F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” I have been pondering that quote for a while. Certainly this was true for Jay Gatsby, the anti-hero of Fitzgerald’s most famous work, The Great Gatsby (1925). He ‘peaked’ in high school as ‘the football hero,’ married the Golden Girl, and ever afterwards finds life anti-climactic, “a walking shadow”…that…”creeps on its petty pace from day to day,” if you allow me to mix a few metaphors.
John P. Marquant wrote on similar themes in the forties. In Marquant’s novel, Point of No Return, Charley Gray finally achieves the vice presidency he has long sought at his company, only to find it pointless. But he feels trapped by his own history, and the sense that he has gone too far to change his course. The idea of the point of no return is based on planes flying past a point at which they have just enough fuel to get back to where they began. After that point you must reach your destination, or risk crashing and burning. But what is the destination of life? I don’t think you arrive by going back or being afraid to go forward. And can’t there be more than one stop along the way?
I have friends and family members who have lived brilliant one-act lives, happily and successfully. Scenes of color and vibrancy have unfolded for them and they have loved and lived. But some I’ve known are more like Gatsby or Gray trapped in a one act life, or marriage, or job that they hate. Some have tried to escape by buying the sports car, or fantasizing about a divorce they don’t pursue, or they do marry a trophy spouse in an effort at a second act, only to find that insufficient and that a meaning to life is still elusive.
I don’t think there is any magic in the number of acts we live, but in how we live them. I have found one act plays can actually be varied and intriguing and challenging. They should not have to feel stultifying or boring. If they do they don’t have to be a point of no return, drop the curtain, begin again. Nor should anyone feel stuck in ‘act two’ or ‘act three.’ If this happens at any point I believe it is time to make a new path, even if it feels risky, to go in a direction that has the potential for fulfillment.
When I was in college I wrote these lines: “The gray and white world floats along, here and there broken by black. Gray people, gray children walk the street, not knowing where they go, or from where they came.” Perhaps I read too much Emerson or Thoreau, but I vowed not to be like that. Change is scary but getting to the end of life and realizing I had wasted it has always been my bigger fear. So in my view while you may risk income and status if you reach out for a new act, being stuck in a gray way of going through existence, if it feels like that, like just existing, risks life and meaning and your spirit. Ultimately, it can destroy your soul.
Writing is a part of a new act for me. I feel blessed to have been able to embrace it at this stage in my life. Some may plan to take up a second act when they have enough money, or when retire. I’m not retired and I don’t have much money. I was lucky in a ‘gift of time’ when my job was lost to state budget cuts. Even so my largest ‘capital’ is my life and I am glad I still have some to spend.
If your dream is to write I hope you find a way to achieve it as part of your current life or as a new act; or if something else lurks in the back of your brain, I hope you bring it into the light if you believe as I do that it is only in engaging fully in the sound and the fury, in embracing all our lives have to offer, that we can truly live.
- Jay McInerney: why Gatsby is so great (guardian.co.uk)