You never know

The worst case scenario is no. But these days, you would probably get a ‘no response’ response at best. so what do you have to lose? You never know. 

I’m staying home today. I have a haircut appointment at noon, because I have a lecture to present tomorrow. Then a 4:30 meeting with the Chinese writers. So I decided to use my own vacation day to stay at home. Barely 8 o’clock, there was pounding against my wall. The construction workers started their day’s job. But I’m uncharacteristically  undisturbed. A great time to practice Zen, right?

Yesterday evening was the screenwriting class I enrolled at UCLA Extension. It was much better than the previous two sessions.

I thought the instructor was high-strung. During the break by the water-cooler, we had a little chat. She was juggling so many balls—

She was teaching two evening classes.
She was also taking a YA Novel writing class through UCLA Extension. The deadline was 12 hours away. She wanted to turn in 30 pages, but she only had 10 as we spoke.
She was also working on a rewrite. The deadline was three days away, the Sunday. But she hadn’t started yet.
All the while, her 98-year-old mother back in Ohio was not doing well. Struggling.
Her other industry friends had projects announced on Deadline.com. But now, the people she wanted to give scripts to were all busy with their own stuff.

“That’s the life I’m dealing with.” She shrugged with a sad smile. I wanted to give her a hug. Because I know that face. I am that face.

I was critical of her in the first two classes. Because she was giving an unfair amount of time (50 mins out of a three-hour class for a dozen students) to a 65-year-old woman who was adapting the Holocaust memoir written by her parents. To be frank, the woman had a low screenplay IQ. She had an even lower EQ. I was on the verge of losing it. I bit my tongue and stared at the clock. I stormed out of the class the second we were dismissed.

The instructor said she stayed until 11:15 PM?! last time for the woman. I told her plainly, “Set some boundary.” I suddenly had more empathy towards her than I had known in me.

After the break, I pitched my old-new story. It was the first feature I wrote at UCLA. I got some really interesting notes. As soon as I got home, I watched the reference movie they mentioned, Stand by Me (1986).

I thought the class level was beneath me, at first. But yesterday from the table read, I found two guys were pretty good writers already. One had impressive action beats. Another had a fantastic ear for dialogue.

Although I didn’t bring in new materials last night, I got new ideas from the group. I did it by simply showing up. (Hat tip to Seth Godin’s blog post on “Showing up.”)

But it didn’t just end there. The “dialogue guy” emailed me through the course platform later, saying that he also wanted to apply for UCLA’s Screenwriting MFA program next year and asked if he could ask me some questions regarding the program.

It was a really thoughtful email. He explained that I was the only one he knew that went to this program most recently. He seemed sincere and respectful. Immediately I replied. I gave him my cell and email address. Of course, next time in class, we would talk more. I would even approach him if he didn’t. He showed me two things: bravery and sincerity.

Funny thing about reaching out. I’ve had many, many of those situations, mulling over how the recipient would think of me. But guess what, there is nothing I can do. The worst case scenario is no. But these days, you would probably get a ‘no response’ response at best. so what do you have to lose?

You never know.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

To be or not to be

How to sustain your dream when you’re trying to livin’ the dream?

A voice whispered in my head: quit screenwriting.

I woke with a jolt and throbbing pain in my chest.

But this is what I set out to do when I gave up everything in Shanghai and came to the US in 2015 to pursue this dream. I argued with the voice.

The voice kept reasoning with me—
Here is thing: You’re just not good at this. You haven’t sold anything. Nobody asked you to pitch anything. You haven’t won anything big. The market is permeated with big IP sequels that only care about the box office. Do you know how expensive it is to make any movie? Any feature, the budget starts at $1m. And just what makes you think your story should be told onscreen?  Hon, shall I keep going?

I fumbled, well, I want to bridge the East and the West— exactly what I wrote in my “Statement of Purpose” when I applied to the UCLA Film School.  And it worked.

But come to think of it now, it’s not working for me anymore. The two scripts about the Chinese culture I wrote at UCLA aren’t really the ones that come from the heart. At the time, I was running short on ideas and thought they were cool subjects worthy to be known.

They can be known through books. Documentary at best, not necessarily feature film. The voice shot back relentlessly.

Quite true.

As I write this, I am writing a thriller feature. It’s an adaptation. It’s a period piece. Two weeks ago, I decided to make it contemporary. Why? It’s cheaper and more relevant. Two days ago, my screenwriting friend (who is one kick-ass screenwriter, sold tons of projects and has one movie made) agreed to collaborate with me, because she knows about my quagmire and the collaboration will get me further and faster into the game. Plus, she loves the project. I’m thrilled. I really like the story. I want to like it more. But I’m too much inexperienced to tackle something as classic as this book, like a baby alligator trying to tackle a grown hippo on Training Day #101.

I am also working on my first novel. I clock in 2,000+ words or more every day since July 10.  I am less than 27 days away to finish my rough first draft. I want to get it published, or self-published by February 2019. Why the rush? Because again, I need it to apply for my artist visa (O-1) next year. At the same time, it’s the story I’m burning and dying and all the while afraid and shying away to write.

See the difference? I can’t wait to get behind my desk to work on my book. But I’m procrastinating with my screenplays.

Here is thing: I have total ownership with the book. But screenplays? They are just blueprints for movies. Feature screenwriters get hired and fired all the time. What’s my worth to keep being a screenwriter? Shall I start generating more TV ideas?

I will ask these questions to my friend and now writing partner the next time I send her notes on our collaboration project. The most pressing one: To be, or not to be. How to sustain your dream when you’re trying to livin’ the dream?

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Current Status: Somber

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.

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…

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 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 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.

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