I have been thinking a lot about second acts lately. Not the type of “second act” that has been coined recently, the idea of reinventing yourself mid-way through your life. I mean the storytelling second act, when you are in the hard times. The working times. Not a brief dip before a triumph, but a long, steady, hard, declining-beyond-what-you-can-imagine struggle.
I have been in a second act for about two years now. Second acts in a movie are the awkward part; the cringing moments when the couple has a misunderstanding that spirals down several levels and leaves them both staring out of windows or squinting uncomprehendingly off of balconies. It’s the part right before the triumphant Rocky training sequence, it’s when he’s getting treated for his limping plantar fasciitis. (Okay, that’s me again. Rocky’s strength would never allow for weak arches.) When you are living your life in the second act, it’s awkward for people to be around you because you are now embodying the least likable part of the story, the part that they fast-forward through.
My first act rocked. I started any artistic project I wanted. A magazine. A concert series. A radio show. I performed any kind of music. I wrote any kind of article, from financial analysis of the contemporary middle class to a first-person account of joining a fight club. I taught a college course in jazz history, neverminding I hadn’t ever played in a combo or big band. I taught another course in rock history with an equally empty resume for rock drumming.
I hit the end of my first act when I felt the need to get better, to create something deeper and more beautiful. I wanted to be around the very best artists, so I moved cities and thought I could start up right where I left off. And that is when I got introduced to my second act — the time when everyone started saying no. Nothing took off. Nothing moved forward. While part of it certainly is moving to a new city, I believe my second act has happened because I needed to remember that I’m still building my skills, not cashing in on my experience. These aren’t the Rocky training-sequence skills, they’re the camera-pans-away-with-boredom skills of spending hours with a metronome on a short passage. Reading books to diagram their structure, making notes on beautiful language and skilled use of drama. (I suspect the camera will, however, show me paralyzed on the couch after reading a particularly beautiful book, my eyes like a lemur, swearing softly that it’s time to get a job at a coffee shop.)
My second act is teaching me that just because I’ve done the work doesn’t mean I’m good enough. Yes, as my curriculum vitae will tell you, I have a decade of experience. But a decade of that experience doesn’t get me where I want to go — I think it’s this experience, this rooting around in the hard times, the digging in, the painful journey of shifting myself and my thinking that will start the movement in the right direction. But it’s hard to talk about; who really wants to be friends with Second-Act Dorris? (First-Act was a terrific beer buddy, invincible!) And how incredibly difficult is it to not know how long your second act will last, how long it will be until you hear those first few sweet notes of your own triumphant training sequence?