How An Action Legend, A Lit Professor, and a Serious Playwright Gave Me Confidence As A Writer
Writing for television and film can be like exposing your raw skin to a salty breeze. It can sting like the dickens. When your comic dialogue falls flat, dread can weigh you down like an anchor of doom. When your show gets cancelled, it can feel like that the network has cancelled your soul. You begin to wonder if you have been fooling yourself all these years, labouring under a delusion that you’re some kind of creative artist. When people are saying no to you, as a writer, what can you do?
I know what I do. I remember what a Literature Professor, a Serious Playwright, and a veteran Hong Kong Action Legend actress once told me.
My students were always surprised when I tell them I had no formal education in film. They were even more surprised when I told them I had an Honors degree, not in screenwriting, but in Physics. While I was trying to decipher the intricacies of quantum mechanics, I was also writing short plays on the side. I was back then and still am a fan of the playwright Neil Simon. I was drawn to Simon especially because he managed to pull off the most difficult task for a comedy writer. He made dramas funny. He made you laugh and he made you cry. He was not just a joke writer, even though he could dash off one-liners. He plumbed the depths of the human condition and made you feel. And I thought it was magical. The way he put together dialogue that played your emotions like a harp. I wanted to try my hand at it. So when I saw a notice for a SHORT PLAY COMPETITION, organized by NUS-SHELL, I took part. Wrote a short murder comedy piece just for the hell of it. To my surprise, it won a consolation prize. That encouraged me. So when the competition came around again, I sent in another play. This one scored a third prize. I was aghast. What was going on? I could not believe it. I looked up one of the judges and found out that she was a Professor of Literature. in the Arts Faculty. She kindly agreed to meet with me. I asked her what she saw in the plays. What happened next was interesting. She began pointing out certain elements in the writing, telling me that I was using this technique and that, all of which I had NO CLUE AS TO WHAT SHE WAS TALKING ABOUT. All I did before I wrote the play was to read a Neil Simon play back to front and front to back. Absorb as much of the Simon vibe before I let loose on the page. What the Professor made me realize then was that subconsciously I knew the rhythms of writing before I was even a writer.
It meant that I had it in me. Whatever it was, I had it.
Early in my writing career, I was worried that my writing was too frivolous. I thought I should be attempting serious stuff, if I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. Much of my writing then was done to either tickle, scare or thrill you because I was deathly afraid of boring the reader. I aspired to write serious plays, like Euripides and Sophocles. Those were the Big Boys Of Serious Drama. Which was why I decided to sign up for a playwriting class held by an acclaimed serious playwright then, Kuo Pao Kun. His writing sessions were conducted with a group of us seated in a circle, barefoot, discussing the Greek writers. Actually, it was more of Pao Kun talking and I was just listening like a bright-eyed acolyte hoping to catch some pearls of wisdom from the man himself. In the end we had to submit a short play to Pao Kun, and I was eager for his comments on a play I wrote which was an homage to Oscar Wilde. It was filled with one-liners. I could not write a line about the weather without turning it into a witticism. Pao Kun gave me notes. He said I should dig deeper into the characters. All I did was to write even more jokes. Until one day, he sat me down and he told me. You can write comedy, that’s for sure. But you must dig deeper. I stared at him and nodded, but I could not resist. But did you think it was funny? Pao Kun smiled and said dig deeper. So I have taken his words to heart and every time I write, I would remember what he said, always be digging deeper.
But I remembered his other words as well.
That I could write funny.
In 2005 I was given a chance to work on a new comedy, The Yang Sisters, featuring a well-known local artiste, Kym Ng, and a HK veteran, Chung Pei Pei. This was the same Chung Pei Pei who fought Zhang ZiYi and Chow Yuen Fatt in Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon.
I was writing for an Action Legend.
I was downright nervous. Who wouldn’t be? This was an actress who worked with Ang Lee. And was in the classic King Hu’s Come Drink With Me. It wasn’t long before I realized that Chung Pei Pei was legendary on screen, but down to earth off screen. She had zero airs. She was punctual on set, memorized her lines and was respectful to the writing. A collaborator with humility and grace. She reminded me very much of Lim Kay Tong, the “father” in Growing Up.
After shooting a scene in season two, she invited us to have porridge lunch at a near by eatery. She regaled us with behind-the-scenes stories of the training she had to do for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. And she talked about what it was like to take direction from Ang Lee. Then she turned to me. She told me how much she enjoyed the scripts and she liked it that the stories had a flow. Which was not easy to do for writers.
But I could do it, she said.
Over the years, I’ve created series that have lasted but one season. Some have earned reviews so negative that they made me want to throw my laptop and swear off writing. I’ve had days when no spark seems to ignite. The blank page defies me. Even I myself think my script is a passport to Boredom City. And when I do, when I’m in the bowels of my own self-created despair, I think back to the words of The Lit Professor, The Serious Playwright, and The Action Legend.
The words and the encouragement from these three people who have been like a beacon. An eternal lighthouse that never failed to keep me focussed and not drift aimlessly in nights of darkest doubt. A writer toils alone in his craft. He wrestles with language and strives to put the visions in his head onto paper but often the meaning will wriggle free and slip away as his hands attempt to hold it down. In moments of deepest self-doubt, I remember what they said. And I rise up the next day to face the blank page again with resolution.
At times, it would help to remember the first time you wrote a story, or drew a picture, or shot your amateur film. I remembered my attempts to cobble together a scary tale in homage to Edgar Allan Poe. I did not worry I was copying his style. Heck, I reveled in it. I was just caught up with the heady joy of writing a story that would get a reader’s eye to move across the page and hopefully feel a frisson of fear at the end of the tale. There was no despair, no self-doubt, no worry if you’re breaking any writing rules, or concern if your words were good enough. It was only the joy of creation. The heady pleasure of letting loose on the page. All artists should hark back to that first joy and pleasure of creation. Therein lies the fuel that would light the lamp that would chase away the shadows of doubt.
You too, will have your cheer leaders. Be it a teacher, a fellow writer, or a random reader. Cherish their words and remember that as long as they said yes to you, it does not matter the many who would say no to you as a writer.