I haven’t yet had a guy confess his affection to me? And that I have never been in a serious relationship yet? I am 28 years old as we speak. I’ve tried chasing after guys. Guess what, it has never worked. Not for me.
— Am I trying too hard?
— I don’t have the foggiset idea.
A sage mentor says —
There are people born with resources. They take things for granted. They can. You know what’s the most important gift one can be given? Drive. People who are content and have everything won’t have that. Of course, life is hard. You, not anybody else choose the path you are now. You already know it’s not easy. You already are being resourceful solving the problems. When done, move on and focus on things you should be focus on rather than lingering on feelings and things you can’t change. Cliche as it sounds, we can only control our attitude towards what happen to us. People who have a chip on their shoulder think in a way that the universe is against them. Most of their energy is about life being unfair and people are vicious to them. You don’t want to be around those people, do you? Because the energy around them is off.
Granted, you are not born with resources. There are many people who are like you. But when they make it, they are able to say they made it from scratch. It’s exactly because you don’t have much in your stock, you have nothing to lose. But you have to keep fighting. You can’t stay stale and wait for things to happen. It doesn’t work that way.
You have to fight. Because that’s how you gain momentum. Because that’s how you earn attention. Because that’s how chances go your way.
If you don’t, even God can’t help you.
Because you, and only you are responsible for this life you lead.
I promised myself a first draft before I fell asleep (yes, I fell) yesterday. Now I am up and the story is still not quite there yet.
My instructor asked me to be patient with myself as a writer. But seeing everyone else already sprinting away from you, I need more than just patience. I need my sanity.
I don’t usually compare myself with others. I know it’s useless, and pointless. But sometimes in the dark corner of my head, I just can’t help it.
I have friends juggling four courses in our 10-week packed schedule while still finding time to socialize, to go to movies, to Facebook (I shut down mine at the beginning of 2016), to intern, to work part-time, to finish a 100-page first-draft script by Week 5, to complete a 20-page paper within two days. How the fuck is that even possible? “Well, I want to do as much as I can on a single day.” Duh, I do too.
You see, now I don’t envy people with talent. I am jealous of those who use their time so freaking well that it seems God is so generous with them that he gives them 48 hours a day and still have them function like the rest of us who needs some 7–8 hours sleeping time. I try to drink coffee and stay alert. But by 12 o’clock, I climbed to bed like a zombie. Actually, I told myself that I was going to “nap for 15 mins.” I then did another 15. The rest is history. I woke up with the morning alarm. It’s 5 o’clock in the morning. Cue the T-Pain song.
Fuck — was the first word I uttered as I got up this morning. What a fashion to start the day.
Now back to my script. F — . Strike that. I meant Finish.
I have this discussion with my cohort all the time.
Being a writer for life is hard. The rejection, the humiliation, the “you will never ever get there” self-doubt, the looming red in your finance chart.
I have a LA Lakers #8 Kobe Bryant jersey hanging on the rack. It’s the shrine of my daily faith and inspiration.
How did he get there? How did he become who he is today? Well, he wasn’t born this way. Where did he get this monstrous GRIT that all the great masters have? How did he overcome the physical pain day in and day out for the better part of his life? How did he challenge doubt when he failed?
Those might be the questions I want to grill him if I have the chance to meet him. I think I may have the answer already as everybody else does way before you read this rambling post.
You probably know it already when you watched Finding Nemo —
Just keep swimming.
So at the beginning of another gorgeous day in LA, I will breathe in and breathe out.