Mammoths of Mercy

Writer-director Chris Sparling joins John and Craig to discuss his new film Mercy, and what it’s like to make a movie for Netflix. Then it’s another round of How Would This Be a Movie, with stories including ex-girlfriends, fake news, and permafrost ivory.

Plus we answer listener questions on cosplay, criticism and parallel structures.


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You can download the episode here.

My Secret

When it was my publishing house’s turn to present its Fall/Winter line of books, I was introduced as the senior editor. One of the quick-witted sales reps quipped, “If she’s the senior editor, how old is the junior editor?”

I was 22 years old, attending — and presenting — at my first sales conference, and not yet a full year into being an editor.

My first job out of college was as a junior editor for a small publishing house in Florida. Within a few months, my boss said goodbye to the senior editor and I was promoted. This was a mom and pop operation, so I went from editing sales copy, sending manuscript rejection letters, and answering the phone, to acquiring and editing manuscripts, writing marketing materials, negotiating author and vendor contracts, managing relationships with authors and vendors, and developing and implementing publicity campaigns — while still editing sales copy, answering the phones, and sending rejection letters.

No training.

Lots of time alone in the office operating on instinct and prayers.

It ended up being two and a half years of shooting the rapids, of going solo, of working from the gut.

I emerged on the other end confident in my gut’s instincts, but I also emerged doing PR, something I’d never wanted to do even part time. I wanted out of Florida and a publicity job offer helped make that possible, so… I headed north.

Within the first month, the questioning started. I didn’t do what the other publicists did. Was I wrong? Was there a better way? The publishers my employer represented all expected top-tier media coverage — and when I told a publisher that her book wasn’t interesting or well written, I learned that I landed in a place where reality took vacations.

I needed a paycheck, so I pitched cardio-kickboxing to Bill O’Reilly and Wiccan rituals to Howard Stern. I mailed dozens of books to the New York Times and Washington Post book reviewers — and I attended conferences, and conventions, and expos.

It was death by publicity.

Here’s my secret: I hated it then — and twentyish years later, I still hate it.

Every time I write a column for this site I feel like a fake, because I’m not passionate about everything I write about. I don’t enjoy learning about MailChimp or Google Analytics or following Twitter’s next move.

So why the hell do I do this?

It makes me better.

I have to do things I don’t enjoy in every part of my life. This weekend includes replacing the flapper in constantly-running toilet bowl, reinstalling a bathroom tile, replacing the hardware on two dangling cabinet doors, and removing the base of a broken lightbulb that’s stuck in a socket. I don’t want to learn how to do these things, but . . . If I know how to do them I’ll save money by doing the work myself — or if I hire someone else, I’ll know exactly what’s involved, how much the service should cost, and how it should be done. There’s a bit of joy that comes with that knowledge and ability to self-advocate, too.

There this, too:

I’m passionate about stories and sharing them (one reason I’ve worked with military authors for so long). I like playing a role in sharing stories with the potential to create change.

I also like the high that comes from knowing that something I’ve learned might help someone else. So, that means focusing on things I don’t enjoy learning about. And once I learn those unenjoyable things, it means  writing about them.

Back to my secret.

I hate doing the same things I often suggest that you do. You’re not alone, mucking your way through all the crap that can be PR/marketing. I’m not a fan either.

Here’s what helps me move along: On the other side there’s joy.

Happiness is sharing a good story — and then seeing it take flight.

There’s this, too:

The stuff I don’t enjoy is the yin to the yang of my passion. Without one I wouldn’t have the other.

The Muse and Me, Part Three


One of my favorite passages from books about the artist’s life is this one from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit:

Twyla Tharp

Twyla Tharp


I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.


There is great wisdom to Ms. Tharp’s ritual/habit. The key phrase is ” … the ritual is not the gym … the ritual is the cab.”

In other words, it’s the practice, not the product.

What counts is not “Did I come up with a great dance breakthrough today?” (I.e. what happens in the studio.) What counts is “Did I do my practice today?” (What happens through the whole day, from the very first moment.)

What does it mean to “have a practice?”

We usually think of that phrase in terms of yoga, say, or the martial arts or other spiritual pursuits.

“I have a yoga practice.”

“I have a meditation practice.”

Twyla Tharp has a dance practice, a choreography practice.

Or more accurately, she has a creativity practice.

You and I have a writing practice.

As I turns out, I start my day exactly like Twyla Tharp. Except I live in Los Angeles so I don’t hail a cab or an Uber to go to the gym, I drive. But, like Ms. Tharp, my practice starts the instant I roll out of bed.

I am getting ready for the Muse.

My goal for that day—and every day—is not to kick ass at the keyboard or solve Narrative Problem #27 or lick Act Two.

My goal is to do my practice.

A practice is lifelong.

A practice is not about results, it’s about the work.

It’s about the doing.

It’s about the effort, and the patience, and the frame of mind.

A practice is about the link between the physical and the level above the physical.

Starting the day at the gym (for me) is about seeking the proper mindset.

I’m rehearsing.

I’m rehearsing being focused.

I’m rehearsing the confrontation with Resistance.

I’m rehearsing patience.

I’m rehearsing humility.

I’m rehearsing aggressiveness.

I’m rehearsing intensity.

Like Twyla Tharp, I’m practicing for the studio.

The finish of the day, it turns out, is just as important as the start. Because the finish is part of the practice too.

When Ms. Tharp catches a cab home from her dance studio, I’m certain that a part of her is getting ready for tomorrow. She’s rehearsing pulling on her sweats, riding the elevator downstairs, stepping into the street and raising her hand to hail a taxi.

A practice is lifelong.

The point is to do it today and do it tomorrow and do it the day after that.

The Muse is watching Ms. Tharp, just like she’s watching you and she’s watching me. Call it the unconscious if you like. The Self. The soul.

It’s that part of us that knows us better than we know ourselves.

That part that understands our calling.

That part that holds the works-in-potential that we as artists will, with labor and sweat, transform into works-in-reality.

The Muse likes to see Twyla hailing that cab.

On Ms. Tharp’s Manhattan block there may be a hundred, five hundred other aspiring artists, dancers, writers, filmmakers, entrepreneurs.

Which one do you think the Muse favors at 5:30 in the morning?

A final sidebar: I used to drive a cab in New York City. Had I known of Twyla Tharp’s pre-dawn ritual, I would’ve found out where she lived and parked my taxi outside her building every morning. I would’ve made sure that I was the dude who took her to the gym.

I have a feeling she’s a big tipper.