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

Yours truly YZ

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