Recognize or affirm the validity or worth of (a person or their feelings or opinions); Cause (a person) to feel valued or worthwhile.
via Oxford Dictionary
We all want validation of some sort.
A salesperson wants his sale pitch turn into green notes, so he can claim that he’s a ‘good’ salesperson. Otherwise, he has failed.
A parent wants his kids to shine at school, so he can say he’s a ‘good’ parent. Otherwise, he has failed.
A friend wants to know if she is being helpful, so she can keep feeling connected and fulfilled. Otherwise, she begins to question if the friend reciprocates her time and endeavor.
But a writer, a writer just wants to hear any feedback you have for her story when you ask to read it. Otherwise, why bother?
I email-pitched a feature writing class for the coming Spring Quarter. Then the roster came out, my name wasn’t there, again. Surprise? Nope, I was not. It was not the first “Ouch Moment” since I got into the program. Was I hurt? A teeny bit.
But now I can shrug it off and move on. Just another pinch of salt throws onto my open wound. Now I am so much more thick-skinned, I feel I can take another blow. Why not? Punch me. Punch me hard. Let me see if that’s all you’ve got.
I want to keep getting better. I want to be so damn good, so damn big like an elephant, so the next time you see me, you can’t ignore me. Because you really have to address “The elephant in the room.”
“I will never let anyone see that they get to me.”
No, I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, literally or figuratively.
It came from my writing instructor’s voice critique on my screenplay. All-positive notes.
Listening to her showering praise on me was surreal. To me, that moment was like winning an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
My Winter Quarter began as a thriller-drama. I pitched four teachers and was on none of their roosters.
Before anybody gave me an explanation and a solution, my thoughts took me to the darkest alley I’d ever known. You know, that you don’t belong, that you’re a foreigner… kind of self-debasing crap.
Then the nurturing instructor let me in. Sitting for the first time alongside the second and third-year screenwriters in the writing workshops, I bled the most. Sometimes six of my ten or twelve pages were tossed out of the window, or sank without a trace. I worried, not just as small as whether my humor came through on the page writing a comedy about Chinese girls in Liverpool. I worried if I had what I took. As if she saw me through, she always said after another brutal session —
Be patient with yourself.
So I tried.
She got back on Sunday with the voice critique I mentioned at the beginning of this note— it was the most marvelous note I ever received. “YZ, I have zero note for you to change. This is a strong first draft. And you know I will say it if I spot a problem… You have a strong voice as a writer. It is what the industry is looking for, not the mechanics.” As a China-born screenwriter at the English writing session with the native speakers, I felt relieved.
“I see your joy as a writer.”
There she said it. It got me hard. I bawled and quivered at my writer’s desk. Outside, the Californian sun fluttered through the curtained window. I thought it would have been more fitting if I were in England — like my characters. The English drizzle would serve best as I sobbed. But another thought, the sun is better for compare and contrast.
Knowing when to let go is my latest learning as I finished the first feature-length script at the film school. Tweaking here and there, losing sleep and gaining weight, had been the theme of my life for the past two weeks as I wrote and rewrote. But at some point, I had to let it go, and let it be. I had to let other people see my Frankenstein. I had to bear the critiques which may sound harsh, professionally and personally. The two-quarters writing workshops have significantly thickened and toughened my skins. I learn to take the punches with enough seriousness and with a grain of salt.
Giving notes can be surprisingly rewarding.
Knowing that my notes were helpful always gives me immense pleasure. We are competitors for the department showcase. But I am here for the long haul to partner with writers and join the writing community. Because everyone’s story is unique, and it certainly is not a zero-sum game for writers as it is for salesmen, writers should celebrate each other’s work and success. When my cohort said my notes were one of a kind that made him think in a way nobody pointed out before, I was proud. That comment came from my more experienced former English teacher All-American cohort. How cool is that?
Which draft is going to be “The Final Draft”?
My answer is, the draft before the deadline, not that I’ve been procrastinating. On the contrary, I’ve been procrastinating so much less. I did script exchange with three fellow cohorts — giving notes to each other’s script as we arrive at the crop season. With their notes, I made changes till the last second.
As I hit sent and slept on it, I received and read the new round of critiques based on this “Final Draft”. It was from one of the three cohorts. He’s very adamant about structure and pacing, especially when mine is a comedy. His notes gave me a lot more to think about rather than just getting content with and stop becoming better. I much appreciate people who can push me to become better. This particular cohort is one of them. Right away, I sent my feature writing instructor about the issues. I won’t stop tweaking it till I find a good solution for my story.
As I sent my baby away and await feedback, I want to shout at the top of my lungs that I love my script. I love the world I created. I love my characters. I even envy them having the friendships I crave.
Last Monday, I bumped into my original N0.1 choice writing instructor. He said I was on the very top of his list, but he assumed somebody else removed me from his list. He wasn’t happy about it. He even suggested that I only pitched him next winter — the only time he taught in LA. Now I think I can have a good laugh about “my darkest episode” at the film school with a light heart.
After these first two brutal quarters, I feel so much less anxious, and so much more at ease. Sure I will keep struggling with my stories, but the past failures and struggles lent me a new light seeing things — sort of like I have an older self time-travels to me and pat me on the back during my struggles and said, “Trust me, it will be just fine.” It could be a darn cliche line in any other context. But now — I simply know better.
Because I am better. And I will become even better. I won’t stop trying. I just won’t.
We proceed without fear of failure or hope of success.
I have classmates who take two writing classes (Feature — 100 pages; Spec — 30–60 pages), directing and producing and TA for four days a week. When I expressed my admiration, the girl, who’s a second-year student, said that she felt like she’s been here for 20 years. And yes, she would graduate this Spring.
As an afterthought, she said —
Well, good that you finished your script. I haven’t finished mine yet.
I would love to be a multi-tasker, but would I want it at the cost of not finishing my scripts? No. This is what I am here for — to start with.
I made it very clear to myself that these first two quarters (if not the first year) are going to be about writing. Some of my classmates already have a leg up due to their previous involvement in the film business or writing scripts or novels. I don’t.
If I compared myself to them, I would never be happy — being a happy writing writer is almost a mission impossible.
Look, that person’s work is already out there. See, that person just landed a big gig.
For me, I have to stay low and just focus on my craft — for now. Because I don’t want to go to those networking events telling everybody I write screenplays, but when they ask what I “have written,” I can only give them my perfect first act, which is what, 30 pages. No. I want to have some works ready before I approach people. Or I can’t even fake the confidence which has no ground.
When it comes to writing, it’s never going to “Fake it till you make it,” but this —
Yesterday, I got my 90+ page feature script submitted.
It was my first attempt to submit a full length script within 10 weeks at the program. (*Last quarter it was a 30-page First Act.)
I began to get the knack of the neck-breaking pace of the program. And to my surprise, I enjoyed it — looking back now. I can shout at the top of my lungs —
“I did it. My script may be shit, but I survived.”
What did we cover in the 10-week writing workshop?
The first week was the pitch week. We shopped for instructors in hope of getting picked by one.
The second week we came up with a treatment. (A treatment is a 2-page double-spaced story flow.)
The third was the beat sheet (aka. Step Outline)that covers the three acts.
From the fourth week and on, we attended workshops that critique 6–10 pages of 10 screenwriters.
I feel so much more confident after this whole nerve-wrecking quarter. I like “The show must go on” mentality. It is never finished, it can always improve.
Right after the submission, I began the “script exchange” with two of my screenwriting cohorts — Two guys. I have a better rapport with the guys in the program. In the artistic arena, I need reason to balance feeling. A nice girl in the program cried the other day, saying she was afraid of the future. I don’t know what just happened to her. And I don’t want to judge. But from her explanation, she was overwhelmed. I joked that I am the foreigner (native-born Chinese) writing in my second language. I am the definition of “Underdog.” How much worse can that be? I hoped that cheered her up.
I also realized why I prefer hanging out with the lads more. They are more focused on the work itself. They are more thick-skinned.
Writing needs that mentality. Focus on how to get better rather than how am I ever gonna be as good.
In a way, I now feel better about being a foreigner — not as an excuse, but leaving no room for excuses. I can do nothing but hone my craft. There is no “but.” I already start late and practise less than the native students. And I don’t intend to compare. It will damage my morale. But this is what I am invested in — Practise more, it will be show in the result. Whether I will win some awards? It’s not my current-stage concern.
At the beginning of this quarter, I thought I might be overwhelmed by the size of the task. So I took three classes instead of four. I could have done more.
For the Spring Quarter, I might take 2–3 writing classes (feature-90+pages, comedy spec-30 pages, sketch comedy), and then another class. Or just three writing classes.
I couldn’t sleep. I slept too much. I fell asleep too easily. I was officially immune to coffee. My jaw hurt waking up from a night of incessent teeth-grinding. My head was at the verge of explosion while asleep. I stress ate. I did everything to avoid The Very Task I was supposed to do.
I still haven’t finished the first draft yet. Yes, I promised myself to do so weeks ago. But every week before the class, I had to go back to the pages and polish until it was presentable. The pressure. The excuse…
My record was horrendous. One time I brought ten pages, half were killed on the spot. (*Cause: Activity vs. Event; Events move the story forward.) Another time — six weeks into the quarter, my structure was suffering, which made it irrelevant to discuss the pages. (*Cause: The story was about a competition, but the rules were vague.) It sank without a trace.
Last week, the teacher stayed late to critique my work while most of the classmates left. She offered some amazing directions. I wanted to make her proud so badly. But when I was home, I panicked.
Can I really pull it off?
Because I chose comedy, no laugh meant no go. But one shouldn’t do his piece just for the sake of jokes. I kept reminding myself. At the library the next day, a new character came to me and hit me hard. He, was a Scot.
At the reading yesterday, I chose two scenes around my new Scot character — the beginning of Act II A (Page 30) and the Mid Point (Page 60). Not having heard my characters speak for weeks made me antsy.
When it came to an end, I realized that I got more than a few laughs. The forever nurturing instructor said, “These are good pages.” I hadn’t heard that comment on me after the second week, now it was Week 8. “You are writing a comedy of the Chinese girls traveling to England and we as the Americans are the audience. Culture and comedy don’t normally blend. But your story and the jokes came through.”
I was emotional. I could have cried. But I knew my beloved instructor wouldn’t like it. “Why haven’t you cried yet?” is her “How do you do?” I fought the tears to the back of my head. Then I confessed, “It is hard.” She nodded and confirmed, “No doubt about it.”
I could live on those compliments eating nothing else for days. No wonder writers without constant validation tend to go loco.
Another classmate was fighting against a seemingly obvious notion. The instructor paused the clock and took time with her. She even chided the impatient classmates who tried to be smartasses.
I was really touched. That to me is what a great Teacher/Shifu/Sensei is. I texted her after the class to thank her again, knowing that under her tutelage, we were in a safe domain being insecure writers — to be who we are, and unapologetically.
Yeah, I am a lucky bastard. I know it now. And I know it better.