Drip by drip

A friend contacted me about a gig: interpret a dozen of non-Chinese films for a Chinese movie critic who is a judge at an international film festival. I would help him to understand what those movies are about to write reviews and score them.

I definitely want the gig. Here are my rationales:

  • I’m curious about what movies get selected and the process on the whole.
  • I want to make connection with this Chinese movie critic.
  • For someone doesn’t have an income right now as a full-time foreign student, I can always use some extra bucks.

But by taking this on, I’m contending with my own projects: My scripts. My novel. My podcast.

I feel stressed.
Actually I can’t remember the last time I was ever chill.

Earlier this year, I was more than just stressed. I was depressed. I felt I was not going places. My work didn’t amount to anything. I was not valued in the office even though I was hired by the big boss when I was still in film school.

Here, Simon Sinek might say this is the typical Millennial Syndrome because the Millennials want things to happen right here, right now.

In my defense, I was asked to read scripts. I read so fast. Soon I ran out of materials. I went after books on Amazon. Then office manager told me the (outsourced) finance manager need to see the producers’ green-light notes before I could order them online. [Translation: Stop doing what you are not told to do.]

So I stopped reimbursing and used my meager salary looking for new materials for the firm. I wrote treatments. I tried pitching to the producers. But their hands were full. Their desks are loaded with more important projects. [Translation: projects that would generate revenue; projects that have higher ROI; projects that they found themselves and appeal to their own tastes.]

As this route led me nowhere, I was dejected. I grew cynical. I thought about quitting. But I had nowhere else to go. My screenwriting mentors asked me to hang on because I was right next to the Hollywood mojo.

Watch and learn, kid!

And yet, I couldn’t see the value of this 9-to-6 job.  I was utterly unfazed after the bedazzlement. I finally came to my senses: it was just like any other jobs I’d held over the years. Who said Hollywood was all dream and drama?  For a few months, the closest drama I’d got was: I was dying of boredom. (Melodrama of course…)  I wanted to create my own stuff. I knew I had ‘the Right Stuff.’  I didn’t want to disappoint. But to be frank, I was disappointed. After the recruit, my boss scarcely bestowed his wisdom like he did in the class.

I wanted to stand on the desk and scream at the top of my lungs in a place everyone was talking but nobody was listening—

Gimme somethin’, sire.
Anythin’!
And I’ll make you proud!

The dream of working for the producer came true fast. But the reality hit me, faster and furious. Finally I realized that I was both the Boy and the Emperor. I had no clothes on. At least I was honest about being naked. This was nothing but day-trading. This was bullshit.

But after getting the H-1B work visa rejection letter from the immigration board, I had an epiphany.   I, not anybody else, had to fight for my artist visa next year, to maximize my chance. Instead of half-assing my effort betting gold on others, I have to do the work and ship fast.

In those darkest days, I came up with a podcast idea called Rock Bottom with YZ. Hence the namesake of this blog. Then the machine started running again:

  • I began my first novel. 47,000 words and counting. Half way through.
  • I picked up screenwriting, after abandoning it for a year.
  • I returned to the world, after being a scared and hurt hermit.
  • I did a lecture on storytelling, mading an impression and some new contacts.
  • I joined a Chinese TV Pilot writer team, not caring who takes credits.
  • I’m about to collaborate with two artists on a short about immigration.
  • I’m going to collaborate on a book project with my Chinese writer pal.
  • ….

The list goes on.

I was stressed that I didn’t know what to do a year ago.
Now I’m stressed that I have only 24 hours a day minus 6-7 hours of sleep with all the things I want to create and collaborate.

I know I’m closer.
I know I’m getting there.
I can feel it in my gut.

I just need to take a deep breath and repeat my mantra: Drip by drip.

By denying me the snazzy title, the to-do list, the caring boss, the paycheck, the work visa, prospect of a romantic relationship… everything that I want, could very likely be the best things that can ever happen to me, all at once.

Bring it on.

It’s not 20/20 hindsight yet, but I have a hunch.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Never judge a book by its cover

I talked with the classmate from the screenwriting class during recess yesterday evening.

The lad is from Ireland. He was in finance for 13 years. Eight years in London. Another five on Wall Street. Still carrying a gruff Irish accent, he dons the same weathered baby-shit brown tee to the class. I would’ve never thought in a gazillion years that this lad in front of me used to be in suit and tie all day long for the most part of his adult life.

“I never wanted to be in finance.” He cut to the chase. “Money was good. But I was miserable.”

He pulled me in right away. A storyteller he is.

“I went there to make just enough money so I can live off later to write my own films and get them made cheap. I know my stories would never go through the studio pipeline. I have savings.  Now I want to apply for film school to get ahead with my pursuit.”

Wow.

“How do you like your film school experience?” He marched ahead with the big question.

I explained that if he wanted to write lots of scripts, UCLA Film School is a no-brainer. Because of its quarter-system. When I was there, I wrote one full-length feature script every ten weeks, along with other classes like Howard Suber’s Film Structure, and miscellaneous classes like producing, acting. I did feature and TV pilot in one quarter plus other classes and TA. It was sheer madness. But I learned about my limits and potentials.

He was concerned about the odds of getting in. Wall Street has its mark on him.

“There are thousands of applicants, right?”

“But you are a very good writer.”

I think he’s playing a good hand. Of course, there is luck and other x-factors. But how would you know if you don’t try?

We had to dash back, because the class had started. Scanning his baby-shit tee again, I beamed.

Good to meet you, Ex-Wall-Street-Wannabe-Filmmaker from Ireland.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Maybe there is a better way

Yesterday afternoon, my colleague and good friend and I went through the storyboard for his shooting this coming Saturday. At first, he just ‘donated’ me a writing credit for the short, because it would help me with my O-1 (Artist Visa) next year. But I wanted to earn it.

Frame by frame, I gave him new angles, ideas and recommendations to play with. I saw his eyes lit up. We were on the same page the whole time. Just by sitting there talking, it rekindled my love for screenwriting.

I told him I felt like I was in a silo when I was developing these feature-length scripts. I have no one to talk to unless I’m in a workshop or when I do a script exchange. I want to be part of the creation, from script to screen. It is never meant to be done alone in the first place.

My friend then said his director buddy approached him. The director wanted to do some projects, not those assignments to pay bills, but stories that can nourish his soul. They narrow it down to this theme: immigration. My friend mentioned my name and my story.

I was flattered and humbled. I pitched him my ideas on the spot.

“Hey, hey, hey, hold your horses.  How about the three of us grab lunch next week and start hashing out the story?”

I was thrilled. Maybe, just maybe, I would be able to apply for O-1 next year after all. I will emerge from an unproduced writer to an aspiring writer with a few body of works.

All this time what I have dreaded impossible is actually doable. Because I just need someone who believes in my potential.

One person at a time.
And then, the Snowball Effect.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

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

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 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…

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