Which Fyre Festival documentary should you watch? Probably neither.

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In the history of cinema there have been numerous twin movies: movies that have come out at the same time that are about the same thing. Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Armageddon and Deep Impact. A Bug’s Life and Antz. And now, two dueling documentaries about the Fyre festival on Netflix and Hulu: Fyre directed by Chris Smith on Netflix, and Fyre Fraud directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason on Hulu. They both dropped this week, and I want to tell you about which one you should watch.

Let’s talk about what’s similar about both films. They are both enthralling retellings of all the components that went into the Fyre Festival. In fact, both of them cover many of the same story beats and even use the same footage at times. They’re both competently made and they each run about 90 minutes.

Fyre on Netflix is a better shot film. Aesthetically, it just looks more pleasing to the eye with nice use of lighting and skillful situating of interviewees in interesting and dynamic backgrounds. It does a better job capturing the moment-by-moment existential dread of the lead up to the festival, as well as how the planning all went wrong. Also, in my opinion, the quality of the b-roll and footage they got is more compelling, and some of it is extremely damning. There are moments in Fyre that will be talked about and meme-ified for years to come.

Fyre Fraud on Hulu casts its net much wider and tries to assess the culture of influencers and social media that led to something like Fyre Festival even taking place. A lot of it is interesting and great modern context for the festival, but I also found the Hulu documentary much more irritating stylistically. It often used a computer text-to-speech program to read important documents, plus a bunch of stock footage? It was very distracting and I think it took away from the storytelling.

Both documentaries are competent overall and they’re almost complementary in how they illuminate the facts behind this incident. They also each have some pretty serious ethical issues.

The Hulu documentary has an interview with serial entrepreneur and scam artist Billy MacFarland, the man who created the Fyre Festival. That said, it doesn’t hold back on portraying MacFarland as a scam artist. It delves deep into his other businesses and does a better job of explaining not only the depth of his deception, but also the societal circumstances that would allow him to pull of a fraud of this scale. Despite all that, the MacFarland interview itself is pretty useless. MacFarland is almost completely unapologetic, and there is pretty much no self-reflection going on there. If you want the interview as a way to confirm that his lying is indeed pathological, then the Hulu documentary will deliver that, but many of the shots of MacFarland are just of him sitting silently, looking awkwardly down at the floor, refusing to say anything.

The problem is, the filmmakers behind Fyre Fraud paid Billy MacFarland for his interview. Just how much he was paid has not been confirmed, but MacFarland claims it was $250,000. The filmmakers have stated that it was “much lower” than that but they have not shared what the actual number was. So when you’re watching the Hulu documentary, you are, in some small way, helping to enrich the guy who put on the Fyre Festival. And that feels pretty gross.

What’s clear from these movies is that there was a massive human cost to Fyre Festival, beyond just a bunch of millennials having a bad camping weekend. Investors were defrauded but the most heartbreaking thing is all the people who worked on the festival itself. Locals who spent time building the tents, as well as those who worked on the festival that tried to salvage the situation. The festival created a ton of human misery and to be in some way supporting the mastermind behind it doesn’t feel good.

But if that sounds bad, just wait! There’s more!

The Netflix documentary, Fyre, is co-produced by Vice and Jerry Media, the latter of which is a company that helped market the original festival. In that movie’s telling of the story, the people from Jerry Media, who sit for on-camera interviews, were duped by this con-man. They had no idea that the festival was going to be such a disaster, and when they were cashing those marketing checks and enticing people to fly to the festival, they were just doing their jobs. For a variety of reasons, some of which are covered in the Hulu documentary, this strains credulity.

More galling is the fact that at no point during the course of the entire documentary prior to the credits is it even disclosed that the subjects of the documentary are producers on the film. Jerry Media was even named as part of the class action lawsuit against the festival. The fact that the Netflix documentary omits details like this is honestly pretty insane and I’m shocked they aren’t catching more flack for it. It also makes you wonder what other facts they’re leaving out.

So, both movies are in some ways ethically compromised and if you really want to know which documentary to watch and still feel like a good person, the answer is probably neither of them. Don’t support anything about any of what’s going on in trying to market this grift to you. But if you have to watch one, watch the Netflix one. It’s a better film, and at least you’re not helping Billy MacFarland out in any way – just the marketing people who helped perpetrate one of the biggest disasters in music festival history.


Some more links from the week:

What is clickbait, anyway?

Over the weekend, a Twitter user named Dakota Lopez posted a list of the websites that were most frequently called out by a Twitter account called FilmClickbait:

FilmClickbait quote tweets out headlines from film news websites and blogs, usually revealing the information that is teased. Here’s an example:

I have some thoughts on all this, but here are a few caveats before I proceed:

    Coming in sixth on that list is slashfilm.com, a site I used to write for regularly and that I currently still host a weekly podcast for.
    I have not verified Lopez’s methodology or his final counts, but nothing about the list strikes me as implausible.
    I can’t comment on whether there’s anything “disproportionately malicious” happening, but it seems possible that the sites that rank highest simply traffic more frequently in what FilmClickbait deems clickbait.

Here is the problem with FilmClickbait’s entire modus operandi: There is no widely understood definition of clickbait, and if there is one, it’s not one that seems to match FilmClickbait’s.

In 2014, Ben Smith wrote a piece for Buzzfeed (a site that would know or thing or two about clickbait) explaining why the site no longer used “clickbait.” In it, he defines clickbait as headlines that fundamentally mislead the reader about what the article is about. When Buzzfeed used to do this, they’d generate short term engagement, but they’d destroy user trust. So they stopped:

If your goal — as is ours at BuzzFeed — is to deliver the reader something so new, funny, revelatory, or delightful that they feel compelled to share it, you have to do work that delivers on the headline’s promise, and more. This is a very high bar. It’s one thing to enjoy reading something, and quite another to make the active choice to share it with your friends. This is a core fact of sharing and the social web of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other platforms.

The best way to ensure your readers won’t choose to share a story or a post is to trick them. Anyone who has spent the last 20 years online knows the specific disgust that comes with a headline that doesn’t deliver on its promise. It’s the kind of taste you get in your mouth from a glistening but spoiled peach. The publisher got the page view, and ComScore doesn’t record your flash of anger. But you’re hardly going to subject your friends to this experience. (Maybe your enemies.)

Smith even went on to provide tips on how to write good headlines:

Great headlines, meanwhile, tell you a lot about what you’re going to read, and persuade you to click because you know you’ll find a story that will satisfy your interest. The lists that BuzzFeed has long been known for are, as list titles tend to be, extremely direct; “31 Genius Hacks For Your Elementary School Art Class” is just that. As my colleague Ryan Broderick puts it, the goal is often, in fact, to “blow away the curiosity gap.” One of his recent headlines: “A 5-Year-Old Girl Raised Enough Money To Take Her Father Who Has Terminal Cancer To Disney World.”

When you look over Filmclickbait’s targets, there are certainly pieces that fall within the standard definition of clickbait. But there are at least as many pieces that simply don’t adhere to Filmclickbait’s version of a good headline.

Take today as an example. Many websites are writing about Game of Thrones final season premiere date:

Nothing in the headline that is being linked to is misleading. It simply doesn’t include the most crucial piece of information that is teased. And while some (many?) might find it annoying to click through to the actual article, it’s important to ask other questions beyond whether that info is in the tweet/headline itself: Does the article provide important context? Does it provide insights and information that you might not otherwise have known?

If no, then eventually readers will decide on their own that your website is not worth reading or sharing, and the laws of Darwin will eliminate the publication from the pool of going concerns. But if yes, then value is still being delivered to the reader. I don’t understand how that could be called clickbait, or if it can be, I don’t understand why that distinction is important because literally every publication does it.

Here’s a screenshot from today’s New York Times about U.S. tensions with Iran. It reads: “Pentagon Officials Fear Bolton’s Actions Increase Risk of Clash with Iran”

It would be ludicrous for a clickbait-like account to simply quote tweet this article and flippantly write, “He asked for military options to strike Iran!” Why? Because the article itself might contain other information that is important to know about! Simply because the headline doesn’t contain all the relevant information doesn’t make it a bad or clickbait-y headline. And sure, pop culture ephemera doesn’t have the weighty importance of national security, but the same concept applies.

I wholeheartedly believe that there are websites that act in bad faith. But by refusing to distinguish between actively misleading headlines and headlines that simply don’t (can’t?) include all the possible relevant information, FilmClickbait throws the baby out with the bathwater. It provides a skewed perspective on what “clickbait” and bad headline writing even is. That’s arguably an equal disservice to the fan community as the prevalence of actual clickbait.


A few interesting things from the web recently:

I’m tired

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The end of 2018 is upon us. The government is on the verge of shutdown. The stock market is collapsing. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, one of the last “adults in the room,” has resigned, an ominous sign for the days ahead. It’s all just par for the course in a year that has felt, for many of us, totally exhausting.

2018 has taught me many things about myself, but one of them is that it is totally acceptable to set limits on your own intake of media and (bad) news. Sometimes, self-care means stepping away, disconnecting, and recognizing that keeping up with every minor political development, every outrage, every hot topic, every meme can actually be exhausting and damaging.

There is often no nobility to be found in subjecting yourself to things that will only serve to deaden you inside and tire you out for the battles you need to fight. It’s important to optimize your intake so that you strike a balance that works best for you. But above all: think about what you put into your mind, and what that in turn causes you to put out into the world.

On that note, this year has also taught me that there’s virtue in silence. I built much of my online persona on expressing my opinions loudly and strongly, but frequently this year we’ve seen that there are other voices that need to be heard who’ve often been drowned out by louder voices around them.

There’ve been many moments when I’ve seen folks celebrating the breakthrough of bold new talent, or a song/film/show that has resonated with them deeply. A much earlier version of me might’ve thought to share my disagreement, but there is no inherent virtue in simply sharing an opinion. Sometimes it’s best to just hear what others have to say. There’s nothing wrong in letting people have a moment over something. If you don’t agree, there’s a million other things to pay attention to.

As we enter the new year, I hope you’ll consider what is necessary for self care, and when to amplify the voices of those who might not have one as big as yours.


Some other interesting things from the week:

The glory of ‘Roma’

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“None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”

Those words were spoken by Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the role of Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York. I found Synecdoche to be maddening and inaccessible but I also felt it contained insights that were worth trying to get to (I tried to do this awhile back in this video essay with Amy Nicholson).

Despite my confusion, these lines stood out as a fundamental message of the film. We experience our lives in a much different way than those around us experience them. Everyone is the main character in the story of their lives. And it can be difficult to let other people in — to acknowledge that their lives have fullness and arcs of their own. It’s difficult not because their lives are dull, but because we barely have the capacity to process our own stories. How can we be expected to understand what others are going through?

This thought came to mind while watching Alfonso Cuarón’s newest film Roma, out on Netflix today. Roma is a semiautobiographical story of Cuarón’s childhood and of his family’s live-in housekeeper, Cleo. Throughout the film, we witness Cleo’s experiences, from the mundanity of her daily tasks to her loving care of the household’s children. At the periphery, we see snippets of external events — the family she’s employed by begins to fall apart, and political unrest spills into the streets — but as with real life, these events are just tangential to the story. They aren’t the story itself.

Roma is a technical masterwork. The camera work is masterful and intricate. Its seeming passivity as it glides and pans its way through each scene seems to be the film’s way of saying “This is real. This happened. You’re just lucky to get a glimpse at it through this tiny window. ”

The movie invites us to take a look at this person who would be a side character in another film and to experience her life in all its fullness. The result is a wonderful celebration of how we shape the lives of those around us, and how they shape us too.


A few more thoughts for the week:

Too viral to check

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On November 16, Thrillist published an article by Kevin Alexander in which he tried to come to terms with his role in the closing of a restaurant named Stanich’s after naming its burger “the best burger in America.” Apparently, Stanich’s couldn’t handle the increased attention and influx of tourists:

For the past year, the story of Stanich’s has haunted me. For most of that time, I’d been away from Thrillist, as I worked on a book that frequently took me to Portland. Each time I was there, my story would somehow find a way into conversation, like the one with my Lyft driver who asked if I liked burgers. Yes, I said tentatively. “Well, we had a great one here,” he said, as we drove over the Burnside Bridge. “But then some asshole from California ruined it.” Or the time, while sitting at the bar at Clyde Common, the bartender came up to me and in a soft, friendly voice inquired if I’d planned on closing any more burger restaurants while I was in town.

This self-reflective deep dive went even more viral than than the initial burger rankings. According to BuzzSumo, this article was shared more than 9K times on Twitter and had over 37K Facebook engagements (compared to less than 1K Twitter shares and 32K FB engagements on the original piece). Self-flagellation in the publishing industry not only makes for compelling reading; it also pays pretty well too.

The headline was exquisite, promising a piece that would not only reveal some insights about the aftermath of being named in these type of listicles, but also serve as an indictment for the viral systems many of us are complicit in every day. I was happy to see Alexander’s piece was creating a lot of soul-searching in the online publishing community. But I had my doubts about the actual premise of the article (much smarter folks like Nate Silver did too). One passage from the piece stood out, in which Alexander describes the events leading up to the restaurant’s closing: “I can say that there were personal problems, the type of serious things that can happen with any family, and would’ve happened regardless of how crowded Stanich’s was, and that real life is always more complicated and messier than we want it to be.”

Now, new reporting has come to light that makes clear Alexander left some major parts out of his original piece. Here’s Matthew Singer, writing for Willamette Week, detailing those personal problems:

On April 18, 2014, Stanich was arrested for choking his then-wife in front of their then-teenage son at their home in Northeast Portland. Documents show his wife, then 57, had been a manager at Stanich’s for 19 years before being diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Stanich pleaded no contest to charges of misdemeanor harassment and strangulation, and was sentenced to four years of probation. He was prohibited from owning a gun or contacting his wife. He was required to undergo treatment for his drinking, barred from consuming alcohol and, in a stiff prohibition for a bar owner, prohibited from entering establishments that primarily serve alcohol, except for work. For the past four years, the only bar he was allowed to set foot in was his own.

The information undercuts Alexander’s piece in several important ways. The first is that, obviously, there were probably greater forces at work creating trouble for the restaurant beyond the Thrillist burger ranking. Only Stanich’s family know the real story behind these events, but it’s safe to say that the restaurant could’ve easily shut down even if the Thrillist article had never been written. Right off the bat, the entire premise of Alexander’s piece is shot.

But in a more significant way, the piece also upends the way Alexander positions himself as a commentator on journalistic quality and ethics. Before he wrote about how he helped cause Stanich’s demise, Alexander explains:

[G]ood, sturdy, reliable lists requiring on the ground knowledge and reporting were actually hard/expensive to make, and few places wanted to pay for that sort of reporting, so most lists just ended up plagiarizing off of the few good ones. And, as these lists increased in frequency while simultaneously decreasing in quality, you watched the collective trust in any one list diminish. Comment sections turned cynical, “this is clickbait!” being the most common refrain, then outright ugly and hostile as discourse on the internet has devolved into a garbage fire inside a waste processing plant atop a landfill built on a massive skunk burial ground.

Alexander explicitly positions his own writing as being a force for good in this mixed up, Facebook-algorithm-driven world:

From a content perspective, my final list overachieved. It got the proper number of engagements, and shares, and clicks, and all the other analytics boss folks use in the Billy Beane Moneyball era of journalism, and the video with Steve Stanich joyfully weeping got millions of views and I got to go on podcasts and radio shows and be interviewed by local newspapers. People could disagree with my picks (and they did!), but they couldn’t call what I’d done clickbait. I’d done the work. I’d made a good list.

But with Alexander’s new piece commenting on the matter, he unwittingly created that thing that he sought to avoid: A clickbait piece whose headline couldn’t deliver on the premise, and whose lack of context (conveniently ignored in service of a story that was too viral to check) ended up bringing more attention to Stanich’s problems. It’s a cautionary tale about cautionary tales.

If the narrative feels too convenient to be true, it frequently is.


Some things that might be worth your time:

The evolution of public shaming

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In a piece for Vanity Fair this week, Monica Lewinsky opened up about why she decided to participate in a docuseries called The Clinton Affair:

Filming the documentary forced me to acknowledge to myself past behavior that I still regret and feel ashamed of. There were many, many moments when I questioned not just the decision to participate, but my sanity itself. Despite all of the ways I tried to protect my mental health, it was still challenging. During one therapy session, I told my therapist I was feeling especially depressed. She suggested that sometimes what we experience as depression is actually grief.

Grief. Yes, it was Grief. The process of this docuseries led me to new rooms of shame that I still needed to explore, and delivered me to Grief’s doorstep. Grief for the pain I caused others. Grief for the broken young woman I had been before and during my time in D.C., and the shame I still felt around that. Grief for having been betrayed first by someone I thought was my friend, and then by a man I thought had cared for me. Grief for the years and years lost, being seen only as “That Woman”—saddled, as a young woman, with the false narrative that my mouth was merely a receptacle for a powerful man’s desire. (You can imagine how those constructs impacted my personal and professional life.) Grief for a relationship that had no normal closure, and instead was slowly dismantled by two decades of Bill Clinton’s behavior that eventually (eventually!) helped me understand how, at 22, I took the small, narrow sliver of the man I knew and mistook it for the whole.

Lewinsky has made a few public statements about her experiences in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and I’ve found them all to be insightful and moving (see: her TED talk on the price of shame). Lewinsky continues:

Throughout history, women have been traduced and silenced. Now, it’s our time to tell our own stories in our own words. Muriel Rukeyser famously wrote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Blair Foster, the Emmy-winning director of the series, is testing that idea in myriad ways […] I may not like everything that has been put in the series or left out, but I like that the perspective is being shaped by women. Yes, the process of filming has been exceedingly painful. But I hope that by participating, by telling the truth about a time in my life—a time in our history—I can help ensure that what happened to me never happens to another young person in our country again.

The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal happened while I was a teenager, but I think I’m still coming to terms with how our society and the media completely annihilated everyone involved. Weeks of newspaper headlines and endless jokes on late night TV served to normalize mockery of this young woman who was caught in a vortex of circumstances that any normal person would barely be able to comprehend (This representative clip from David Letterman is absolutely cringe-inducing to watch today).

I had a similar thought when I watched Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentary about Amy Winehouse, Amy. Winehouse was ridiculed endlessly for her background and drug problems, and the documentary implies that the public scrutiny drove her to the substance abuse that ultimately took her life.

The notion that society and the media prey upon celebrities (often women) until they have extracted all they can from them is not a new idea. South Park made an episode about it. The Onion satirized it. People like simple narratives, but what these instances reveal is that by reducing individuals down to an idea, a catchphrase, a single act, we perform a kind of psychic violence upon them. We strip them of their individuality and their complex fullness. We make them into punchlines.

The difference now is that there finally seems to be a stronger willingness to reflect on the decisions we’ve made in how we think about and discuss these things. In doing so, hopefully we can finally reckon with who we were and who we should become.

Also: For a thorough and engrossing rundown of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, check out the second season of Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcast.


Write Along – a new podcast about the creative process

I’m pleased to announce that I’m launching a new podcast called “Write Along.” It’s about writing and the creative process featuring screenwriter, author, and former film critic C. Robert Cargill. Our first episode is up now. Check it out on iTunesGoogle Play, or via RSS.

Cargill is a writer whose work I’ve followed for many years. I’ve witnessed his ascent from a film critic at Ain’t It Cool News to a screenwriter working on films that rake in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. In recent days, I’ve seen Cargill share advice tweets about the writing process that have resonated with thousands of aspiring creatives on the internet.


I recognized that Cargill’s advice came from a place of generosity. He’d risen in the industry and wanted to reach down and help the next generation up along with him. So in an effort to signal boost, I pitched Cargill on a simple idea: A weekly podcast, no more than 20 minutes long, that covers a single piece of writing advice. It would be another way to preserve Cargill’s counsel, while potentially adding several layers of interactivity on top (both my dialogue with him, and the audience’s dialogue with us).

On a personal level, I’m excited about this podcast for two reasons: 1) I’m thrilled to be working with Cargill, whose voice I’ve always found to be compelling (even if I often disagree with him), and 2) I think there’s a lot of discipline involved in turning out a podcast that’s only 10-20 mins long each week, and I’d like to practice that discipline. I like to go long with my content. I meander. I don’t edit tightly. Can this weekly podcast that’s shorter than a sitcom episode provide enough enjoyment and utility to justify its existence?

Let’s find out together.


A few other notes and observations from the week:

  • If you’re an aspiring podcaster these days, I think it can be tough to figure out exactly which site to use for hosting and creating your podcast. There are just so many options out there (e.g. Podbean, Libsyn, Anchor, etc.). I honestly struggled for a little bit before settling on a hosted WordPress.com website, coupled with a Libsyn account for hosting files (the latter is primarily for the statistics and metrics it provides. WordPress hosts files too, if your’e into that sort of thing). I’ll probably review this experience at some point, but I chose it because it offers a lot of control over the podcast feed, with fairly minimal cost.
  • A big shout out to Wikirascals for helping me out with podcast art, and to @ZShevich for helping us come up with a name for the podcast.
  • This article about the last days of Blockbuster is beautiful.
  • I finally caught up with this powerful essay in which Darius Miles explains what the hell happened to Darius Miles.
  • Sandi Doughton has written a meditation on how to survive in Seattle traffic, which turns into a broader piece on the psychology of road rage. I can support Sandi’s premise that Seattle has some pretty terrible driving. Getting around by car is pretty unbearable and the lack of a subway system doesn’t help.
  • Roxane Gay writes about why you should vote even if you’re disillusioned right now:

Every single day there is a new, terrifying, preventable tragedy fomented by a president and an administration that uses hate and entitlement as political expedience. If you remain disillusioned or apathetic in this climate, you are complicit. You think your disillusionment is more important than the very real dangers marginalized people in this country live with.

Don’t delude yourself about this. Don’t shroud your political stance in disaffected righteousness. Open your eyes and see the direct line from the people in power to their emboldened acolytes. It is cynical to believe that when we vote we are making a choice between the lesser of two evils. We are dealing with a presidency fueled by hate, greed and indifference. We are dealing with a press corps that can sometimes make it seem as though there are two sides to bigotry. Republican politicians share racist memes that spread false propaganda and crow “fake news” when reality interferes with their ambitions. Progressive candidates are not the lesser of two evils here; they are not anywhere on the spectrum of evil we are currently witnessing.

Building something new

From 2012-2016, I probably had the most/best creative output of my entire life. I hosted several popular podcasts simultaneously. I directed a film. I made a cello album, complete with multiple music videos that racked up thousands of views. But the past two years have been a challenge for me when it comes to my creative pursuits. There are multiple reasons for that, but the long and the short of it is that going at things so hard took its toll on my health, and I wanted to focus on other aspects of my life. I mostly swore off creating anything new as I’ve regrouped and reassessed where things have been going for me, and where I can apply my talents to make the most impact.

In the past few months, I’ve had several conversations with different people about launching different podcast projects, and it finally looks like one of them may launch soon (of course, if/when it does, you’ll be among the first to know about it). I love the process of creating something new. It’s fun to brainstorm about a new name, figure out what the art should look like, and consider how to get people excited for it.

It’s always more fun to launch something than to maintain it. The former is filled with endless possibilities. How well will it do? Who will listen? What awesome conversations might result from it? The latter, while still enjoyable and rewarding, is less exciting and ultimately becomes a big responsibility, especially if the show does well. One gives creative energy; the other one can occasionally take it away. But both are valuable in their own way.

I’m excited to take some baby steps back into this world and start making things again. You never know where things will go.

As I move through my life these days, I’m often reminded of the words of Terry Rossio, who wrote an incredible essay called “Time Risk” that still informs how I think about the world (the whole essay takes a couple hours to get through, but is worth it in my opinion):

When I was a college student at the University of California at Irvine, my very first theater class, the professor lectured for three hours about the arts, about how the days of our lives would burn up, one at a time, so which particular fire, meaning your career, might be worthy for you to be consumed? It was moving and memorable. He tied together art, to time. The beauty of being a writer is that you can instigate projects, you can make that choice of how to burn up those moments of your life. Producers must search, and struggle to find something worthwhile. Directors must search, executives must search, actors must search. Only the writer invents from nothing.

“Which particular fire might be worthy for you to be consumed?” Like most people, I’m just trying to choose the right fires.