The Second Act
As a writer, I have always struggled with the second act. That transition from beginning to end is, for me, the hardest part of a story to write because that’s where the change happens.
And when you’re in the middle of things and you know where you’ve started and where you want to go, drawing that line from point A to point B can be a beast.
I recently read that in the middle - in that no man’s land of the in between things - that is where fundamental change occurs. And it’s not just in the stories I write. It’s in the stories we tell ourselves as we live our lives as well.
The middle is the most frustrating part of just about any worthwhile endeavor. Let’s take house hunting, because, well, that’s one of my current worthwhile endeavors. Looking for the house was part analytical (what can I afford, what neighborhoods do I like, what kind of house do I want) and part adventure. If you’ve read any of my blogs, you already know how big a fan I am of the great unknown. Man, do I love embarking on new journeys, and this was a big one: my first house.
So, when Firstborn and I embarked on this journey, we’d lay in bed and dream of the home we wanted. Lots of light. An upstairs. A bright, sunny kitchen. An outdoor space with just enough room for a puppy. And all these things we honed and narrowed and shaped into the first act of our story of how we found our first home for just we two.
Then we found it. And that first dreamy, wandering first act came to a happy conclusion and transitioned into the dreaded second act.
Right now, we’re in the second act. We’ll be here for a minute. The mortgage, the mountains of paperwork, the undisclosed issues that were unearthed by the inspection, the budget concerns. In other words, the dreaded middle of things.
You see, as any struggling author can tell you, the second act is where a lot of great stories flounder and sometimes die. During my most recent move, I exhumed a pile of discarded first chapters for novels I never finished and outlines for movie scripts I never completed. For me, the dreaming phase has always been the easiest in every area of my life except for music. Music I can finish. Don’t ask me why.
But getting through the middle part, that’s a real struggle. Not because that’s where the work is. I have no aversion to hard work. But because that’s where patience and faith must marry.
To get through the middle, you have to be patient. Patient with yourself and patient with the process. But patience isn’t enough. You also have to have faith. Faith in the process and faith that you are enough. And there is nothing better at testing one’s faith in oneself than the second act of the important stories in our lives.
Because it is when our faith is tested that the possibilities waiting for us in that lovely third act become murky. We might still see some distant happy resolution on the horizon, but it is really easy to completely lose the thread you were so certain you had grasped ahold of when you began.
I once heard a TEDtalk that discussed the source of rage and bitterness coming from optimism. That the most angry and bitter people were intrinsically the most hopeful; and those dashed hopes were the source of all that anger and bitterness. At the time, I thought that made a lot of sense. That the ability to be satisfied with what you have and not to expect or hope for more would lead to happiness.
Bitterness comes not from hope. Bitterness comes from mistaking the middle for the end. From not powering through until you find the resolution that satisfies your needs, even if it’s not the resolution you imagined.
That is the magic of being a writer, though.
Until the Devil Weeps is the heart of the second act of the Clementine Toledano series. The hardest part of any story to tell. I’ve spent years on this novel. I started writing this when Devil Take Me Down was in editing. And I almost gave up, if we’re being honest here.
After the fourth revision and the mountain of feedback from my beta readers, I almost called it a day. Because making all the necessary changes was difficult and time-consuming and ego-bruising and soul-crushing. But taking the steps necessary to make those changes; having the intellectual honesty to let go of my ego and my ambition and my expectations and let the story breathe, taught me more about myself in six months than I’ve learned in the last six years.
Hope and faith are useless without work and patience. You need all four to create any story, whether you’re writing it down, or living it right now. And while those are the tools you need to carry with you, there are also bags that you need to leave behind because they only weigh you down:
ego and expectation
Those two will drag you deep into the mire of your insecurities and fears until you are paralyzed.
I have been paralyzed with fear and insecurity twice in my life. The first time this happened, I abandoned my own story in the second act and the lack of a solid conclusion to that chapter of my life haunted me for years.
The second time, I put aside my ego and my expectations and took a real assessment of what would be necessary to move to a third act that would not leave me a bitter and angry person. And then I began that transition. That beautiful, challenging, frustrating, maddening transition that tilts a second act onto the gentle downward slope into a satisfying third act.
My third act is just over the next horizon and I’ve got this.