Friday, 15 February 2013

The Difficult Second Act

I've been thinking about second acts this week, prompted by Ben Affleck's comments at the Bafta Awards on winning the Best Film award for Argo:
This is a second act for me - you've given me that and I'm so grateful and proud. I want to dedicate this to anyone that's trying to get their second act because you can do it.
Affleck was referencing the oft-quoted line from F. Scott Fitzgerald (author of The Great Gatsby), who said "There are no second acts in American Lives." A prodigious alcoholic, Fitzgerald famously failed to reach his own second act, dying at the age of 44. Affleck, still only 40, has however managed to navigate a transition from actor to award-winning director. Even more remarkable is the fact that ten years ago, he hit a career low-point and became the most derided man in Hollywood, winning two Golden Raspberry awards for his performance with Jennifer Lopez in Gigli.

While Affleck is a talented director, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by his resurgence. He's still a handsome man and has the advantage of being able to cast himself for free in the lead role of his films. He also no doubt has a huge address book that allows him to call upon Hollywood contacts the rest of us can only dream of. Plus, there's nothing the self-mythologising film industry likes better than a comeback story – it's the American Dream writ large.

So where does that leave the rest of us, who are also working on our own second acts? Perhaps you got a job straight out of school or decided to stay at home and bring up some kids. And these were the things that defined you, until you got the itch to start writing. And if you're the kind of person who's persistent enough to keep writing over a period of years, that gradually begins to define you instead. Once you're passionate and committed to an activity, it's only natural you want to make that your primary career. But most of us aren't as well-groomed, well-paid or well-connected as Ben Affleck. Which is a problem when trying to get that second act off the ground.

I look forward to the forthcoming SCBWI Professional Series session on Making a Living as a Writer for tips on how to make the transition to full-time author. But I also have to step back and wonder whether the idea of life having distinct acts isn't rather outdated in our age of rapid change and portfolio careers. Perhaps there isn't just one story running through our lives, but several, and we are at different stages in each simultaneously. This also fits in with the major preoccupation of our modern world, which is trying to juggle the various aspects of our lives to achieve the fabled "work-life balance".

Writers have always been tempted to frame life in the terms of a story – "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players," was the version that some bloke from Stratford-upon-Avon came up with. There may be few second acts in American lives, but perhaps in the UK, every scene we appear in is a chance to grow and do something new.



  1. Very thought provoking Nick, I feel very much in that 'Second Act' phase as an illustrator myself, trying to reforge a reputation in the West after 2 decades away in the Far East. It is tough when you're trying to re-create the same career in a different market. The challenges may appear the same, but are in fact very different, due to market conditions, taste, budgets and (very importantly) your reputation. One of the bitterest things to overcome is that no-body knows your work, you can't expect to be recognised or treated with reverence when you walk into a gallery or client's office. Re-starts are about shaking out of complacency, balancing pride in your previous market with respect for the new one, it can be quite a bitter process.