Now What? How Answering This Question Lead Us to Changing Everything (Part III)

by Ceda Xiong and David Wolinsky

This is a series that follows two Chicago writer-producers as they try to make it in Los Angeles.

You guys. It’s raining! WETPOCALYPSE 2014 is currently demolishing the Los Angeles area with rage-geysers of precipitation. Water is falling from the sky. We’d go to Smart & Final to stock up on supplies, but the roads are closed and we have no power so can’t even get our parking-lot gate to open. Should we resort to cannibalism? Should we eat one of the many typhus-ridden cats parading our apartment complex?

All hyperbole aside, legitimately, people lose their shit in L.A. when it rains. And it’s been raining a lot since we got here. Moreso this past week. It won’t let up, and it takes a toll on Angelenos. It hasn’t really impacted us, but over the last few days we’ve noticed people complain regardless. They were upset that there was a drought, and now they’re upset it’s over. It’s almost as if we’re hardwired to just gripe about things however they are, even though when stuff changes, it can change for the better.

Not that the weather is our biggest update this month, but an unimpressive spritz stopping a city in its tracks is a fitting metaphor for how we as a species act in moments of doubt and uncertainty.

As Chicagoans, a simple rainstorm is an annoyance you live with. To our new neighbors and friends, it was cause to freak out and not leave home. It didn’t make any sense, but, as this whole series points out, we are not from here. So, of course, we act and think differently. Not better. Just differently.

I’m reminded of watching Wile E. Coyote try to outrun a train as a kid and wondering: “Why doesn’t he just take one step to the side and get off the tracks?” It’s easy to use rational thought when you’re not in the throes of a difficult situation yourself. When you’re in it, all you can do is keep pushing forward and do the best you can.

That’s an ominous start to this update but sufficed to say: Shit’s been changing and we’re just pressing on since there’s no other choice.

Growing Together or Apart

David: Well, I have cancer!

Just kidding. (But my dad does, so it’s okay for me to joke about that. Wait, he’s in remission, so I do still get this joke immunity?)

Ceda: I also have a cancer dad. It’s another friend point! Also, our next pilot just wrote itself.

David: Everyone thinks our living situation — three people, three cats — is a sitcom.

Ceda: It’s only a sitcom if the cats talk. Like in Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

David: Okay, well, if we harp on our cats further, we’ll have lost all the melodramatic goodwill we built up in the intro text. We worked hard on that, people. But, when left to our own devices, Ceda and I will always talk about our cats. Let’s stop that.

This week we got an email from our podcast collaborators back in Chicago that they’re bowing out of the show we’ve been doing together since the day in late November we mailed our stuff out here. I wasn’t particularly shocked when we got this break-up note from them (they cited unforeseen general busyness, which is an odd thing to point to to people who uprooted their lives and careers), but it was a curveball we weren’t actively expecting and it’s something we have to address because for me, being transparent about what’s going on out here in L.A. with anyone who’s interested is important. This blogging is a part of that. There’s no real guidebook we knew of that lays out what the hell goes on out in L.A. when you come here, and having to figure out how we’ll keep this ball in the air while I’m juggling tons of other stuff is, well, annoying and frustrating. Plus I’m disappointed to see some new friends flake out, but the reality of the situation is we didn’t know our podcasting partners all that well before we left. This sort of thing just happens.

Ceda: I was a little more surprised. I thought things were plugging along just fine.

Even since before we left, David and I have been talking with them about us doing “minisodes” where we’d interview other working writers and writing partners in Los Angeles about their process. We revisited this in February, and actually started doing some interviews, in part to combat the frequent reschedulings our Chicago collaborators requested for our standing every-other-Friday recording dates. For us, it was not a big change, since we’re out meeting with people all the time anyway. I wonder, though, if this made our Chicago team feel out of the loop or less relevant. To me, the podcast always seemed like a great tool for getting ourselves and our pitches out there, and also a real-time litmus test for how Midwesterners react to the things we’re learning. It became a useful thing to point to whenever we had meetings with other writers. But without that usefulness being explicit to the Chicago team, I think their decision makes more sense.

David: So, neither of us expected our podcasting partners to change course after two months. And it isn’t a big deal ultimately, but, symbolically, it makes me look at us and wonder: Will we change our minds about all this tomorrow? Today? This is stupid to say at my relatively young age, but we’ve talked about our mutual ambition and risk-taking, and I honestly feel like I have no other choice in my life at this point than to do what we’re doing here. Was I going to stay in Chicago and keep only freelance writing? Was I going to keep teaching people how to succeed at the things I want to chase more fully myself? In what sense is that a meaningful, rewarding life that takes me closer to achieving my full potential? What message does that send to my students? To myself?

So, they may have bowed out (good luck with everything guys — sincerely, no hard feelings at all and good luck with Ronnie!), but I have to keep moving because bailing isn’t an option. I’ve had a couple people reach out to me in the last month (former students, etc.) saying, “Hey, I’m thinking of giving the L.A. thing a try. Do you know of any jobs out there?” Shit doesn’t work like that here, and we’ve met with some people in the last month (like winners of network-writing fellowships) that gave a lot of weight to the fact that if you are chasing this, you have to chase this with everything. It’s such a cliché to say, but clichés are clichés for a reason. So long as we’re throwing clichés down, another one of my favorites is: The only constant is change. People will enter and leave your life, but you can’t let that slow you down or keep you from pushing forward. God. I wish we were writing about something lighter like cancer or talking cats again. Can we go back a few paragraphs?

Ceda: You said already, we gotta keep moving forward. Clichés might be useful, but they’re generalizations. They’re guiding stars. What we need are GPS directions on how to actually get into a writer’s room. No one can agree on what the right thing to do is. It’s so strange for me to be in the bushes because I always thought I knew what the “right” things were (like pursuing medical school in college, or like avoiding business school more recently). Out here, there’s no “right” thing — almost anything can hit and you can be staffed or have sold a pilot in your first week in L.A. How do you balance those crazy expectations?

I’m constantly getting contradictory information. I’ve been told that I need to start in the mailroom of an agency. I’ve been told that being a personal assistant to a celebrity is also a great way to get in. In the last 24 hours, we’ve been told, “Definitely be an assistant. It’s the only way up.” And then last night, “Never be an assistant. It’s a waste of time and you’ll never get anywhere because they see you as the coffee boy/girl.”

David: I hate hate hate advice. I’ve gotten so much of it, and I know you have as well, and now we’re getting it together. I’m fairly certain most advice you hear is just people projecting onto you what they wished they had done at that age, at that point in their career — it so rarely has anything to do with you anyway. Even if it did — is someone else’s guess really going to be more accurate than your own? Why?

And so many factors mitigate how well you are able to communicate your situation. Are you confident? Do you have enough perspective on who you are and where you want to go? Everyone wants to hear what your deal is, but not what your baggage is. In L.A., you need tons of pitches. You need a pitch for what brought you out here. You need a pitch for yourself: Where do you want to head? You need a pitch for your work: What sort of stuff do you do? You need a pitch for your year: What’re you doing and how will that help you next year? And finally, you need some sort of pitch for your non-work life: What makes you interesting? Flail or stumble at any of this and, guaranteed, they’re not even really talking to you, but their misinformed version of yourself.

Ceda: I describe this as a constant soft-shoe that you and I do in front of potential employers or potential collaborators. It never stops. I had a sales job right out of college, selling ads for a newspaper, and I hated it with a passion. I thought it was dishonest to promise something you couldn’t guarantee. But now, I have to sell myself and I better believe in myself. And unlike my cats, I can’t show my soft pink belly to strangers.

David: The older you get, the sooner you realize everyone’s in fuckin’ sales, man. We resist it when we’re younger and try to act like it isn’t true. No, I’m an artist. I’m creative. I’m funny. I’m interesting. And I’m not into selling myself. If you aren’t into selling yourself, then you know who’s going to get bought into and snatched up? Someone who is. That simple. It’s easy when you’re a teenager to call someone a sellout, but when you have to pay the rent, boy does your tune change. I feel like we’re off on a cathartic rambling mess here, which probably more reflects how comfortable we are operating in a state of confusion, curveballs, and cats! (Had to go for the alliteration.) To clarify, though: We didn’t come to L.A. to “find ourselves,” but we are finding we have to find our hooks and talking points — whether it’s the stuff we’re writing, the things we want to talk about with other people, or even how we spend our rare evenings socializing. Right?

Ceda: Is it exhausting? Kind of? But also really exciting.

David: I’ve been griping to you a lot about how tired I am. But that was before I found out you’ve been napping.

Ceda: Winston Churchill napped.

David: Cats nap. Humans work themselves to death and then blog about it. Advice can’t save us and shortcuts can’t save us. This sounds extremely dumb and cheesy, but the only shortcut is to work really, really hard. We only know what we know, and running around constantly doubting ourselves isn’t going to do anyone any good. Least of all, ourselves. For now, we are living in a perfect cage of work, as I call it, because we have the license to spend our time doing anything we want to do. We are choosing to avoid assistant jobs (not that they’ve really been offered — though I came close before we moved here) and other avenues because we’ve been told we have a decent shot to try to get in as writers.

At the same time, I think once we have “enough” scripts in place, we can loosen up somewhat and try different approaches. For those keeping score at home, this is the third time in as many months that we have shifted our plan. Each time, we are so sure it is the last time we’ll have to adjust.

Ceda: We’re like Bond villains with bad short-term memory.

David: Wait, does that make Billfold readers all James Bond? Are they going to exploit the weaknesses in our plan after we leave to pet our cats?

Ceda: I just know that Billfold readers are extremely handsome. And promiscuous.

David: I thought it was named after Ben Folds’ brother.

Where were we. Uh, yeah. There are two ways of looking at our shifts: We can claim defeat or we can own our option to adapt. I suppose there is value in advice and us being a team because we discuss whether someone was spewing bullshit, or we don’t want to end up like them, or if we flat-out just didn’t connect with them or what they had to say.

It’s not about who’s right or what the right thing is to do. It’s about having our bases covered so we can continue to grow ourselves. We chose to leave Chicago, and in doing so we dove into uncertainty, into questioning, and into a number of new challenges. We are definitely not feeling sorry for ourselves or feeling lost, per se. It is good to have shit to figure out because in Chicago that was not the case. We had it figured out there.

Ceda: Right. Life was easy in Chicago. I knew where I would be exactly 10 years from now if I stayed in Chicago. I’d be doing improv. Maybe I’d make an awesome team. And without a doubt, I have no idea what’s happening in L.A.

David: Yeah, I sort of said that up above. We left certainty for uncertainty. Maybe there’s a reason there is no guidebook for this city. It’s dumb luck. It’s talent. It’s perseverance. It’s delusion. L.A. is a bunch of contradictions, but so is life. People like to say L.A. crushes dreams, but it just smashes unrealistic expectations. Isn’t that a good thing?

Ceda: So more The Player and less A Star is Born. I guess this means we have to give into our inner mendacious Tim Robbins and kill our Judy Garland wide-eyed optimism.

David: I’m gonna give everyone a few seconds to go to Wikipedia on that one.

Ceda: I think David Lynch had it right when he made Hollywood into a place of shadows and cowboys.

David: Los Angeles is not a magical place. We have a zip code here. Power bills. Noisy neighbors. There’s a temptation to get swept up in the fantasy that good things happen for no reason to nobodies who lucked into them. Luck doesn’t exist. It’s the intersection of attitude, circumstances, and experience. The scariest thing of all is you can only control one of those: attitude.

Ceda: Just a week ago, Gawker’s Cord Jefferson got a job in TV! The link baity headline would be “bloggers breaking into television! But the far more truthful answer would be that Cord Jefferson has been a journalist for years, has a literary agent, and already did all that heavy lifting of networking and great writing samples that you have to do to get in the door anywhere.

David: At the risk of making this bloated missive even bloatier, I think something to go out on is batting around this idea I had a few weeks ago: Breaking in as a writer should be this confusing and challenging. There’s no reason anyone should give you a job unless you’ve proven yourself. It’s a privileged place we shoot from, with no real financial burdens, our health, and the flexibility from our day jobs to be done and ready to start our second jobs at 2 p.m. A lot of this might’ve sounded whiny, but, really, we’re just figuring shit out. There’s a reason this is called “Now What?” and not “OK We Understand Everything Perfectly And Maybe We Should Think Of A More Succinct Back-Up Name? I Just Think It’s Sort Of Wordy As-Is, Don’t You, Ceda?”

People: We’re confused but figuring it out. Or at least telling ourselves that’s what we’re doing. My main hope is that, sincerely, this helps another person have a less bumpy entry than we’re having. Although, honestly, I think we’ve done a ton in not a lot of time and have noticed people seem surprised when we tell them we’ve only been here three months. We really need to stop talking about our cats, though.

Ceda: So aside from all this headiness, we did get a few things done this month. We had a successful meeting with a YouTube talent agency and ended up pitching an idea to them even though they said they weren’t hiring creatives. We’re nearing the end of our first spec for Brooklyn Nine-Nine. We discovered which fellowship program actually sounds like a great, exciting fit for us. And my food plug of the month is steamed dungeness crab (mixed with rice in the shell) on Redondo pier. Do it.

David: Speaking of, since we’re getting into so much nitty-gritty, let’s get transparent about money stuff. You go first, because I have very little to share on that front.

Ceda: So, I finally counted all my expenses for February and it turns out, surprise, I spend a lot of money on food. On groceries, I did about $303.01. That’s probably also because I treat grocery stores like a lab, instead of budgeting like a normal person. Seeing that whole number is making me reflect a bit. I think I can save $100 bucks a month if I were more careful about what I was buying. We had a lot of meetings this month. So our restaurant bill between drinks, coffees, and lunches for the month was $180.03. I feel like this expense is pretty unavoidable. You need a reason to meet in a public space, and most of those places outside the home have a cost. And it would be super-creepy to invite people for tea all the time at your apartment. Any suggestions for low-cost meetings, Billfold readers?

David: Let’s see. Last month my credit cards got fucked up by my own purchases and then Citibank deigned to make my life even more miserable by canceling my replacement cards due to the Target thing in December. I’ll walk you through the logical loop-de-loop Citibank has subjected me to: I told Citibank, “Hey, I’m moving.” To which they said, “No problem. People move all the time.” Then when I started making purchases out here, they thought it was someone else. Then I got replacement cards. Those replacement cards were then unceremoniously canceled without any notification whatsoever — when I talked to them, they explained my replacement cards had been compromised by the Target thing. That’s right: Credit cards Citibank issued after the Target scam were somehow compromised. In all, I am opting to take this as an opportunity to just stop using my credit cards altogether and pay with cash whenever possible. It’s an idea I actually got poking around on The Billfold this last month, and I prefer it if only because it allows me to pay down my cards and unable to ever add more to them.

Also, on top of that, someone (let’s call her Peda) spilled tea on my laptop, so that’s a sizable expense I’ll be looking forward to addressing this month in the magical land of Los Angeles. Having had this crap from my bank and a couple freelance checks delayed coming in and then being without a computer has had me feeling particularly legless lately. It’s hard to feel secure when you’re without access to your credit cards, don’t have checks to deposit, and don’t even have your own computer to write on.

Ceda: Think of this as my way of getting you a new laptop.

David: Whatever. All these setbacks are ultimately trivial in the big picture. Just gotta keep moving on.

A collection of this series can be found here.

Ceda Xiong and David Wolinsky are newly Los Angeles-based writers and producers and the co-founders of Now What?, a collaborative online channel that helps people create funny stuff for the Internet.

David created Second City Chicago’s Humor Writing for the Internet program, helped The Onion take its local sections online as the Chicago city editor, and is a video producer for E3. Ceda has freelanced for publications such as Venus, McSweeney’s, and Nerve. They live with her boyfriend and their three cats.

Top Photo: Ryan Vaarsi