Editor’s note: Congratulations are in order for Scott Lax, winner of First Place for the 2011 Ohio Professional Writers Communications Contest. Click here for more details.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” That was a self-fulfilling prophesy for Fitzgerald, the novelist who died of a heart attack at the young age of forty-four.
Fitzgerald was a father of one daughter, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald, whom he tried to raise throughout much of her youth by writing letters to her at boarding school. I’ve read many those letters. I think he genuinely loved her and cared about her welfare. Still, the necessity to write them was because of his inability to actually be there for her, to take care of her, after her mother and his wife, Zelda, was institutionalized for mental illness, and because of his own struggle with alcohol addiction. The separation from his daughter was cause for heartache for Fitzgerald. How much it contributed to his downward spiral, we’ll never really know.
He died after a brilliant, too-brief career as a writer, a career he mistakenly viewed as a failure. It wasn’t until about 1960, twenty years after he had a fatal heart attack in Hollywood, that Fitzgerald was fully appreciated by the literary world. I’m not alone in believing that Fitzgerald defined American fiction at its best, particularly through his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.
Before my son was born, I measured my own life and its success or failure using various measuring sticks. During the past couple of decades, affecting people through my writing seemed like a good way to leave a positive legacy. Simply surviving as far as possible beyond Fitzgerald’s life span – or any man who died too young as a result of bad habits – seemed to be a good, if obvious idea, too.
Years before I became a writer, I wanted to be one of the best drummers in the world. My goal, for a few youthful years, was to fall somewhere between The Who’s Keith Moon and jazz great Buddy Rich. Sometime in my late twenties, I realized that no matter how much I practiced, I would never play with the lighting abandon of Moon (I saw this deeply self-destructive boy-man once, both as a drummer and a maniac), or the technical precision and freakish genius of Rich (a supremely talented jerk I saw in action four times, both as a drummer and a jerk). Upon my realization that Buddy and Keith were out of my league, I kept playing, but moved into the business world with high hopes of a different kind.
Maybe business, I told myself, would provide me with my path to doing important things. I could be my own Joe Kennedy, Sr.: I’d make a bundle, somehow work my way into international business circles, and finance my run for political office, or become an ambassador and one way or another help bring about social justice and peace.
It’s easy to say that life got in the way. But that’s too easy an excuse. What’s more accurate to say is that I got in the way of myself. I made too many bad choices, through wrong relationships and skewed perspectives. I spent years chasing dreams that really weren’t mine. Because what I’d really wanted, deep down, was a wife and family that I could cherish, and a career that defined my soul, not my sense of how society should see me, or what mark I would leave on the world.
From the time I was in my early twenties, I wanted to be a dad. Years went by; and decades, and it didn’t happen. Meanwhile, I played thousands of songs on drums and did hundreds of business deals. And then, one evening in late 1991, I decided to become a writer. Maybe that, I thought, was how I would fulfill my destiny.
So I wrote like a man who needed to make up for lost time. I wrote magazine and newspaper columns, essays and features. A year into my new career in nonfiction, I started a book that I turned into my first novel. “Stories can save us,” I’d read and heard from authors I admired, such as Tim O’Brien. Maybe mine – The Year That Trembled, would save me. After the novel, I produced a movie of the same name. I turned the book into a stage play mounted at an elite private school, where a talented director and gifted young actors took my words far beyond my expectations.
All of that – the nonfiction, the novel, the movie and the play – provided me with a measure of satisfaction. Some readers were moved, or so they said. A few even told me my novel changed their lives. The movie was difficult to produce, but an amazing experience. When my novel was published and the movie released, I was older than Fitzgerald was when he died. I’d outlived my literary hero.
Something was missing, though, and not just money, because when you’re a writer or an artist, money comes and money goes. Once in a while, if you do it right, or get lucky, or both, it stays. There were a few years I made good money and many that I didn’t. But it didn’t matter if I had money or not. Something was missing: the measuring sticks I’d used didn’t define me.
The measuring stick wasn’t career fulfillment, or more money, or any thing. It was a family, one linked together by my son, Finn, the one person who shares DNA with his mother, his brother, his sister and me. The measuring stick I now use in my life is what kind of father I am, and will be. After all is said and done, it’s crystal clear to me that this is what matters most.
That my son is a deeper joy than I had ever imagined is a surprise, one with different manifestations every day. One smile from him puts any drum solo or business deal or by-line of mine to shame. It’s that simple; it’s that profound.
I may never write a sentence as perfect as those of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, and I never learned to do a one-handed drum roll like Buddy Rich. And that’s fine. Because Finn, who lies beside me at this moment, the top of his little head resting on my left arm (he fell asleep watching me write this) has proven Fitzgerald wrong, at least when it comes to my life. In my second act, my son has given me a second chance at the life I’d wanted all along.