Is the young Asian shaman a wise man or a con man? A Hollywood has-been can’t decide. 2,859 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I met the Zen Writing Coach in a bar in Hollywood. The kind with rotting stuffed chairs and odd wooden tables scattered about. Dark so you couldn’t see what you didn’t want to see. The walls were painted navy blue which nicely set off the truly hideous original art work posted for sale.
I sat down next to the Zen Writing Coach at the bar. Well, I left one stool empty between us, of course. He was wearing a flowing robe that was undoubtedly Asian, but to me looked more like what those American Indians wore at Wounded Knee when the blue coats shot them down. He was a slight Asian man, as you probably figured — but young, which you probably didn’t. Twenty-five, give or take. A lot younger than me. I was disintegrating my way through my forties.
I ordered my usual for the middle of the afternoon at least: a double Americano and a piece of pumpkin bread from Lilly, a tatted waitress out of Jersey who showed no sexual interest in me. She was very hot. Also gay. I liked Lilly. She was one of the few gay women I’d ever met who didn’t automatically treat me like I had killed her dog.
The Zen Writing Coach had a laptop open in front of him and was meticulously arranging piles of note cards around it in an easy rhythm. It was almost hypnotic to watch. Like the three card monte dealers in New York. I was curious. The robe, the cards, yet he didn’t seem insane or even homeless. So I spoke to him even though I never start up conversations with strangers. But I once went out with a woman whose Native American name was “Talking With Strangers,” so I know how it’s supposed to be done.
“What are you doing?”
“I am attracting business. I only tell you that because I sense you are not a potential client.”
He handed me a card. Surrounded by Chinese characters, it read “Zen Writing Coach," and underneath that, in smaller but equally lovely calligraphy, “living is writing, writing is living.”
“It’s really mostly lifestyle coaching. I wish it were all writing coaching.”
“Why do you think I’m not a potential client?”
“Because you don’t look like a man who follows the guidance of others.”
That took me by surprise. Partly because it was true. To a fault. Maybe he did have a strong Tao.
“I thought you were going to say it was because I was a lot older than you.”
“People of all ages seek advice.”
Really? Not me. But then, he’d noticed that. Actually, I was a little miffed. Part of me expected that he’d say he sensed that I was already a writer. The part of me that was getting both crazy and pathetic now that I was way past being a hot property. Or employable. When I was his age, I’d wiped my ass with a piece of unlined eight by eleven paper, and it turned into Psycho Summer Camp IV, which for some unknown reason grossed triple what Part III had. So folks figured I knew the secret. I figured I did, too. I then sold a great screenplay. Big. About smuggling drugs by yacht into California in the ’60s. They killed it. They drowned it in a puddle of their own piss. They turned it into Rambo. Except that people went to see Rambo.
I never sold anything again.
After a while, I couldn’t even get anything read. A has-been by thirty-three. Eventually, I started writing novels. One or two of them were good. I tried to make them funny because I figured people didn’t like to read. I was wrong. People hate to read. It didn’t matter — I had enough money, at least as long as I was content with Hollywood boho living. It’s just sometimes I get cranky like some retired athlete whose glory days are getting to be a long time ago.
“I am working on a novel. About the Vietnam war. Jacob Lazarus,” I said to him. He smiled quizzically at me. I did like him. And I don’t like that many people instantly these days, except for hot younger women who won’t give me the time of day. Even if they’re not gay.
He was watching me. I kept a straight face. There, of course, were jokes that could be made, but it wasn’t a way that I liked to be rude. We shook hands as we introduced ourselves.
“I am Korean," he told me. "I was adopted by non-religious Jews living in New Hampshire. A professor and an artist. So you see.” He had an interesting way of talking about himself. It was pleasant but oddly detached. Which maybe made sense for an obviously smart kid with that combination of nature, nurture, and environment.
“What brought you to L.A.?” I asked. Some Midwestern columnist had written that the continent was sloped and all the loose nuts rolled toward California. Well, most people would say that I was crazy enough. Although most people who don’t live in L.A. have no idea what crazy is here. I was relatively sane. I knew a guy kinda like me who once directed some forgettable piece of shit. Now he ran a children’s theatre for young teens and charged aspiring parents hundreds each. What’s so crazy about that? Well, one of his productions was Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? With 14 year olds. Anyway, I’m just saying that this kid didn’t seem crazy by the local standard.
“So how do you get writing clients by shuffling those note cards?”
“It fascinates people. It did you.” He was pretty quick. I felt like I should utilize more of my mind with this guy. It was like stretching muscles. It didn’t happen every day in L.A. “People ask me what I’m doing, and I tell them it’s a system. It can be taught. Writing is a system. And so living can be a system. People like systems.”
“Yeah, people can be taught. Up to a certain point. But it’s like music. Everyone can’t develop perfect pitch. You’re born with it. Don’t you believe in talent? People with real talent — for writing or living — don’t want guidance.’
“Like I said, it’s really lifestyle coaching. But living is writing. And it lowers the odds of being sued for practicing without a license.”
“And how much do you charge?”
“Twenty-five dollars a session.”
That didn’t seem like very much.
“And how long are your sessions?”
“It depends. Usually not very long.”
He gave me a sardonic smile. It was like a friendly game of chess.
“You can see. I have clients coming now. One of them even wants writing advice.”
The Zen Writing Coach gathered his things, moved them to a pentagram shaped table, plopped himself in an overstuffed chair that looked regal since you couldn’t see the microbes, and assumed a serene pose. Moments later, a young woman came in and sat down across from him. You could tell she was frivolous from her outfit and by the distracted energy that flowed out of her. She handed the Zen Writing Coach an envelope and said, “I’m so glad that you were here today.”
“You should be glad that you came, whether or not I was here.”
That actually sounded like something very Tao. Probably too subtle for her, though. My hearing is still supernaturally good — although my eyes are going and I’ve never been able to smell — so I could hear them over the sounds of Nirvana.
“Z, I want to quit my job and become an artist.”
“Buy me a beer.”
You could see the indignation rise up to the roots of her vividly colored hair. She was easy to read. “What? You’re not taking me seriously!”
“Buy me a beer.”
“I don’t want to buy you a beer.”
“You shouldn’t quit your job.”
“Why not? Because I wouldn’t buy you a beer?’
“Yes. You are too attached to money to be an artist.”
You could watch his advice slowly penetrate her consciousness, like liquid plumber oozing into a clogged drain. Then she smiled.
“Thank you, Z. I don’t feel guilty anymore.”
Then, as her smile became almost beatific, she got up and left.
Unbelievable. On the other hand, he’d probably saved her years — well, at least months — of unhappiness. Z slipped the envelope into a cleverly unobtrusive pocket in his robe. I ordered another coffee and stayed put.
I didn’t have long to wait. A tall gangly guy, about thirty I think, came in and bee-lined toward the Z. The client was wearing one of those idiotic porkpie hats. I can’t think of them as hip, since I remember them perched on top of some fat, bald, cigar-smoking grandfather. This guy also wore what we used to call Martin Marietta eyeglasses, ordinary black ones, that only geeky engineers wore. Now they were fashionable. Obviously, he was either a writer or someone posing as a writer. There are a lot of both in Hollywood. You see more poseurs in coffee shops where every laptop has a screenplay displayed. I guess this last bit officially makes me old and bitter. I can build on that.
The writer/poseur slumped into the client chair and dejectedly slid a script across the table. An envelope stuck out of it. Z in one graceful motion opened the script to the first page and began to read while his other hand disappeared the envelope into his pocket.
“I don’t know, Z. I always doubt myself. I never can figure out the ending. Which screenwriting book do you recommend?”
Z looked up from the script. “Technique is for when you don’t know what you’re doing. Life is a long road and you never know where you’ll end up. Just write.”
That actually was good advice. I wasn’t sure what Z was doing but it really wasn’t an outright con. And it seemed to make the poseur feel better. Z had a knack for that. If I did, maybe people would give me envelopes of money for blowing up my gas bag.
Z read the script while the poseur fidgeted. Then Z started turning the pages faster and faster. He let it close. Z laced his fingers — nice touch — and looked the poseur squarely in the eyes. “Scripts are like x-rays.”
“Concentrated black is bad.”
“Your characters talk too much.”
Brilliant. I felt a surge of respect and affection for Z.
“Now I understand.”
I wasn’t sure the poseur did but that was just a guess. He looked dazed as he collected his script and wandered toward the door, almost colliding with… Arthur? Jesus.
Arthur was a poseur of a different color. At least he was twenty years ago. He had been a producer poseur. He was at least ten years older than I was. Back in the day, I’d met him at parties where he’d cadged free options and left gullible young writers to dream about the imminent financing that would never materialize. Behind his back, we used to call him ‘Godot.’ Mercifully, Psycho Summer Camp saved me from his siren song. But this did seem right out of the infinite improbability generator.
Did I have to talk to him? Maybe he wouldn’t recognize me. I had long hair and a beard then. I angled my face toward the bar. Arthur headed straight to Z and sat down. Fuck me gently with a chainsaw. But problem solved. I guess people of all ages need advice. And I always thought Arthur reeked of sadness, even when he was happy.
“Zen Writing Coach, it’s been a terrible week.”
Z sat silently and said nothing. For a while. Finally, Arthur grimaced and put an envelope on the table. Same old Arthur. Z’s arm shot out like a lizard’s tongue.
“What is wrong, Arthur? Why is every day not your birthday?”
“What’s always wrong. Women.”
“No. Women. The money thing just makes it worse. My old ex-girlfriend is doing porn.”
An occupational hazard of living in L.A. Arthur should man up.
“You love what you know, you sell what you love, you know what you sell.”
“Life is a long road and you never know where you’ll end up.”
“And I think my current girlfriend is going to become my ex-girl friend. Ever since she turned forty five, she’s not any fun. She just wants to sacrifice for the future.”
“Arthur, is she Republican?”
“Then you should not expect full benefits.”
I thought that was pretty funny, but Arthur didn’t have a sense of humor. In fact, he seemed anguished.
“Zen Writing Coach, you said I should try going out with a woman closer to my own age. I can’t do it. Does that make me shallow?”
Arthur was capable of an existential crisis? Who knew.
“Well, you tried. Older women are not only older but they have intractable problems. Younger women are not only younger, but they have silly inconsequential problems.”
“Thank you, Zen Writing Coach!”
Arthur seemed relieved. And less sad. Z really should have a cult. Or a TV show. He transported people. He’d even made me feel more amused by life.
“Remember, in the right hands, logic is power. But, in the wrong hands, stupidity is invincible.”
Whoa. That was a cold piece. Although I wasn’t quite sure if Z were dissing Arthur or the woman. Apparently, neither. I guess that’s the beauty of it. Arthur assumed the best and put on the confident look I remembered from the old days. Arthur squared his shoulders and headed for the door. And the beat went on.
An hour later, Z had seen, what, ten people for two fifty American. Who was the dumb ass in this bar? He picked up his things and moved back to the seat near me.
“So now you see.”
“Do you believe it?”
“I do. That’s why it works. But it’s still showbiz.”
And he threw in a little nod of the head. I was ready to go, so we walked out in tandem if not exactly together. I blinked when we hit the bright California sunshine and fumbled for my sunglasses. Another sign of old age.
“You know what they say," Z intoned. "Brown eyes better than round eyes.”
I didn’t know people said that. I was still squinting so I only heard the shriek of the tires on the busy avenue. When I looked up, there was a red Porsche by the curb two feet away being driven by a spectacularly beautiful Asian woman who flew around the car to Z’s side.
“Z, I’m so glad I caught you. I’m so upset,” she said.
To me, she looked like an actress ready for a photo shoot. Wait, she had the tiniest pout.
“Hari, I’m always glad to see you.”
“It just happened again. I keep getting hit on when I’m driving. By old men at stoplights. Is it me?”
“It is not you.”
“Thanks, Z, I feel better hearing that. But what should I do?”
“Change your license plate, and the old men will leave you alone.”
“But why? It’s just a plate.”
“Do not question the Zen Writing Coach. Especially in a free session. Change your plate.”
“You’re too cute. I will. Can I give you a ride somewhere?”
“Where are you headed?”
“Anywhere you want to go.”
Z nodded at her. “That sounds affirming.”
And that sounded like Z figured it was his birthday. He definitely had his eye on the prize.
Z turned to me and said, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. Smells like victory.” What? Apocalypse Now? I didn’t get the joke. So I didn’t say anything. “I know you’re going to like this one," he continued. "Wait for it.”
He grinned and turned toward the car and got in. I still didn’t get it. I felt stupid. Maybe that was good for the soul.
The red Porsche roared into traffic. Then I saw the plate. It read 1VCHO. He was right. I did like it.
I never saw him again at that bar. And I’m there pretty regularly. One night last January, about a year later, I was sitting at home and even though I don’t really watch TV anymore I decided to check out the Weather Channel because it can be a fun thing to do in the winter when you live in L.A. So I had to go to the guide to see what channel it was amidst the hundreds.
And there it was: The Adventures Of Zen Writing Coach listed on a cable channel. And there he was. The show was just ending, and he was basking in the affection of a decent sized multitude. His robe almost suggested a Jesus thing. Or Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. And, oh yeah, there was Hari playing Vanna White to his Pat Sajak. The Zen Writing Coach looked very pleased with himself. Like he’d written Psycho Summer Camp IV and had the world by the tail.
Well, I see. He even marked me with his uplifting spell. A little. Sort of.