Now What? How Answering This Question Lead Us to Changing Everything (Part V)
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. In this installment, David writes to Ceda in an update, followed by an update by Ceda.
DAVID — SHIPS IN THE NIGHT
I’ve never missed a single deadline.
I used to be quite, quite proud of this fact coming up as a writer in my twenties. Now, with this monthly piece for The Billfold, we are routinely late. I don’t know if it’s because we aren’t paid all that much for these or a byproduct of how increasingly busy me and Ceda are getting, or some mix of the two. I have a tendency to figure everything is binary — either it’s this or it’s that.
Life is much more nuanced than that. Since we’ve left Chicago, I am remembering this more and more.
Last month we talked about how Ceda and I are making an effort to be less joined at the hip as we were when we first moved. We used to be in our rectangular, spare living room pretty much right after waking up until just before bed — walking three steps away from our dining-room table Jorge built to our respective cramped sleeping quarters.
Now, there are days where we barely see each other.
To wit, I am in Seattle writing my half of this and am hoping Ceda will be able to finish it by the time I touch back down at LAX tomorrow night.
Increasingly, I find myself feeling guiltier and guiltier over some of the stuff that’s been going on with me as it impacts our working relationship. I don’t need to treat The Billfold as therapy, and I really can’t, but part of being in Los Angeles is things will pop up may potentially happen — and the best way to assure they don’t is to blab about it because, well, I’m not sure why. I just know as a freelancer you protect leads and exciting things. And lord knows, in my career, lots of pretty cool things have almost happened that didn’t. I know not to get my hopes up, but I also know to keep my mouth shut. But that’d be a pretty boring Billfold if I just said, “Ah, y’know, nothing’s really goin’ on.” It’d be a lie.
So, I’ve become one of those assholes who brings things up but can’t talk about them, unintentionally.
Well, intentionally. I pushed for some things to happen and I was successful (at least, well, in the initial phases of them). These things, the reason I’m in Seattle, are related and unrelated — indicative of the sort of distance we need for me to do my thing and you to do your thing. I trust the path we’re on together — even if it feels divergent right now — will lead us both somewhere interesting and rewarding.
It’s a roll of the dice, moving to Los Angeles. I know this all sounds really, really vague — but if I didn’t acknowledge here things are happening even in this nebulous way, it would just sound like I’m doing nothing, and that couldn’t be the farthest from the truth. I’m traveling a lot (well, frequently) for work now thanks to a new gig I have.
Sufficed to say, although not much of it has to do with Los Angeles in and of itself, I trust … eh, this is frustrating. I’d be much more forthcoming if I could and if I felt it wouldn’t ruin the arrangement.
The tl;dr: I’m doing a lot of really cool stuff. I feel a little bad about being pulled away from our old routine — but our old routine was also sort of getting in the way of doing our true old routine in Chicago. That is: We work on big-picture stuff together, we break off and do our respective thangs, and then we always keep circling back.
Los Angeles is strange. The meetings. The one we had just before I left for Seattle sticks in my head.
It’s just strange. The way we’re treated like walking checklists with details that must be spoken aloud so whoever can retain it in mind in case they later remember they need:
1. ONE MAN and ONE WOMAN who
2. KNOWS ABOUT SEX MAGAZINES and VIDEO GAMES
3. and WRITE COMEDY
4. BONUS: POTENTIAL MINORITY HIRE
5. BONUS BONUS: WRITING TEAM, SO TWO WORKERS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE
I am grateful for the opportunities we get to have to talk to new and interesting people, and for the fact I have so much interesting and new and exciting work to do. I can’t recall the last time that was the case in Chicago. Truly.
I know we’re supposed to talk about money here and there’s really not a ton for me to say. I’m a single man with one cat with two roommates with decent, steady work. I have some interesting opportunities to perhaps teach again out in Los Angeles, which I’m ambivalent about because the deal I made with myself is to not keep doing what I was doing.
On the other hand, as Ceda and I discussed: We came here to work. Someone told me a while ago — the wife of some guy who I can’t even remember how we got connected — that if you end up even, even remotely working in the area you want to end up in out in Los Angeles, then that is a resounding success. She sort of worked in TV and her husband (who I met first) sort of worked in movies and they left L.A. for New York and I don’t hear from them anymore.
Lately I feel cocky. I don’t want to end up doing something even remotely close to what I want to do — I want to do what I want to do. Isn’t that why we moved? Anyway. These are some of the things.
Mike Dang also wants us to talk about money a lot, which I keep forgetting to do and it makes sense since this site is called The Billfold. For my part, hm. One of my bosses is really cool but is spotty on paying me and requires constant, constant reminders. I get paid a nice amount for the work, but I was left in the lurch for most of my L.A. experience so far — dwindling down most of my checking accounts to I-can-see-the-bottom-of-the-barrel-coming-soon-if-something-doesn’t-happen-fast levels before finally being alleviated with three months’ pay. We’ve struck a compromise where he’ll pay me once a month rather than twice a month since it’ll be less reminding all the way around.
Of course, I want more money. Who doesn’t. Taxes sapped my arrogant freelancer bravado at having a nice number of thousands of dollars in my accounts. Then I had my MacBook Pro — the one Ceda spilled tea on, for those who will remember — start crapping out on me. It got a second life, then died again, and in a panic (I really needed a computer fast with a new gig I alluded to here but can’t elaborate on) I bought a ChromeBook because I loathe loathe loathe Apple now (long story). Then my MacBook Pro got a second life miraculously thanks to the seemingly only sane Apple Store employee in Los Angeles… and now it’s dying out here in Seattle again.
So I’m staring down some sorta-big expenses in the coming weeks. I have a bit more travel, also need to buy a MacBook Air (probably my last Apple purchase), have a $500 work expense that can’t be avoided (that I also can’t elaborate on here … sorry) and that I totally resent though in the long run will be worth it.
Other than expenses, what’s on the horizon for me is an increased effort to try to help others. Not that I was self-centered before, but I am realizing that because of the career I’ve had and the city I’m in, I am able to help people realize there are other ways of doing things — be it moving, trying to change jobs, etc.
A few weeks ago (by the time you read this), I was reminded how awesome it feels to help others when, after a three- or four-hour conversation with one of my old Onion interns (he was in Los Angeles randomly and we got ‘cawfee’), he up and wrote a piece for The Billfold about the latter half of the previous paragraph. I had no idea he was going to write it. I wasn’t pushing him to do anything of the sort. In fact, we largely discussed me, Chicago, and just how awful in general it is to try to survive as a writer — something he avoids.
I also nudged my best friend (who’s going to be a dad soon!) Davis to write a piece for Kill Screen Magazine, a pretty cool publication about videogames that, like me, is getting a second wind after losing its way for a while. Davis excitedly texted me and two other dudes we run a dorky Tumblr with about it. I won’t ever take credit for other people pushing to do something new, but it feels really great to know I helped encourage them.
I’ll try to draw this to a close. I just feel like Los Angeles has reinvigorated me to a point where I would be downright unrecognizable to anyone back in Chicago. I feel fantastic, I love everything that’s going on… and sure I can always be earning more money (and it’s coming, despite taxes and back taxes thanks to shitty freelancing blah blah…) but mainly I just want everyone to feel as lucky as I am.
That’s why I nudged you to start taking stand-up classes, Ceda. How’s all that been going? How’s your April been?
CEDA — Starting to Stand-up
I really really enjoy writing these Billfold columns. At the end of the month, I get a self-assessment of what I’ve done and what I’m going to do. Dear reader, you guys are the milestones in my life. I mean that with all of my project-management dorkiness.
I almost have a routine now. I grab all my expenses from my various credit cards, do a financial tally, cringe for about 20 minutes, and then settle into justifying all of my expenses.
David avoids talking about financial issues, which is opposite of my financial voyeurism. I think it’s fascinating how people spend money. Money is so closely tied to our desires. Why the $15.99/lb for cheese? Does anyone ever really need a hand car wash? Amazon probably has this science down, but not I. Since this is reflection of how I spend money, the column becomes a strange mirror, because I see the total of my expenses, but I’m not sure I understand it wholly. Utilities I understand, but I have an entire category in my expenses called “Amazon,” which is truly an example of how data mining took over my life.
Since it was April in America, I had to do my taxes — did you know that California charges 11% more income tax than Illinois? I should have contracted all my spending by 11% in order to balance out the increase in taxes. How does one make up the 11%? Less fancy cat food? Maybe roughshod toilet paper? Over all this month, I actually came under budget this month. I got my deductible back from my insurance company for the car accident that happened back in December. I’m still debating whether to try to get my shipping cost back, which would require hiring a lawyer, something I still don’t feel adult enough to do yet. I’m also eagerly awaiting my security deposit back from my old apartment in Chicago. With waiting for money to come back, it feels like death by a thousand cuts. We all needed the money, like, yesterday.
Then the second part of the column, of course, is to take an emotional tally of what’s happened in April. For that, I have my calendar, which looks like a Mario Kart maze. We definitely had fewer meetings this month, otherwise known as “generals,” because it’s a first date and we’re all on our best behavior. There’s no specific objective except to see if you click. What happens after a good “general?” I’m never really quite sure. Sometimes, we’ve sent samples. Sometimes, we will offer to collaborate on a project. At this stage, we haven’t said no to a lot projects, because it behooves us more to say yes.
Remember our Chicago podcast with the other writing team? We’ve decided to retool the whole show with a very talented producer that I turned David onto after listening to her story on NPR. David being David, listened to the story, did some digging and reached out to her, and we met for takoyaki and got her onboard. Kathy Tu is going to be our producer, which is going to be very cool because we’ll have a third brain to juggle with. A whole new person to vet our ideas with, with her own experiences and creative energy.
I spent an entire day at the Writers Guild of America’s panel (as a sweet side benefit of being a WGA volunteer), called from First Draft to Final Draft. One of the panel host is a screenwriting mentor of mine, although he doesn’t know that, John August. Even though we’ve had a few Twitter back and forths, seeing that profile picture in real life made me immediately verklempt. This highlights another point of L.A. that’s strange. You can have quasi-relationships with people you’ve never met. But when you meet them, the universe shuffles you back into the “strangers” category. I don’t think anyone has successfully hit it out of the park with opening tweets.
Anyway, the panels were very useful, in emphasizing that people were edified by the same three texts that all screenwriters know (Syd Field, Robert Mckee, Blake Synder). Sometimes, the wisdom of these panels are not immediately obvious. I mean, big heavy names are dropped (Spielberg, Hanks, etc), and we’re all suppose to imagine ourselves on the dais one day. All my fellow volunteers had the same feeling, which is that we should have been writing instead of listening to other people talk about writing. But in truth, we should all be writing better — but I don’t know if one gets better by going through the studio system, or staying outside of it and doing exactly what one wants.
All this internalized writing angst was really going nowhere. I ruminated for a few days and decided to take a stand-up class (also after some heavy hinting from my roommate/columnist buddy). I’m going to be real corny, but as a writing duo, I needed something, other than the obvious physical traits, to distinguish me from David. He had the long career in journalism, and in comparison, I didn’t want my relatively novice experience to be the thing that worked against me. I fear stand-up the same way certain women fear motherhood (scratch that, I fear motherhood too, so I fear two things at about the same level). I had done a few open mics in Chicago and the truism of stand-up is that it can make you feel as high as a kite and then the depth of a pitying silence only the Elephantman can understand.
The main reason I took this particular stand-up class was that Judith Shelton had been Maria Bamford’s coach a few years back. Our friend, who was a Second City Mainstage performer, Kate Duffy, recommended the classes to me. I discovered Maria Bamford through my friend, Elisa, who is also a stand-up. Maria Bamford is off-putting to people who don’t like jokes about mental illness or kooky voices. Which is to say, I fell in love at first sight. Many things had to happen first before I decided I could “do” stand-up. I had to watch Elisa kill in a room and I had really understand why I was so attracted to female comics. They’re such a weird breed of women, who’ve never been comfortable with notions of femininity, and the very form they’ve chosen means that they demand to be heard. The more I sat on the idea of developing my personal “brand” as a writer, the more I realized I needed to be louder, bigger about what I said. So, thank you all of the friends in my life for helping me make this decision.
I spent $250 dollars on stand up classes because I believed that it would help me cut the fat in my writing. Old school comedians don’t believe that stand up can be taught. But they’re the same people who don’t think women are funny, so I’m ok with breaking a few taboos of comedy. There’s no better way to pound out exactly what you’re all about when you’ve only got five minutes on stage in a room of bored comics who are just waiting for their turn. After cramming our faces with honey hodduk, David and I had a conversation about sturm und drang, which is a German Romanticism idea that through great turmoil comes out great art, because he was marveling at all the changes happening in his career after the move to L.A. Stand-up is going to be my sturm und drang.
I can only imagine what’s going to come out of the tail end of this.
A collection of this series can be found here.
They live with her boyfriend and their three cats.
Photo: Ryan Vaarsi