A Second Look at Second Acts

We’re still thinking about Wayne White. In the documentary we discussed last week, White mocks the idea that it is strange or preposterous for him to have a new and successful career as a fine artist later in life, after an already successful career in a different medium. He says:

“Who said there’s no second acts in American life? F. Scott Fitzgerald? Fuck you, F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

We discussed that line a lot, especially when anxiety about success and failure and age kept us awake. We wondered why we felt this way, even when we love what we do. Is it just the way our society glorifies youth? Is it all those 30-under-30 lists that are so easy to scoff at when you’re 24, and so grating when you’re over 35?

We got a lot of comfort from Wayne White’s supposed second act. Because White’s “second act” isn’t really a second act; that’s a frame imposed on his life that values ever higher peaks of financial reward or fame for the expression of creativity in predictable or quantifiable ways. After his television success, and before his paintings took off, while he was recovering from a breakdown and beginning to paint, was he a “failure” or just a artist practicing his art in a new medium? He and his partner, Mimi Pond, were constantly creating and raising a family, so at what point did the first act end and the next one begin?

As for age, Peter Ware Higgs went on a “failed camping trip” and when he returned home, wrote a paper on a physics theorem. It was published in 1964, when he was 35. Later that year, he expanded on his theoretical model, and his paper was rejected. He revised it and it was published by  a different journal. When a particle was found in 2013 whose properties were consistent with Higgs boson properties, Higgs was 83. So was he a success at 35 or 83? Or was he a failure at camping? And what about the other five physicists who wrote papers similar to Higgs’ in 1964? Are they successes for their work or  failures for not having particles named after them?

And speaking of Higgs bosons, there is the writer of the Higgs Boson Blues. Nick Cave has also been portrayed in the press as having two phases of creativity in his life – the heroin-taking louche rocker, and the drug-free family man. But Cave, in interviews, does not disown his past. Instead, he seems to focus on the through-line of writing and music-making that began before the drugs and continued long after. Now 55, neither age nor fear prevent him from trying out different creative paths. When he and members of his band, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, decided to start their side project, Grinderman, Cave composed most of the songs for the album on the guitar, an instrument he barely knew how to play. Besides his musicianship and songwriting, Cave has also written books (that got published) and screenplays (this one and this one got produced).

But it’s easy to remind oneself of all this positivity, and think of various role models, but what do you do with the anxiety? How does one respond to the clock ticking and the nagging sense you’re not doing enough, fast enough, well enough? Maybe we can, as part of our creative practice, chuck the imposed notions of success and the imposed age deadlines, and just keep creating.

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