Writing my way forward

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It was about 8 p.m., two weeks into my freshman year at UC Berkeley. Golden Bear Orientation had really sucked, and school itself wasn’t proving to be any better. I had discovered a dark corner in the basement of the East Asian Library, and it was there where I first confronted my problem: I didn’t like my major. Bioengineering seemed great for everyone else I had met so far, but I hated it.

A year and a few classes later, I had switched over to electrical engineering and computer science. I liked how computer science pushed me to think with structure and break down big problems. But I didn’t like it that much. Around the same time, I started taking more creative writing classes which allowed me to discover my genuine interest in reading and telling stories. I could spend hours on end reading short stories and enjoyed writing my own. I loved watching movies before reading their screenplays, matching my favorite scenes to insightful words on a page.

I had folders full of stories. I thought, subconsciously, about pursuing a career in the entertainment industry, realizing that my interest in writing could be translated into screenplays. I spent a while avoiding these thoughts, either burying myself in my classes or really hoping that tech internships would rock my world. But two internships and many classes later, I was still thinking about entertainment.

Then, in the middle of sophomore year, the COVID-19 pandemic happened. I found myself at home for most of the day, exhausting all hobbies — knitting, getting five stars on all songs from Just Dance 2014 and baking endless amounts of brownies. Eventually, I sat down to really confront these thoughts of the entertainment industry that had been circling my subconscious.

I found that my worries boiled down to these three questions.

First, was my interest in entertainment legitimate?

As hard as I tried, I could never find one solid explanation for why I liked entertainment. I just felt drawn to writing and storytelling. So how did I know that this interest was sustainable and something that really mattered to me?

Second, am I good enough?

I didn’t know anyone in entertainment or in screenwriting. I had zero ideas about what it would take to make it. I was writing articles for online magazines such as Grain of Salt and Pulse Spikes, but I had no way to judge if my writing was even good. All I knew was that networking is integral to the entertainment industry and I didn’t have a network.

Third, did it even make sense? 

There’s a part of me that really enjoys computer science. One of my favorite memories at Berkeley is taking the infamous CS61B course. The career path — submitting applications, interviewing and hopefully, getting a job — is clearly defined, so why didn’t I just do that? Instead, I was choosing a path of complete uncertainty: Screenwriters spend years just writing and writing and writing. Then, they spend even more time hoping that their scripts end up at the right desk with the right people.

It was at this time that a friend of mine told me to apply to a program that helps individuals write a book over the course of a year. My first thought was an immediate no. Who was I to write a book? 

After a while, I realized that the book could be the perfect opportunity to explore entertainment — something I had been avoiding doing for the past two years. So last January, I applied to the program and got in. I’ve been working on my book, “Greenlight,” for six months. The book is set for publication this December.

“Greenlight” is a set of profiles of 13 creatives of color in entertainment pursuing roles from directing to acting to teaching. And, while writing the book, my three fears about the entertainment industry were somewhat resolved.

I finally started believing that my interest in entertainment was legitimate. I worked on this book for about six months, emailing different interviewees, editors and publishers, without really telling anyone what I was doing. It was something that I found myself learning and growing from, and excited to work on every day. 

As for being good enough, well, I’m still not sure about this one. But everyone I interviewed said that they felt the same. It wasn’t about worrying whether I was good or not, but simply starting to write in the first place. And as for the connections, through writing the book I was able to meet so many people who I can learn from in the future! I talked to Esther Moon, who acted in the Academy Award-winning movie “Minari,” and George Huang, who teaches screenwriting at UCLA.

And lastly, about things “making sense.” Well, why does it have to? I like computer science, and I like entertainment. I can do both. Or I can do one right now and another later. The idea that I had to commit to one right now for the rest of my life was all in my head. Esther Moon had a career as a  mental health specialist for 20 years before transitioning to acting. George Huang graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in economics and now teaches screenwriting. Things worked out okay for them, which reassures me they will end up working out okay for me too.

Contact Mallika Chennupaty at [email protected].