By Patricia Crisafulli
Second acts signify a major shift in the story of our lives—personal, professional, or both. I used to be this and now I am going to be that. But second acts don’t just happen to us—we can script, stage, and direct them. This is reinvention, empowered by intention.
I’ve navigated at least two second acts throughout my writing career: from journalist to communications consultant, nonfiction author to novelist—not to mention some personal upheavals along the way. In my latest second act, I found my voice and stretched myself in a new direction as a mystery writer—at the age of 63.
As my story shows, it’s never too late to embark on a second act. It’s very possible that, at a later stage in life, you have the perspective, wisdom, and courage born of hard knocks to really go for it. At the same time, you don’t have to wait until some future age to launch a second act. Whenever you feel the pull toward something new and different, your life story—the one you are writing for yourself in real time—is about to change.
The End of Act One
The curtain must go down on our first act, so it can rise at the start of the second. It’s not that we forget or deny the opening act that sets up our narrative, we just move beyond it to explore our potential. Or maybe, it’s catalyzed by some external change—as Dorothy tells her dog at the start of her second act after reaching the Land of Oz, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
In my personal life, I ended my act one when I left northern New York State at the age of 24, having exited a horrific relationship. The phone rang on a Thursday evening, and someone who knew somebody who knew me called to offer a job in Manhattan. It turned out to be an awful position I had to leave after six grueling months. But I’ll always be grateful because it ended the downward spiral of my opening act and enabled me to say “yes” to redefining my life.
Your act one may come to a graceful end. Or it may be an upheaval that leaves you no choice but to exit stage left. No matter how it unfolds, you’ll know when it’s time for the curtain to come down so a new act can begin.
You Can Have More Than One Second Act
A theater production may have three acts, but life does not have to follow that structure. We can have many second acts! This gives us freedom to explore and express ourselves, particularly today when our lives more often resemble portfolios of curated experiences rather than a linear progression.
In my writing life, I can count at least two second acts. The first was leaving a journalism career at a large news agency just before I turned 40 to become a communications consultant. During my consulting second act, I also became a published author in nonfiction, including a leadership book during the financial crisis that became a New York Times bestseller.
While that brought a sense of accomplishment, it didn’t satisfy a long-held desire that I trace back to childhood—writing fiction. Although I’ve been writing all along, I count this latest transition as a full-fledged second act because of the tremendous effort I invested in my craft. It goes back about a decade when, at the age of 52, I made a five-year commitment to earn a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree at Northwestern University. Everything I thought I knew came into question after my first workshop. I can remember sitting in my car on a bitter cold Chicago night and shaking a little while processing the unvarnished feedback I’d just received from my peers. After that, I doubled down on my intention and, at the age of 57, graduated with an MFA in fiction and the Distinguished Thesis Award for my novel-in-progress, which became my first mystery.
Whether a second act is our first or the latest in a sequence, we’re not sitting passively, waiting for what will happen next. We’re scripting it with intention, while being part of the unfolding action on the stage.
Expect Some Drama
In the theater, second acts are all about rising action, confrontation, and conflict. Here life truly does imitate art! The bigger your reinvention, the more drama you can expect. Maybe you’re quitting a corporate career to start your own business, or leaving behind the security of a salary and benefits to devote yourself full time to your art. Perhaps you’re entering or exiting a major relationship.
I think of several women friends who are each launching a second act. None of them are drama queens, but their transitions—everything from retirement to new businesses to new relationships—are highly emotional. So, as much as they focus on what they must do, they never overlook how they feel. Fear helps us detect risks, sadness reminds us of what we’re leaving behind, happiness confirms our direction, and joy rewards our efforts. Emotions contain information and provide inspiration.
Having felt an array of emotions during my own second acts, I used those experiences to infuse empathy and believability into my mystery novel’s protagonist, librarian and authenticator Gabriela Domenici. She’s thrust into a second act when, as a divorced single mother who can no longer afford to live in New York City, she is forced to return to her hometown. But it becomes a quest as Gabriela traces the provenance of a medieval artifact donated anonymously to the library. (And since this is a murder mystery, she stays one step ahead of the perpetrator who intends to make her the next victim.) While the storyline was great fun to plot out, the emotion allowed me to channel some of my own experiences in retrospect—a 60-something writer with a protagonist who is 20 years younger.
It’s Your Story
One last thought, you’re the author, director, and star of the theatrical extravaganza known as your life. That means you get to control where the plot is moving, the cast of characters surrounding you, and the lines you say to yourself and others. And when it’s time for the narrative to change, there’s always another second act.
Patricia Crisafulli is an award-winning writer and a New York Times bestselling author. Her first novel, ‘The Secrets of Ohnita Harbor’, was published by Woodhall Press in 2022, and her second, ‘The Secrets of Still Waters Chasm‘, comes out this fall. You can follow Patricia on Twitter and see more of her work on her website.