Under the moonlight

The more people entrust in me with their stories about love, about rock bottom, about vulnerability, the more I realize that there is no such thing as a perfect life. If someone says he begs to differ, then I’d say he’s missing out on life in general.

Everyone at some point gets her heart broken if she trifles with love. Sometimes what they’ve experienced should only happen in a movie. And yet, the truth is stranger than fiction. 

As a writer, you get to see life in various shapes and colors. If you don’t have an open mind, you only capture a limited few layers of life and people. But if you are willing, willing to set aside your own judgement, your own opinion, maybe you will find that people are more alike than they’re willing to let on. 

And yet, we tend to preach the popular, go with the flow through sunlight. We only let go of our subconsciousness and desire under the moonlight.

As a writer, my job is to bring what’s under the moon back to the sun. When it’s done right, it provokes people, it makes them uneasy, angry, upset… But in the end, people see their true selves through the story. 

They won’t admit it, but they feel it. To a writer, that’s a job well done.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

The bubble

I met with three groups of friends on Saturday. All career women. They blew me away. I think if I need support group here in Shanghai, they would be the first people I go to.

I saw a pattern in all of their Shanghai lifestyle. I call it “The Bubble.”

If one exposes herself too thoroughly in the Shanghai environment, it’d be like opening up your soul to the Death Eaters.

The mass would judge your taste, your lifestyle, your career choices, your partner, your car, your language… They would tell you that you should change to fit in and think they are doing you a favor.

Women don the same shade of makeup, even have the same face from their latest plastic surgeries. They wear the same style because it’s in and hip. Because some celebrity is making a wave with it. The latest model of iPhone is glued to their palms, bending their neck. People stop judging others taking selfies. Because now it has become the mainstream.

If you don’t want to be taken away by the current, you gotta have some haven, some shelter… some bubble for your soul to breathe and expand.

“Where would you want to end up?” I heard myself ask each one of them.

The answer stays the same: not here.

I suddenly felt a wave of sadness. The place I grew up, the place I call my hometown, has become too fast to strange to me, to us, that only this bubble of our daily life can make the old home liveable again.

So Shanghai, what’s your trait other than new and shiny?

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Two months later

My folks are on a trip for three days.

It’s just me and my cat Michael in the apartment.

Where I had spent three years all myself in the US, now three days seems too long. I need to heat up the food three times a day for three days. I need to feed and clean the cat. I need to get things in place for the room-bot. I need to do my own laundry. I need to remind myself to drink water…

All these things that I had been doing for myself, I handed the responsibility over to my folks when I came home exactly two months ago. Suddenly picking those things up seems a real stretch.

It sounds bizarre but we get used to things real quick. I only hope that with this pace that I’m going, I won’t settle in too much before I uproot myself again back to LA, where my heart belongs.

Two months later… things are better. But spare my heart, it still aches for the California sun.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Communication

I was going to have three calls today. One with the feature project director. The other two with the short film directors. 

The first one went extremely well. I was elated how this pro from the Big League liked my voice and nuances in the script. 

The second director was caught up in production. So we rescheduled till tomorrow. 

The third, boy oh boy, the third one got my head spinning like crazy. The director bumped into every possible pet peeves I had, the ones I didn’t know I had or the ones I thought had departed me…

Maybe I was being greedy. Because I didn’t need this extra short for my credit list when I was slaving away three short films, one feature while trying to build up the structure for my first Chinese animation feature plus a few other things.

Through the communication with the third director today, I learned a few things about communication and miscommunication.

Phone manners: Never answered the phone while you are in the loo when you tell the other side that you are ready while actually you’re not. Lock yourself inside the room when you know your call would meow and distract your conversation. The director blatantly did both. I rolled my eyes so openly. Thank the Lord it was not FaceTime.

Everyone needs to be acknowledged. This person never once said: “Thank you so much to turn it around within the 12 hour window.” Maybe she’s just another spoiled rich brat from China that need some spanking. I heard myself thinking.

Especially for screenplay projects, written words should be everyone’s best friend. I found myself trying to convince the director my vision from our previous conversation. It became her words against mine. When she said, “oh, my characters won’t do that. You can find it in the file I sent earlier.” “No, you didn’t.” I called her out loud. “Oh, now the male character has changed so much blah blah blah and the female character…” That part of our convo was a mistake, if not a disaster like Trump v. Pelosi & Schumer. I should ask her to send me more background stuff in bullet points before I started. Maybe she is young; maybe she’s inherited the worst part of the director title before earning it.

As a rule, I try to speak Chinese unless I can’t come up with the English word. I know how pretentious it could sound to the others in certain scenarios. We are both Chinese. So what the fuck? The director’s cringe-worthy English pronunciation got on my nerves if you want to know the truth. I’m not a pronunciation Nazi, but having so little awareness of how poor her English is by contaminating her mother tongue is what gets me. I found myself speaking English unnecessarily frequent with her as a way to beg her to stop.

And earlier I should sense the red flags. Like when I told her my price. She tried to bargain for a few rounds when I already told her that was what I charged for her three other classmates. Or, the part where she tried to give me RMB instead of USD and calling it thoughtful because I’m in China. I would have appreciated her street-smart in a whole different setting. Right then, I was not impressed to say the least.

When I asked her at the end of our call to send me her notes in bullet points, she never did. I recalled earlier when she came to me that she was worried about not being able to make it in time to the hands of her producer. Now she’s stalling?  Or maybe, we are just not the right fit. It happens. 

When my mentor asked me to not to internalize other people’s urgency but to go with my pace, I said I don’t have many choices right now because I want to get back to LA before I get bogged down by the Shanghai way of thinking (translation: What’s in it for me? How much can I milk out of it?)

I know better now after the bumpy voice call with the wannabe director. I took the rest of the day off; took a stroll with dad in the park; caught up the latest Colbert I’ve missed for the last few days; lit my scented candle and took a warm bath. I felt calmer. 

On the flip side though, I can’t help but think about those general meetings which I never heard back from. Is it because I was having too huge an ego for my petite stature? 

Hell, I can’t please everyone. All I can do is to listen better; make sure who does what by when in writing especially when I spar with another person whose personality doesn’t fit mine, which I’m sure may happen quite often.

And yes, I will need to breathe more and chill out. 

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Something’s gotta give

I just submitted a short script to another student director…

Within a month, I worked on four short scripts (10 – 12 pages per piece), did the first pass on a feature rewrite (110 pages), gave two lectures (2 hours each), and landed my first Chinese animation feature project. Plus, I will work on a dissertation with my screenwriting professor friend. Next March, I will do a screenwriting class at SIVA with the freshmen.

And yet, I haven’t shipped a single podcast in two weeks now. When the third student director came to me with his project, I knew I can’t get everything done on time.

I was losing sleep over my podcast project. Am I dropping the ball now? Where can I find more time to do this?

I don’t have an answer yet. The beginning of anything is hard. You are underpaid, overworked, and sleep-deprived. If you stop right here, you get devalued by being stationary. Moving is your only option.

Right now, to be able to juggle many balls, it feels all of a sudden like a privilege comparing to my last 9-to-6 job. Something’s gotta give means I have more than a thing on my plate. Yes, sure, I give a thing or two if my plate is full. Keep my mind from wandering…

 

Yours truly,
YZ

What shall I major

“If I want to go abroad to get a master’s degree?”

A girl from the class I lectured today asked.

I know that question. I’ve asked that question when I was her age, when I started working, and when I felt my soul was being ripped apart by the work I did.

“Most of us aren’t Steve Jobs, aren’t Bill Gates, we don’t know how to answer questions like this from the get go.” I said, “It’s more a process. I remember I read Man’s Search for Meaning, The Alchemist, when I was your age. I read memoirs, biographies ferociously because I thought I could find some pattern, some shortcut there from the lives already lived and proved. But in the end, you can’t calculate your 100th step when you barely have your step. Sure you will make mistakes, but that’s part life, part living, part growing. Media advocates overnight success, but we both know that it takes years to be an overnight sensation. And even if you thought that you found what you wanted to do for the rest of your life, sometimes you still get lost, get confused, get frustrated, wondering whether it was the right path that you took given the growing sunk cost…”

Some students drifted away already. Only a handful were still with me. I said that I didn’t know what to do with my expensive education for a while, whether I should ditch it and start something else… But I’m glad I didn’t quit. It’s only the dip.

Later I told my professor friend who invited me to her college that the students might be able to understand what we discussed today years later, or maybe not. But maybe it may benefit them. There is a huge chasm between knowledge and practice.

Just like when I disappeared for the last two days from my daily blog to finish the third short film in time, I realized that no matter how much I wanted to impress the director, I had to give him something to begin our polishing process.

And by now, I have a fourth short film to finish by end of tomorrow which I haven’t started yet, because I was out all day today in Songjiang, because I didn’t arrive home until 11 pm, and because the fourth director and I didn’t confirm until this morning.

Right after the fourth short film, I will immediately start working on the animation feature as well as preparing the notes for another feature rewrite which I already did the first pass.

“It takes 10,000 hours to become a master in anything.” I quoted Malcolm Gladwell as I kept on going with my answer. I told them how lucky they are to choose this path at this age. If they persist, by the time they are my age, they’d experts.

I used to get frustrated when I read Wiki entry of a famous person whose work I admired and who started early.  Now, after the emotional move back to Shanghai, I’ve learned that everyone has her own time.

Like when Mulan’s dad pointed to his daughter, ‘The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.

I would like to think that I’m one of those late bloomers.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Choice

I was born and bred in Shanghai, the most expensive and exciting cosmopolitan city in China. Via my dad’s calculation, its food and beverages are even more expensive that those in LA – although I would defend that Shanghai’s rent is much cheaper than that in LA. 

The Chinese people (other than folks born in Beijing) seem to make Shanghai her goal as “making it.” But I never feel like I belong here. Shanghai is all about money and efficiency. It’s not a place for writers, or artists in general. 

Today, my cab driver told me that he just couldn’t stop but work in Shanghai. He can’t afford to rest because of its high living expense for his family of three. I listened and felt grateful that right now I’m rent-free.

So this evening, I went to downtown Shanghai, at a place where Chinese and expats mingle for a dinner with a friend who runs her own company. This friend came from a family of businessmen and women. It was only natural when she set up her own shop in her early 30s. After several rounds of wine and beer on her part, she tried to reason with me why moving back to the US sounds like an unwise idea. “You’re Chinese. You would never feel like you belong there.” She then gave me a cautionary tale of her friend; she listed her resources that we could exchange to do something big and interesting together; she told me tricks of how to set up my own  studio (aka. gong zuo shi) so I could charge much larger fees when I negotiated with brands and firms, creating an illusion that I ran an army instead of working as a freelancer. 

This was all new to me. The artist side of me resisted and rebelled. But the pragmatic side of me wanted to learn more. After all, who doesn’t want financial freedom and more flexible working hours plus having extra to take care of the parents?

I told my friend that I would like to explore those notions going forward. I promised that I will pop at an event she hosts on Monday so she can start to introduce me to her acquaintances.  I’m not a star sign believer, but I do relate to and adore her Pisces-ness – flexible, creative, and resourceful. 

“God, things we could’ve done.” John Sculley told Steve Jobs when they met again more than a decade later when Jobs was hired back to Apple. Steve replied, “Things we could’ve done.” 

Of course, this moment, this line were all created by Aaron Sorkin who wrote the award-winning script for Danny Boyle to shoot. But to me, it’s also a reminder in moments like this. I don’t want to be another person to confess to my potential ally that why the he’ll we didn’t end up working together when we can?

For the past three years, I closed myself off opportunities that are not film related. I think I need to think different. There must to ways to utilize my talent… on a bigger scale, stage-wise and pay-wise.  

And this morning, a fourth student director came to me to fix her script. I was flattered albeit overwhelmed.  Every day I feel and think more like a screenwriter. But I’m not happy with its power limitation in filmmaking. Or, maybe two months later when I read this blog entry, my future self may have a better idea.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Learning by doing

I woke up this morning noticing a bunch of new messages at strange Beijing hours, plus a new contact invite. 

Another student director contacted me to fix his thesis short.

After collaborating with two student directors there, their program chair and the other screenwriting professor who’s no feminazi seem to approve of my craft.

This third director is someone I’ve been dying to work with.

Before switching to filmmaking, he had been working in advertising for the most part of his adult life.  Having looted every “big deal” advertising award on the face of the earth, the guy decided to switch industry. 

Just like that, he quit his ECD (Executive Creative Director) job in a 4A agency in Shanghai. He applied and attained his special talent visa (EB1-A) within a month. Then he simply immigrated his family to the US, his wife and their three-year-old daughter. 

I love his personal story as well as the short film he pitched me. Just like that, I landed my third short film project within a month. 

By end of December, I would be able to see him and the first student director in person in Shanghai. Without fearing that I may become cocky or expensive (cocky no; but expensive, for sure), they confessed just how hard it was to find decent writers (let alone good) and they want to keep working with me in the future. Without even seeing his story in my words, the guy said he trusts me and believes that I would do a good job. 

If I had 20% chance to get myself back in the US within a year and half, now that number can at least beat Trump’s latest approval rate. 

But most of all, I love discovering the differences of people’s creative minds. I used to roll my eyes when a director started to describe how he would frame a scene, and how much in love he was with the color, the tone, the mood… “Dude, those are fine, but they don’t help me to move the story forward!!” Now I relish their visual talent which I haven’t yet developed.  

I finally began to appreicate when Prof. Howard Suber told us that film is a collaborative business. Because when the right people meet their right match, things just start to click and work. UCLA helped me make my tool. But these collaborations make a skeleton key out of that tool.  

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Reinforced reality

Two updates buoyed me today. 

  • First, the short film I wrote for this other student director got great reviews from the student’s chair and screenwriting professor, saying that it was lovely and cinematic.
  • Second, the feature director read my rewrite and said, “Great work.” 

Both would require some level of follow-up and touch-up, but I think I can finally conclude that I’m a legit working screenwriter now since I played with the notion roughly four years ago…

Yesterday I was still in the dark of what was going to unfold with these two projects.  I was scared to be exposed as a fraud, that I was sub par of what the feature director was looking for; that the student’s revered department chair and her seasoned screenwriting professor would frown at my speedy but shoddy script. 

But fear no more. I got the right amount of validation I needed. They didn’t come in the shapes of plaques or trophies or human figurines. But those intangible words measure up my “pipe dream” as a screenwriter. 

Just now, I calculated my writing earnings since the sudden halt of my California dreamin’. At this rate, I think I can move back to LA and survive and maybe even thrive. 

My current challenge is:
How shall I take on interesting writing assignments to make a living as a writer while still keep producing my own work, shaping my creative voice and style?

As you may have noticed, I still haven’t shipped my latest episode. It took more time than I am willing to allot to edit each episode. It would mean that I would have to postpone yet another catchup meeting with my old Shanghai friends. It would mean that I need to budget my time and use it with caution. Or it could mean that I need to find an assistant with I have some extra bucks.

Through a podcast friend’s referral, I applied for this Google Podcasts creator program a few weeks ago. Apart from the friends I made through Seth Godin’s podcast summer fellowship, I think this program that markets itself with the keywords like diversity and minority (I am both a woman and Asian – the rare occasion I hit the jackpot) may help my show to get to the next level. 

When I was fretting about the possible disasters of my projects for the last couple of days, my friend pointed out, “Dread or not, you have no control over what others think about your work. But what you can do is a) work as hard as you can; b) get enough work so you won’t cuss about the lost opportunities, the water under bridge.”

Whoever we think we are, whatever we think we can or cannot do, we are reinforcing that notion about ourselves. Just think about it, it goes both ways; it can be either empowering or utterly demoralizing.  And the choice is all ours.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. My own case in point would be: read (almost) any of my blog posts in the summer and you will get an utterly different vibe. It was my reality then. It was my rock bottom.

 

Harvard Material

I was raised to believe that there was such a thing called “Harvard Material.” (Aka. Tsinghua/Beida Material for its Chinese counterpart.)

Kids who are labeled as such breeze through their school years who are more often than not early readers.

From my own and my beloved parents’ recollection, I was none of those above.

I sucked at math – as a Chinese. I watched TV throughout the summer/winter vacations and dashed for the last few days to finish my vacation homework. 

I hated myself. I vowed that this was the last time, that I would never repeat the same mistake ever again. And if I did, I was no better than a dog. 

Spoiler alert: I did for many, many years. 

Then things changed. I changed. I suddenly felt the stake was much higher than I had imagined. My working class folks would never give me the kind of leg up or back door or financial cushion that some parents were able to provide their kids. 

I began grinding. But I didn’t end up in any of these schools that need you to be their material first. I went to an average school. But my hope didn’t end. 

In China, it’s widely believed that if you go to one of those schools, your future is all set. But I never believe a word of it.

By now, I’m confident that most of those former material students are now stuck in lame jobs, their dreams buried in moss.

But then, there are folks who are real Harvard Material. Like Barack Obama, as I’ve just learned through Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. 

Before he was in the Senate, Barack read some six or seven books at the same time, reads two to three newspapers from cover to cover, while keeps a senior teaching position at University of Chicago plus getting an advance to finish a book about his unique background, while raising a family with Michelle. 

I was dumbfounded by the extend of things he was able to get done. I was no less impressed with Michelle. A mother of two young daughters, she held a full time job while rallying for her husband when he decided to run for president… Of course it was a joint effort. But just how they were able to function at their best under pressure is truly something worthy of study. 

I, on the other hand, start to feel the weight of the pressure when I have a number to things to tackle while my mum takes care of my laundry and my dad is the best chef anyone can ask for. 

This evening on time, I sent another student director the first draft of the short script she briefed me two days ago.  The reason I took the gig was because I really liked the simplicity of the story and I didn’t want her to entrust anybody else to write it. But it meant that when I took on the assignment, I would very likely have to delay the shipping date of my podcast. 

By early this morning, I stopped kidding myself that I could actually do both at the same time without composing both. But tomorrow, I will ship the podcast. I envy people like Obama who are not only gifted, but grind day in and day out. When they do succeed, people and the mass media conclude that they are in fact Harvard Material as if that was the basis of every success under the sun.

I beg to differ. To show the world, again, that there’re other decent materials like yours truly, who can and will get there, even though she didn’t go down the obvious path, even though she can’t process information like an Intel chip. 

If I can be anything, I want to be another example of the people who are too late to be Harvard Material, who don’t fit into the pattern of the Success Matrix, who is both woman and Asian… who has a hope, and an undying dream to be something more than her reality through storytelling.

 

Yours truly,
YZ