Chinese + Creativity

Two weeks ago, I went to a prestigious institute to sit in for its last screenwriting workshop. The program associate and I had a little chat.

“Have you thought about writing stories yourself?” I asked her.
“Me? Oh, no, no, no, no, no. It’s not my thing.” 

I pause for a bit. “You know, years ago, I felt I wasn’t the creative bunch either.” 

I forgot how the conversation ended. But her initial response was etched in my brain. 

Is creativity nothing but a snooty bitch? It shines light on the White community, obviously. Now, it expands to the Black community, fucking at last. 

And so… what about the Asians, the Yes Race? 

“Your Crazy Rich Asians did great!” Some may battle me with this fact. 

Sure, but one film doesn’t mean that day has come. An Asian actor acquaintance posted on his social, “I aim to be an Oscar winner.” My OS was like, bruh, if Asian writers don’t write Asian stories, you’d be supporting til the day you die.” Are Chinese too grounded for creative juice? Truth is, we only have enough room for one kind of God. That is, the God of Money on the fifth day of the Chinese New Year. It’s our euphemism to tell Muse to fuck off. 

I watched a few more episodes of Atlanta today after my date recommended to me. The Barbarshop episode in Season 2 was so over the top real, surreal, hilarious, and frustrating that I almost died from laughing. Stefani Robinson (now 26) was the writer for this episode and the only female writer on the show. She is so enviously young and full of live, who landed a staff writer gig at 23 after working at a talent agency right off college. And because of Atlanta, FX is now working with Robinson on her own show. Attagirl.

Never in my life will I be able to manufacture the moment that got me on Atlanta. I was just quite literally at the right place at the right time for that opportunity. The reason I was able to grasp it and to keep it going was because I was prepared. I wrote all the time. I was constantly thinking about ideas. My biggest advice is to constantly be writing, constantly be reading, and then on top of that, to be honest about what you love.

Stefani Robinson, via VICE

Some people are just meant to shine. I hear you think. True. 

You see, growing up in China, you’re told to do things that pay bills. First couple of years when I decided to pivot to screenwriting from the lucrative advertising world, my left brain was still anxious about how the fuck I could live as a writer rather than how on earth I could write a killer script. That worry developed into a nasty habit. Even right now, I’m still dealing with the jitters, the shallow breathing. It’s like after years of intoxication, your system revolts when suddenly there’s no booze in the blood. 

As I get the chance to teach the Chinese kids about screenwriting, about creative thinking, I want to make sure they don’t piss off their Muses. But most importantly, they find their voice. Not the voice in their heads. But the kind of voice that shuts the world. So everyone would listen.

My auditioning lecture at this prestigious institute is on Wednesday. Wish me luck.

Yours truly,
YZ

On screenwriting, so far

I started working on this comedy pilot spec (which means it’s my own story, not an assignment from producer or director) about two months ago. But I started to have ideas about it around a year ago. And yet, I wasn’t in the best headspace to birth it then.

Fortunately, a year later, the storyline and the ‘Why’ of telling this story now became more salient for me. It was time to start working.

From early March to late May, I probably deleted more than 100 pages for this 30-page script. The set pieces were shifted more than a few times on my notebook, in my head, on my whiteboard. Teaching screenwriting is one thing, but writing it is a whole other story:

  • You have to be nimble and lenient with your first draft (aka. vomit draft).
  • You need to write more than it is required on the pages. Don’t think. Just type.
  • You have to feel the heat when your character gets angry.
  • You must fight back tears as your heroine breaks down crying.
  • If you cheat or cut corners or just fucking can’t sit through a difficult scene, it shows. And you know it.
  • Don’t be glamorous with your words if you can be essential.
  • The list goes on… (I will keep blogging about #screenwriting as I learn and teach it on the go.)

What’s fascinating to me about screenwriting is that it’s both left-brain and right-brain. You want to touch your audience with the emotions you’ve created. At the same time, you don’t want them to poke holes and find you ill-logic. In a word, you have to be somewhat a schizophrenic.

When you are done with your first draft, put it away for at two weeks. So when the open-heart surgery begins, you won’t quiver. Just start cutting.

At this stage of my own script, it’s ready for an initial read. I just sent it to a dear friend for a review. With that, I will know whether it’s ready to cast a wider net. Or, if it’s ready for submission.

And lastly, writers write. It’s our job. So treat it like one.
Tomorrow, I will start a new project. It’ll be a TV series in Chinese.

To quote Gertrude Stein, “To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write.”

Yours truly,
YZ

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

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