Crazy monk

In the Dream of Red Chamber, one of the four Chinese classics, a monk passed by Jia Baoyu and told him the fate of him and his friends in a poem. But Jia and his young friends couldn’t care less about the monk. Let alone his words.  They dismissed the monk as crazy. 

When we’re given crucial information before we are ready for it, more often than not, we won’t listen a word of it.  As I write this paper about my film school experience, I began to reread those handouts from my professors. All of a sudden, they make so much sense now with scripts and some level of Hollywood experience. 

But one thing remains true for the whoel time. It’s the attitude of writing every day. Many of my UCLA professors are quote collectors. This one amongst the others is my favorite:

You must write every single day of your life. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. May you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.

– Ray Bradbury

Even though I knew I should write every day, I didn’t because I thought my job was more important than my words…

CUT TO a year later.  I had too little credits to consider an artist visa. I then realized that crazy monk was not crazy after all. 

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Start again

While I’m waiting for a few days before getting back to my other project‘s rewrite, I’ve been working on another new story. That’s the idea I’ve been having for over a year now. 

After a handful of dropped projects, I now have more free time on my own hands apart from the teaching and two other collaboration projects (one short, one paper).  I dug out my own unfinished, never-begun projects, because I’m officially running out of excuses… And I can still feel the itch.  That’s crucial for me to start anything.

Immediately I feel how damn hard it is to begin something from scratch. In my case, to parse out what I meant in those notes that I typed out a year ago and make some senses out of it. 

It’s going to be challenging, because I haven’t done any TV Comedy before. But in the end, it’s all just storytelling. If I give it enough time and care, I think I can see to its blossom. 

Just take a deep breath. Word by word. Drip by drip.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Collaboration

Earlier today, I had a Zoom call with my LA-based collaborator on a new story.

A few days ago, I sent her the first draft.  And now, the real work begins.  That is: rewrite. Since my previous positive experience with other artists, I looked forward to this new project with the story I’m passionate about, and with someone reliable.

It was a really effective meeting. She shared the screen. We looked at our story structure via draw.io, the diagram software tool for making flowcharts.  By the end of it, everything about the story felt clearer and cleaner, from plot to characters, from logic to certain scenes. She would read the script again and highlight the dialogues that she thought are keepers. For me, I need a few more days so I can get some distance from my own words.

I used to do the beat board either on Final Draft or via environment-unfriendly yellow stickies. For some reason, it doesn’ t look as effective as my collaborator’s work on draw.io. I’ll start tinkering with it.

We both felt terrific by the end of the meeting even though there are tons of hard work going forward.  As they say, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Though I wish I’d come around earlier, I’m glad that I’ve finally believed in what I’ve been preaching.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

First day as adjunct

I got up at 4:50 this morning to catch the school bus in DTSH. I got there around 6:15. The shuttle was supposed to drive out by 6:50. I’ve got plenty of time. Wrong. It took me exactly 25 mins to find out exactly where the shuttle should be. One bus after another, I tried to locate the right one by asking the drivers. None of them were what I was looking for. I tried to call the driver, who can’t pick up, of course… By 6:46, I gave up. I panicked. I imagined I got fired even before I got on-site. I couldn’t reach anybody else from the college. It’s too damn early otherwise.  But lo and behold, exactly one minute later, my shuttle arrived…

By the time the school bus arrives at the building I teach. My phone reads 8:10.  I checked with one student and she pointed me the one. I’ve got exactly five minutes to dash up three floors in my medium block heels. And I did it in two. But it was the North Side. My class was on the South Side… Time was lenient on me. I got into the other side. And was still one minute before the class started. But I gotta pee. A class of students already packed the room… 

I began to work my way in… Some helper sent in the adapter for my MacBook. Then the sound didn’t work… I called IT… Then he had to pull out the desks on the first row… Then I realized that I ran out of water but I was too thirsty…  Then I realized that my body started to tremble because I decided to dress for the occasion instead of the weather. I assumed that the AC would be hot enough for my kind of LA winter wear… But no, the AC was not on and the class faces north. The sun doesn’t get a chance to sneak in…  Because of the constant chaos, I didn’t give the class any breaks. By the time the class was over, my hands were stone cold.  As for the evening class, I ran into a similar but lesser technical difficulty. But since I got my shares earlier, I developed a better coping mechanism already. These are hardly complaints, because I can’t remember being upset. I accepted the fact and tried to resolve the issue… (Maybe the meditation is working its magic dissolving my Wrath tendency.)

So what about the classes? What are the college freshmen like nowadays? We are more than a decade apart! That’s wild to think about. 

The first class: meh. The students took the class because they were told to and they have to. And they are from other departments. This is just an elective. A student even texted me that he stayed in another classroom for three hours and just realized that it was the wrong classroom. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt earlier but I didn’t give him a easy pass earlier. But now come to think of it, the guy’s too much of a smartass in this day and age with smartphones.  And here’s the thing, even though 80% of the class wasn’t listening. They were playing with their phones during the whole time. I still had a good time with those 20%. I focus on them. I don’t waste my time on the 80%. Like a standup comic stepping into a room full of drunkards, I’m there to entertain the few sober patrons and the bartenders. And it’s a great exercise for my ego too. 

The second class: yeah! The students are there to learn because it’s part of their majors (even though China doesn’t have Screenwriting MFA so to speak). I’m getting used to the silent treatment by the Chinese students. But when asked, they engage. And now, my students (wow, how important-sounding it feels…) are starting to speak up. Bit by bit. Step by step. Apart from the screenwriting basics I shared, two things I felt struck a cord with them as I saw they nod almost in unison. a) Don’t do your homework for me. It’s for you. It’s for the benefit of your future. b) Write less. Not more. Chinese teachers are famous to assign homework that begin with “no less than xxx words.” — so that they have no more words to hide behind. 

I could have ended the class earlier but I didn’t. I remember Jiro, the sushi master’s example. So I didn’t cut my own slacks. I’ve prepared this much and I would go the distance. I asked my students not to cut corners. So I would set my own example. 

We finished right on time at 9 PM. The student applauded enthusiastically for my class. I guess I blushed a little. A sense of recognition I didn’t see it coming.  They shared and compared notes in the WeChat group voluntarily.  I confess that I underestimated these young folks enthusiasm for screenwriting. 

I got home way past 11 PM. And I still feel buoyant. I didn’t know that teaching can be therapeutic… 

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

Motion v. Emotion

Screenwrting is physical, it’s writing with our whole body and heart.

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

The sure thing

No such thing as a sure thing in creativity.

Everyone starts somewhere.

Except for the extremely fortunate ones like Theodore Roosevelt, and the extremely unfortunately ones like Abraham Lincoln, most of us begin life simply average.

What it comes down to is what course of life we choose for ourselves.

Most decide without having to decide that they would play the game run by the house. The house’s rules are their bread and butter. That’s how they fit in, to feel safe and secure. What it also implies is that the society demands that they strive to go to the best of the best since kindergarten, so they are ahead at every single step. They even have to have the best burial plot.

Usually this is a particular crop of exceptional test-takers, overachievers, IQ lottery winners. Statistically speaking, they are still the minority. They won because it’s in their factory default mode.

The prospect for the rest of us seems gloomier than ever. We’re unhappy, unsatisfied, uninspired. Because we are never going to be able to reach the shiny object that seems just a tad out of reach. 

That leaves us to the last thing we can control: what we choose for our career. The sure-thing careers are lawyer and doctor. If you happen to love these jobs, then hooray!  If you graduate with a student loan, once you are in practice, your future immediately becomes a sure-thing even if your work ethics is just moderate.

Now, what if you are like me, who dreams to be a writer, not in your next life, but right here right now in your current body?

What I can say from my own experience is that graduating from Francis Coppola’s UCLA Film School doesn’t guarantee you the sure thing. Getting picked by a top-notch Hollywood producer when I was still in film school doesn’t get you to your end goal.

The truth is, if you get into the film industry to feel secure, you should get the hell out before you set your foot in.  The film industry is the last industry that would give you that. You have to earn it for yourself.  Word by word. Script by script. Day after day. Night after night…

But if you do enjoy and admire a good story, maybe you would appreciate working above-the-line in the film industry. 

Don’t tell me, surprise me.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

What makes a good story

If I can’t feel it when I write it, how can I expect anything else from the audience?

I had a call with a director on her short story today for the rewrite.  She wanted to make sure all the elements were there, all the ambiguity was explained at the beginning.

I then said, “Look, I understand where you were coming from. But doesn’t your version sound like a beige flight safety promo video? How do you want me to feel in the end?”

So what is a (good) story? What isn’t?

The bottom line is, we want our hero to go through hell, to hurt, to lose, to experience a near death before he grows, and learns, before he gets his want, or not. No matter what the reward, he has to earn it first otherwise the audience would feel cheated. Besides, we want the surprises to keep our minds engaged. By giving us details like how we deal cards, our hearts are satisfied through working and solving the puzzles by ourselves. And when we feel what the hero feels at the very end, we finally realize that we have been manipulated by the storyteller. But like the hero, we let it happen. Because the journey is the reward. 

By pinpointing her mistake, I also realize it’s the pitfall that I also tend to fall into. 

As a storyteller, my job is to stir emotions. If I can’t feel it when I write it, how can I expect anything else from the audience?

 

Yours truly,
YZ