Joy as A Writer

“I see your joy as a writer.”

 

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.

— Mahatma Gandhi

 

Yours truly,
YZ

A Writer’s Priority

Photo Credit

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 —

Write it till you make it.

So shut up and write.

Feature-length Screenplay in 10 Weeks

Photo Credit

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.

Quit dreading and write.

Lightning doesn’t strike out of nowhere

I had a new idea for next quarter’s feature screenwriting class. It sort of just came to me.

Is that how it works now?

Truth is, it never worked this way as long as I could remember. I had to actively think about what story to write, or to use my past experience. However, being a writer, you have only this much of life experience — ever enough. If you were that experienced, you wouldn’t have time for writing, would you, Bear Grylls? (No, I don’t mean hiring ghostwriters, thank you.)

I have been told since I came here that “To write what you know” is a piece of shit advice that anyone can give to a writer. How do you expand beyond writing your own roman à clef?


Here are some of my lessons learned (aka. lightning-struck-me moments) over the past two quarters at the program.

#1 A good idea can go south if you don’t have good execution or good structure.

#2 A ‘Meh’ idea can surprise you if you think outside the box.

#3 Sometimes fresh characters visit you in your desperation.

#4 No one is responsible to make your story better than yourself.

Stop complaining you get shitty comments or uncorporative cohort.


The two points below are wisdom from a beloved sage professor —

#5 Always take meetings whenever you’re given one. It’s not a waste of time. You need practice in meetings.

What else more imporant that you need to do, darling?

#6 It’s not all about who you know, but more importantly, who knows you.

Being a nobody in the industry, you need to expose yourself.


The next time you wonder why X Y Z happens to that lucky bastard, it should occur to you that the bastard is always out there — busting off his arse to get hit by the lightning.

Back to my point at the beginning — So, I had an idea about a new screenplay. Were I not in the program, wouldn’t I be thinking “what’s next?” as constantly as I do now? Nope.

Because I put myself into the Lightning Zone.

Before you know it, miracle/inspiration/idea might really strike you, hard.

Picture Credit: energyrealities.org

And oh, lastly —

#7 Be patient with thyself.

You can’t rush art. 
*I’ve tried. And I failed, like the others.

Writers Write

The Quote I received at the First-Quarter Screenwriter Commencement

For weeks I was tormented by the infamous you-know-who — the Writer’s Block.

The story that I so passionately believed in wasn’t going anywhere. I dreaded writing every day I got up. I even doubted why the fuck I was still in the program. Shouldn’t I just go pack my bags and piss off already?

Then I reread the piece I published here after getting accepted last April. Miraculous, I felt grounded again.

Blinking into the empty blog space with which I originally had so many plans, I felt the urge to reopen shop — no matter how busy I claimed I was.

So this was the promise I made a few days back—

Write and publish something every day here.

For the past ten days, I am coming to realize what a great asset blogging is to get me into the writing zone. It’s like warm up before the real exercise. I feel less tense, and more connected to my words. The bitch in my head gets remarkably quieter after the warm up.

Over time I will get faster articulating my thoughts and feel more comfortable with my words. It all comes down to one thing — persistence. After all —

Writers write.

Here I include some quotes from the great Ray Bradbury to keep me going. A classmate (ye lucky bastard) got one of his quotes (the one on top) at our first-quarter screenwriter commencement. (*Mine is the one above from James Joyce.)

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.

Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.

Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.

We should not look down on work nor look down on the forty-five out of fifty-two stories written in our first year as failures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefore destructive of the creative process.

Raymond Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 — June 5, 2012), American author best known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Take Your Time

I had a revelation yesterday.

Tuesday this quarter is the feature writing workshop. I dreaded it before it happened. I enjoyed it when it happened. Then I loved it after it did happen.

I had too many pages so was put at the last to be read. Then we ran out of time. I was a bit anxious. It was Week 8 and I just revamped my story. I really need to hear the critique then and there. Last week was a mess. Three weeks ago my stuff wasn’t read during the class. I thought I was losing my story trajectory and the voice of my characters. Thinking about it almost put me in tears. Then the nurturing instructor said if I was not in a rush, she was willing to stay behind and get my pages critiqued. My eyes screamed “I love you” at her. Almost everybody else just left the room because they had more important things to do. And I understand and respect that. Here is a good place to meditate not to take things personally. I think I am coping better now.

Then my pages were again full of red. The others were just given minor editing notes, mine was torn apart — every single time. I know that I shouldn’t compare with other people. Because everybody is in different phase when it comes to writing. I need to focus on myself, and myself only. If I am better than yesterday, that’s all that counts. But at times, I forget. That’s where my vulnerability gets me — bad.

My beloved instructor tells me to “take time with yourself, and with your writing.” “I see the improvement,” she often says. But it’s so hard to see it when we are this close to thyself. We lose sight of what’s important. We lose focus.

A third-year writer friend and I have a ritual to meet an hour before the workshop so we chat and share. She said, “a year from now, you will be so much better.” I was incredulous, “Real… really?” “Really.” She shared how insecure she felt a year ago now. How frustrated when she noticed herself lagging behind when everybody else was several blocks ahead. “You will get there, eventually.” She reassured me. “Even for those million bucks screenwriters, they are still insecure writers at heart. When you make it once, you would be haunted by the notion whether you are going to repeat or even surpass your previous success.”

When we make art, there’s always a THERE ahead of us. Because artists are never content and they shouldn’t.

So here is what I try to do — to make peace with that insecurity.

And relax.


An afterthought — 
It’s counterintuitive at first to try to relax when I have a crazy amount of work to do. But now I find being able to relax is extremely helpful to regain my focus and productivity.

Well, here is to my revelation.

Just keep swimming

I have this discussion with my cohort all the time.

Being a writer for life is hard. The rejection, the humiliation, the “you will never ever get there” self-doubt, the looming red in your finance chart.

I have a LA Lakers #8 Kobe Bryant jersey hanging on the rack. It’s the shrine of my daily faith and inspiration.

How did he get there? 
How did he become who he is today? Well, he wasn’t born this way. 
Where did he get this monstrous GRIT that all the great masters have? 
How did he overcome the physical pain day in and day out for the better part of his life? 
How did he challenge doubt when he failed?

Those might be the questions I want to grill him if I have the chance to meet him. I think I may have the answer already as everybody else does way before you read this rambling post.

You probably know it already when you watched Finding Nemo —

Just keep swimming.

So at the beginning of another gorgeous day in LA, I will breathe in and breathe out.

And write on.