Collaboration

Earlier today, I had a Zoom call with my LA-based collaborator on a new story.

A few days ago, I sent her the first draft.  And now, the real work begins.  That is: rewrite. Since my previous positive experience with other artists, I looked forward to this new project with the story I’m passionate about, and with someone reliable.

It was a really effective meeting. She shared the screen. We looked at our story structure via draw.io, the diagram software tool for making flowcharts.  By the end of it, everything about the story felt clearer and cleaner, from plot to characters, from logic to certain scenes. She would read the script again and highlight the dialogues that she thought are keepers. For me, I need a few more days so I can get some distance from my own words.

I used to do the beat board either on Final Draft or via environment-unfriendly yellow stickies. For some reason, it doesn’ t look as effective as my collaborator’s work on draw.io. I’ll start tinkering with it.

We both felt terrific by the end of the meeting even though there are tons of hard work going forward.  As they say, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Though I wish I’d come around earlier, I’m glad that I’ve finally believed in what I’ve been preaching.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

The day after

My bones are aching. My mind is unfocused. My throat is sore. My neck is stiff…

No, I didn’t run a marathon yesterday. I taught for six hours plus the four-hour commute.

Today I didn’t do much. Although I disliked it, I had to obey the signals from my body. Maybe I just lack training. Maybe my body isn’t used to standing for long hours. Maybe my tongue is shocked to cope with the long period of talking.  Or maybe it’s just that nothing in the face of the earth is ever easy. “Step in my shoes and walk a mile.” I did and now I’m band-aiding the blisters…

I grew a new understanding of something I haven’t done before, a new sense of appreciation for the teachers out there.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

First day as adjunct

I got up at 4:50 this morning to catch the school bus in DTSH. I got there around 6:15. The shuttle was supposed to drive out by 6:50. I’ve got plenty of time. Wrong. It took me exactly 25 mins to find out exactly where the shuttle should be. One bus after another, I tried to locate the right one by asking the drivers. None of them were what I was looking for. I tried to call the driver, who can’t pick up, of course… By 6:46, I gave up. I panicked. I imagined I got fired even before I got on-site. I couldn’t reach anybody else from the college. It’s too damn early otherwise.  But lo and behold, exactly one minute later, my shuttle arrived…

By the time the school bus arrives at the building I teach. My phone reads 8:10.  I checked with one student and she pointed me the one. I’ve got exactly five minutes to dash up three floors in my medium block heels. And I did it in two. But it was the North Side. My class was on the South Side… Time was lenient on me. I got into the other side. And was still one minute before the class started. But I gotta pee. A class of students already packed the room… 

I began to work my way in… Some helper sent in the adapter for my MacBook. Then the sound didn’t work… I called IT… Then he had to pull out the desks on the first row… Then I realized that I ran out of water but I was too thirsty…  Then I realized that my body started to tremble because I decided to dress for the occasion instead of the weather. I assumed that the AC would be hot enough for my kind of LA winter wear… But no, the AC was not on and the class faces north. The sun doesn’t get a chance to sneak in…  Because of the constant chaos, I didn’t give the class any breaks. By the time the class was over, my hands were stone cold.  As for the evening class, I ran into a similar but lesser technical difficulty. But since I got my shares earlier, I developed a better coping mechanism already. These are hardly complaints, because I can’t remember being upset. I accepted the fact and tried to resolve the issue… (Maybe the meditation is working its magic dissolving my Wrath tendency.)

So what about the classes? What are the college freshmen like nowadays? We are more than a decade apart! That’s wild to think about. 

The first class: meh. The students took the class because they were told to and they have to. And they are from other departments. This is just an elective. A student even texted me that he stayed in another classroom for three hours and just realized that it was the wrong classroom. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt earlier but I didn’t give him a easy pass earlier. But now come to think of it, the guy’s too much of a smartass in this day and age with smartphones.  And here’s the thing, even though 80% of the class wasn’t listening. They were playing with their phones during the whole time. I still had a good time with those 20%. I focus on them. I don’t waste my time on the 80%. Like a standup comic stepping into a room full of drunkards, I’m there to entertain the few sober patrons and the bartenders. And it’s a great exercise for my ego too. 

The second class: yeah! The students are there to learn because it’s part of their majors (even though China doesn’t have Screenwriting MFA so to speak). I’m getting used to the silent treatment by the Chinese students. But when asked, they engage. And now, my students (wow, how important-sounding it feels…) are starting to speak up. Bit by bit. Step by step. Apart from the screenwriting basics I shared, two things I felt struck a cord with them as I saw they nod almost in unison. a) Don’t do your homework for me. It’s for you. It’s for the benefit of your future. b) Write less. Not more. Chinese teachers are famous to assign homework that begin with “no less than xxx words.” — so that they have no more words to hide behind. 

I could have ended the class earlier but I didn’t. I remember Jiro, the sushi master’s example. So I didn’t cut my own slacks. I’ve prepared this much and I would go the distance. I asked my students not to cut corners. So I would set my own example. 

We finished right on time at 9 PM. The student applauded enthusiastically for my class. I guess I blushed a little. A sense of recognition I didn’t see it coming.  They shared and compared notes in the WeChat group voluntarily.  I confess that I underestimated these young folks enthusiasm for screenwriting. 

I got home way past 11 PM. And I still feel buoyant. I didn’t know that teaching can be therapeutic… 

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

Attack. Attack. Attack.

I didn’t watch it, because I was still fine-tuning the presentations for my two classes tomorrow.

I did read the results as well as a couple of videos. It bummed me out when I learned that BlacKkKlansman didn’t win anything else other than the Best Adaptation Screenplay.

A Chinese friend texted me and said, “Oh, this year’s Academy Award is not so White – after all.” But excuse me, where is Crazy Rich Asians??? Not a single nomination?

It pains me to see great works like BlacKkKlansman got shunned. Moreover, it infuriates me that Asian filmmakers got shoved off the table. It feels like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act all over again.

Yes, there are more and more colored artists win the Academy Awards. But the wins feels like a calculated move rather than a geneuine colorblind embrace to the creative minds.

When asked how he approaches life as a renowned and established filmmaker even though he never has been had much luck during the Oscar season, Spike Lee replied, “Attack. Attack. Attack. Every. Single. Day.”

Kudos to Spike, I’ve included Do the Right Thing to my students’ Movie List.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

Dear public school teachers

Are all probably starving to death if they play by the book, and stick with the system.

So, I’m still preparing the notes for the Tuesday classes.  Again, I underestimated how much time it’s taking me… Before I agreed to teach, I already knew the pay was going to be petty and pityful. It’s basically is a joke. And the joke turns into a tragedy after the 20% tax. And I thought California’s tax was high. Boy was I wrong.

Anyway, since I’m not doing it for the money, here are my main goals:

  • To hone my skill as a presenter;
  • To refresh and enhance my screenwriting know-how;
  • To talk to more strangers and see what happens;
  • To get a repitorior of materials to reuse elsewhere;
  • To study the younger generation up close;
  • To collect new story materials.

I confess that the joy I get from this teaching gig isn’t terribly high. I have to guard my own writing time ruthlessly so I don’t lose focus.

A a writer, perspective is crucial in creating compelling characters. Right now I’m growing a new perspective as a teacher, and how she actually and really feels about her job, especially as an adjunct professor… A lot of times it’s not that the teacher doesn’t want to teach. She wants to give you all she’s got, she does, but she can’t splurge her time when she has to take on the second, or even the third job to pay bills.

First things first. A man’s gotta eat, you know.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. 20%?!  Socialism my ass.

Tricks to a flow state

I started this new story at the end of January. I thought I could finish the first draft faster. I was wrong, like always. Today I finally forwarded it to my collaborator. I even finished the two outlines for my classes starting next week.

Fear didn’t get in my way or into my head today, or the last few days. So what have I done differently? How can I make more days as good as today? 

Here is my routine as I recall my last couple of week:

I get up in the morning. I have my first glass of water with honey.  I meditate for ten minutes. I have my breakfast with coffee.  Afterwards, I take a 30-40 minutes walk.  I then change to dry clothes.  I drink my tea and I sit down behind my desk. 

Right before I’m able to check my gmail, I use SelfControl app and set a 1.5 hour for the first offline session. I make sure Do Not Disturb is ON so I can’t see any notifications from anything. 

Then the writing begins. I would only get up from my chair if I need more water or need a quick bathroom break. Otherwise, I’d just sit behind my desk and work. 

This way, I clock in around three, four hours of decent writing time. But my stamina is still on the low end.  To paraphrase what Haruki Murakami said in his What I Talk About When I Talk About Running book, writing is like running. The stamina can be improved through training.  I’m confident that I will get better.  Drip by drip.

Here are my tricks to into a flow state:

  • Place the phone in the other room while you’re working.
  • Check email right before lunch and dinner. Remember to close it.
  • Get offline during writing.

When I’m there, those fuckups can’t haunt me, those liars can’t hurt me, those bureaucrats and hypocrites can’t upset me.

Right here, right now, it’s just me and the characters, the world I’m creating.  

It dawned on me the other day that naysayers look fierce exactly because they’re powerless even though they seem to have the power to reject you.  You see, parasite can’t survive without the living.  Gatekeepers can’t exist without us. The artists.  The pros. 

Because we make things. We change things.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

If you ain’t fast, you die.

These days I’m working on a new story. The main character is a first-generation wannabe immigrant. It fascinates me how these people get their footing in a new country – whatever it takes. They’re the antelopes with leopards up their asses.

“If you ain’t fast, you die.” This type of people are locked in the survival mode. They almost always work their whole life and never take a day off and say they enjoy leisure.

I remember hearing this origin story from a Hollywood producer who used to crash at friends’ places when he was a broke upstart. When his offspring works in the same business and in the same office, I can’t smell the kind of drive that made the old man who he is. 

How can you instill that survivor mindset that can only be bred by Mother Nature? Of course, the second generation will still be well-off. But if you want to break out from the shadow of the old man, you either have to be twice as good and hardworking, or you have to find your own drive. 

So here’s the good news for most of us: we can be the first generation of anything.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Learning through action

Next week, I will be teaching two screenwriting courses at an art college. That’s three hours per class. Two classes per week. For a total of 18 weeks.

I will spare my thoughts on how little the school purt it thoughts into the length of these classes. Truth is, very few classes (except writing workshops) I attended at UCLA was longer than three hours…

So what would I teach these freshmen who know little about screenwriting? How would I teach them?

While I’m preparing my notes, I realize how little I thought about what I have learned from my own film school experience probably until now.

Just like I learnt screenwriting by doing. I’m going to learn teaching through 18 weeks of intense teaching.

Like any movie’s inciting incident where the character is met with the opportunity and is left to decide, I accepted the challenge and there’s no backing down now since my name is on the list. We shall see.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Growing pains

There’re too many good habits I’d like to have, like running, like getting up before dawn, like intense writing for three hours daily on average. And yet, other things get in the way. The things that feel so important at the time. The loud, the cute, the shiny…

Here’s my pattern: when I don’t get up at the hour I’ve promised myself, I start cutting myself short for the rest of the day. When I was in LA, I didn’t pay for training once a week, I might not even go to the gym that much even when I lived in Southern California for three years…  I throw in the towel way too early before I hear the whistle blows. 

I’d admit that what feels good at the time never really feels right later, or even right in the moment…  Life gets in the way as it always manages to. For the past two years, I would use my pending visa status as my perfect excuse.  “I can’t sit still for meditation today. I ain’t gonna write because I just don’t feel right.”

My other voice goes: When will you grow the fuck up? When will you evolve to be that person that you set out to be?  And its answer is more urgent than I wanted (“Thanks, but no thanks. Not now.”).

If we have to feel right to do anything, the human race would have gotten zero stuff done.  It takes a committed leader to claim independence against Great Britain; a single mom of three kids to rise early even when she’s just had three hours of sleep; a tennis champion to start practising her strokes again after she just won the Wimbledon Grand Slam the day before… 

To me, the ‘ruthless’ professionals are like an entirely different species, whom I’ve admired all my life.  It probably explained why I bawled my eyes out watching Jiro: Dreams of Sushi some five years ago at a time when I grilled myself every night about the meaning of my own existence. 

CUT TO: Five years later. Now. I’m living the dream as a working writer. And yet, the residue of my old self lingers in my veins like that of a recovering addict. I can’t seem to drain it out of my system just yet without serious upshots.

I want to be a world-class pro to earn that R.E.S.P.E.C.T.  It’s how Rocky became the Rocky we cheer for. And it’s why people eulogize Lagerfeld when he passed away at the age of 85 yesterday.

Maybe secretly I still fear of missing out on my wannabe-queen-bee social life. Maybe I still want to be loud now just because it feels good to hear people notice that you exist… I know those cravings are fading, but they’re still lurking in the darkness of my subconsciousness. 

To quote that line which is on the brink of becoming a cliche: If not now, when?
So yeah, what the fuck am I waiting for? My own death?

I’ve got the bullet.
Time to pull the trigger.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Half-and-half

I’m your glass half empty gal, the gal who points out the emperor has no clothes on, and the same gal who demands to talk about the elephant in the room. 

Optimists would say: you have a brilliantly critical mind. But the truth is, it makes me miserable.

More often than not, I dread that one year, or God forbid, two years after I return in the States, I’d have to build my friends and my life from ground up. Just like what I’m (not really) trying to do here in Shanghai to re-enter the lives of my old pals.

Today I’ve got birthday wishes from friends in Shanghai and back in LA without doing any “social media marketing.” I used to think little of birthday wishes. And guilty as charged, I don’t give enough of those. But today being on the receiving end, it warms my heart, especially when I think I’m left alone and cast away.

The idea of drinking from the half-full glass isn’t such a bad idea after all. 

 

Much love from yours truly,
YZ