Now What? How Answering This Question Lead Us to Changing Everything (Part IV)
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.
Everyone seems to have a way of summing up Los Angeles.
It doesn’t matter if they’ve never stepped foot in California or if they’ve lived there all your life: Everybody just knows. They’re so sure they’ve got it succinctly summed up.
Mine is this: “Los Angeles is a clothesline of the surreal.” Ceda defers to mine, but we tend to think alike a lot (Obviously — we got in the car and left our old hometown together; it’s a given we’ll agree from time to time).
We’re getting to the point in our journey — or whatever you want to call this — where I think we’re actually starting to become friends and allies. Not just partners. We’re realizing how lucky and unusual we are as a pair.
This was a month where I think we — or at least I — grew up a lot. We’ve been here long enough to form strong opinions about stuff, like how we’re spending our time. We got sick of asking people for advice and are getting savvier about reading what people aren’t saying; about wondering why people are meeting with us: two people who really haven’t done much yet.
This may be our most rambling entry yet. We’ll try to keep it to the point, and as always — thanks for reading. — David
FORMING OPINIONS ABOUT THINGS
David: Last month I said I’d give an update about San Francisco and the Game Developer’s Conference. I don’t want to get into a ton here because I’ve already written a few thousand words for it over at Unwinnable. This is a tremendous cliché, but what I saw and experienced in S.F. changed me. As my piece for that burgeoning publication said: I had low expectations for GDC. But then again, I have low expectations for much of the entertainment industry. We didn’t move to L.A. because it was low-hanging fruit (although we say it was the most obvious choice for us to make, it was still a lengthy, months-long conversation we had), but because we’d rather try something new and see what happens than stick to what was safe and predictable.
In doing so, we established a pattern. We’re both 31, and to outsiders it can look like we’re panicking about our course in life — that we’re “going through something.” Before I wrote for this series I thought, “Well, okay. I’m sick of doing all the stuff I used to do, so what would settling at this point look like? What’s the easy way out now?”
I realized settling looked a lot like what many of my games-media brethren who gathered up in San Francisco were doing. I could tell some of them felt sorry for me that I wasn’t writing at X blog or Y site. I turned my back on writing about games because it pays so little; they thought I no longer had love for the medium. I was just trying to survive and earn more as a freelance writer. Isn’t that what we all want?
In Chicago, I was so far removed from those people and those things that I was never really confronted with processing those feelings. In San Francisco, it was right in my face and I stared it right in the face and realized: Good. I don’t want to fit in with these people.
I saw writers in San Francisco do incredibly childish things (pick on a homeless guy, pry a controller out someone’s hand) that made me realize: Shit. The reason I don’t fit in is because I’m a man. And I think you noticed when I came back — there’s a different air about me.
Ceda: Yeah, I think you came back with way more chutzpah about what we were here to do. I had been entrenched in doing the first draft of our spec, basically living in the world of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” with you before you left. Readers who have been following this column will know that we decided to work on a spec in order to qualify for the many diversity fellowships that could put us into a TV writer’s room. While we were apart, I got some distance to just write after we completely broke out story. (To you non-writers, that is a good thing: We charted out every scene, plot, and so forth in meticulous detail color-coded spreadsheets for maximum hilarity.)
It was good to get some distance to do writing too.
The breathing room was good. I threw myself in, got on a schedule of doing five pages a day and rewriting the previous day’s pages so it actually felt like I was shaping something. I resisted the temptation to complain about script problems to you, because I just wanted to hack this thing thoroughly and see it through myself while you were out of town working.
David: Yeah, I think I sensed something was off about our process before I left because I realized we weren’t this lockstep with each other back in Chicago. We gave each other space, broke stories, and you’d write the first draft. I sensed we were getting in each other’s way by being around each other so much, and I was glad I had the trip coming up because it let us experiment with pushing stuff forward independently.
Ceda: And when you got back, basically waving this war-on-the-status quo machete, I was a little surprised. But not in a bad way.
We were locked in a pattern of grinding away at pilot ideas and fellowship deadlines because we were convinced that these were the samples we needed. I mean, nobody really knows what the industry will buy. That’s why there’s this whole cottage “script consulting” industry out there. I just remember the phrase, “A pilot, a multi-cam spec, a feature” and clutching onto those three things like they were the holy grail. Some perspective has allowed me to loosen my white-knuckle grip on those goal posts. We don’t NEED a multi-cam spec. It’s not in our voice and we’d probably write a terrible one. And you came back and was like, “We should stop trying to be some other version of ourselves.”
David: I think it’s just that I got over being polite or holding myself back. That’s a very Midwestern thing, right? You don’t want to bother anyone. Even in our dealings with each other, I didn’t want to be an imposition on you with rides even. And we’re supposed to be partners.
Chicago had sort of beaten me down near the end. I was pretty depressed about everything. I felt like there were just roadblocks to doing anything and everything I wanted. To even taking the first steps there. I’ve said this before, but I had reached the glass ceiling for white males. By the time we left, I was writing for lots of big-name places (had been for most of my twenties), I was teaching interesting classes (for two years), but none of it was “filling my tank,” (also for two years) as I had put it. Then I tried to climb higher, or at least explore what else might be possible with everywhere I was working.
I was having meetings with artistic directors, senior editors, and whoevers at lots of places. Respected, esteemed places. Places people sink a lot of years in their lives in to climb as high as I had.
What I heard from all of them were creative twists on the word “no” to my asking to do more.
And that was the other fucking problem I had: I was asking for permission.
So we had to walk away. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Going out every night at GDC and interacting with people made me realize we need to take more advantage of Los Angeles — to go out. Also, we demonstrated to ourselves that are we both adults by finishing our awesome “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” spec in the week we were apart. We showed ourselves that we can work as a team even when we’re not joined at the hip. In fact, we probably work better that way.
I know I said this was going to be shorter and I’m going on a huge tear here, but I credit you, Ceda, with encouraging us to move, with encouraging us to do this for Billfold (I swore I was done freelance writing), because in the process you have swayed me into writing about myself. It’s not something I’ve done much before. Going up to San Francisco and having the experiences I did, I feel like I finally have something to say or at least clarity on who I am and how I want to carry myself.
And part of figuring out what I got clarity on is that I realized nobody in Los Angeles knows what they’re doing. That’s the great secret. We didn’t move to L.A. to tick some checkboxes and write X spec or Y pilot. We came here to be ourselves and give ourselves permission to get around opportunities. So we wrote our spec, and we wrote our pilot, and we’re finding our voice. More importantly, we’re doing what we truly want.
I’m more excited about writing with you tomorrow, for figuring what our next weird thing. I feel like that will be our first truly good — not great — thing together. And that’s what we came here to do. The rest will figure itself out so long as we stay true to ourselves, not what some dude at some networking event or some has-been or burnout thinks would be the best use of our time. Then again, you fucking crushed it with some good networking, too, while I was gone.
Ceda: Hah, the good thing about networking in L.A. is that it’s de riguer. If you’re not doing it, you’ll never digi-evolve from Squirtle to Wartortle. Instead of that awkward Midwestern, “how-do-you-do-what-do-you-want-from-me,” in L.A. it’s a little bit more organic.
We have reached a point in our meetings and networking magics that we can sort out who will be useful and who won’t be. I come out of some meetings and I feel completely burdened by information. Not necessarily in a good way. I didn’t want to know gossip about X director or Y actor. I feel like the relationships that are going to work out aren’t those casual ones where we kind of feel icky about the person. I mean, to really get any where, to actually have people vouching for us as team, we’re going to need heavy duty relationship artillery.
A friend recently said, “Networking is being authentic with another person. And if you’re genuinely connecting to each other as your real self, then that’s a real relationship.” Those meetings, where I come out a bit more depressed about the world, aren’t the people I think could be in our camp. I’m gradually trying to resist panicking at every new bit of information I learn. My new thing now is trying to figure out why people tell me the things that they do. Is it to impress me? Is it to shake me off the trail of their new project? Is it to Shanghai me into doing free work?
David: Why do you always have to make everything a Chinese thing?
Ceda: I’m going to make money from being Chinese.
David: We both are. To our evil plan!*
David: But I think what you said is particularly apt. Between my network of contacts and your, alas, “diversity” angle, we are able to entice all sorts of interesting and uninteresting people to meet with us. People talk about L.A. like they understand it without having been here. “Meetings” are not anything special.
It’s just setting a time and a date to chat. What isn’t being said is that its true purpose is, “Hey, you may have something I want and vice versa. Let’s figure out what that is.” I had been bitching at you last month that I was so tired of meetings and talking about myself, and I think post-S.F. I realized what I was tired of was being polite and us not really being ourselves. We would write these stupid little emails after each meeting: “Thank you so much Mr. Blah Blah for your time. [Awkward joke].” That isn’t us. That isn’t you. It certainly isn’t me. Not being ourselves does ourselves a huge disservice. We had been trying to figure out what our “hook” is as a team, and we thought and thought and thought about it but couldn’t figure it out when it was abundantly obvious.
I was a teacher at Second City, you were a student. I was an editor at The Onion, you ran your own sex zine. I’m a white guy, you’re an Asian woman. We aren’t dating. We like making absurdist, oddball references but also enjoy fart jokes. We’re weird. We fit in well in Chicago when we weren’t truly being ourselves, and we really stand out here when we are being ourselves. So no wonder we couldn’t suss it all out. Right?
I think that’s another part of what I found so frustrating about Chicago — nobody seemed to want my ambitious mojo junk. I think it turned them off. We often joke the reason we work so well together is probably the same reason nobody else wants to work with us, but in the last month I’ve successfully encouraged my friend Davis to pursue starting an arcade as he wanted to, you to get back into freelance writing and stand-up as you said you’ve wanted to, and another friend out here to give PR another go. I worry I am interfering with other people’s lives, but I find it is far more rewarding to just put my energy into things and people that want them.
Ceda: I think what you’re saying is that you want to be where you’re wanted?
David: Of course. We all want that. And last month my old boss at NBC Chicago joked: “David, you went L.A. a long time before you left Chicago.” And people say stuff like that. But I sure don’t know what that means and I don’t think they do, either. Do you? What is “going L.A.?” Seeing yourself in the mirror and wanting to look back on a life you’re proud of? Trying instead of playing it safe?
Ceda: So that’s one of the many reasons that we pivoted in the trajectory of the projects we’re doing. Be where you’re wanted is more in the forefront now. Remember in the last few months when we mentioned that we had been taking YouTube classes? Sounds mysterious? It should be. Even Google doesn’t really know what makes a video an Internet hit. There’s a ton of jargon around watch time, viewership, and thumbnails but it really just boils down to “Miley Cyrus Parody with Donkeys HERE!!!” It made me realize we were spending our energy where our audience isn’t. Our audience isn’t between the ages of 12–18, watching four hours of YouTube a day. I know that we make strange and very heavily written comedy. I pinged you one day and suggested that we submit to one of the many shorts festivals around. I knew it wasn’t a huge audience, but I knew it was going to be an audience that actually cared. You can’t cash in chips at a place that won’t take ’em. And that’s my feelings about YouTube.
David: Okay, so what are we really talking about here? We’re talking about calming down, focusing inwards, and ignoring what everyone else is saying and trusting our own voice. In this series we historically haven’t talked much about money because, well, we’re adults who have been able to have jobs we’ve taken with us so money is rarely an issue. It’s one of many great luxuries we have that affords us a fantastic amount of flexibility and support for this air of entitlement I think we’re broadcasting thicker than a gorilla’s back hair.
Ceda: Except, I totally have a money thing this month.
David: Oh yeah, that thing. Compared to the week I had, which is an opposite potential problem for us.
Ceda: I found out on last Friday that there was going to be a ton of layoffs, or “reducing headcount” is the corporate-speak. Spoiler alert, I was not fired. But it immediately made me rethink what would happen if I were. Some part of me wondered if I wasn’t a little disappointed that I still had my job. There are benefits to being fired from a massive corporation. You get a severance and at least six months of unemployment which could, combined with my savings, allow me to the freedom to look for the assistant job of my dreams.
David: Which is part of what I came back from San Francisco wondering, Ceda, what are the ways we’re holding ourselves back from everything this city has to offer? Sure, we came here to work, and maybe not to make friends. But I’ve made friends here already, as have you. A night we stay inside is a night we miss something that could be fortuitous for our careers or just something for fun’s sake. You know, fun. Something people do.
Ceda: Yep. That was the night you were like “Let’s get out of our shit-hole apartment,” and then we spontaneously decided to catch a comedy show at the Nerdmelt. And then, unexpectedly, we saw Zach Galifianakis, Anthony Jeselnik, Hannibal Buress, and Doug Benson all in the same line up. It was ridiculous and reminded me why we needed to be in L.A. It’s not just proximity. It’s experience and inspiration wrapped up together.
David: If you lost your job, what do you think you’d do differently? It’s weird to ask you this question publicly, but seriously. What would you do? I’ve had two, or three, big things suddenly plop into my lap by virtue of being freelance for so long and they all excite me greatly. I hate to withhold what they are because it’s kinda douchey but I honestly can’t — yet — announce them. But they’re coming, soon, and I worry they will pull me away from what we came out here to do. I worry you’ll feel I’m abandoning you for what we came out here to do. But then I remember, well, we never really specifically pinned down what we came here to do. Write? We’re doing it for The Billfold, so mission accomplished from day one, right?
Anyway, I ramble on. What would you do if you had the freedom I have right now?
Ceda: I definitely wouldn’t look for another corporate job. I think I might throw myself, in earnest, into the assistant pile because it would be more strategic. First, it would allow one of us to just be working inside the industry. Second, mama needs to feed her cats. Because of this financial wake-up call, I made an adult decision today. I decided that I would not go to the three weddings I was invited to last week: one was in upstate New York; one in Detroit; one in the South of France. I crunched those numbers, and those numbers were hideous. I had to make a call. I couldn’t just choose one to go to because what if my tight-knit circle of friends find out? Will my friends love me even if I don’t go to the so-called “biggest” event in their life? I think so. I have to take that chance, because I really can’t be out $3,000 dollars and struggling to find work. I think my real friends will have to understand. In the mean time, I’m going to send them all my love and really nice wedding gifts.
David: It’s so weird — my favorite word — to think I’m among that group of “real friends” now because we really don’t know each other all that well. I also feel like nothing in life is all that linear, and that the new opportunities being afforded to me will, in the long run, benefit both of us. I feel like we will succeed, but I don’t know what success will look like. And that’s good enough for me today. And, to me, that’s all that matters. I don’t care if it sounds cheesy or obvious. At least it’s the truth.
A collection of this series can be found here.
They live with her boyfriend and their three cats.
Photo: Ryan Vaarsi
*champagne glasses clink.